Gonzalez gets shelled as Atlanta finishes sweep of Washington

It is a small slice of a long baseball season. Maybe months from now the Nationals will look back upon a series sweep by the Atlanta Braves in April as nothing more than an aberration.

A team wins its division by grinding through that endless schedule against an entire league, after all, and there are 16 games left against Atlanta alone. But for now, losing three times in a row before big crowds at home to their National League East rival still stings. The latest was a 9-0 blowout at Nationals Park on Sunday afternoon.

The Braves rocked Washington starter Gio Gonzalez for seven runs through the first three innings. Home runs by Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons, a double by slugger Evan Gattis and a two-run single by Chris Johnson left Gonzalez seething. Meanwhile, Atlanta left-hander Paul Maholm continued his strong start to the 2013 season with 72Ú3 shutout innings. The Nats managed just four hits against him with a walk and seven strikeouts.

"The Braves right now are running hot. They're red hot right now, and you got to give them the credit," said Gonzalez, who lasted five innings. "They're a tough hitting lineup and good rotation. As a pitcher you have to go out there and try to maintain that to a minimum, give these guys a chance to actually swing the bat. And I didn't do that today, so I take the blame on this one 100 percent."

Thus ended a frustrating weekend for the Nats, who blew a 4-0 lead and lost in extra innings Friday and fell 3-1 on Saturday. In the three games, they committed four errors, including one in each game by star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and managed just five runs against Atlanta pitching.

It is just 12 games into the season, but the Nats (7-5) are four games behind the Braves (11-1), who have the best record in the sport. Every other big league club had at least three losses coming into play Sunday. But while Washington's record took a dent, its confidence did not.

"Move on. I still don't think that they're better than us," second baseman Danny Espinosa said. "They're hot right now. They've come back on people. They're playing well. Doesn't last forever. So not worried about it."

Maholm is now 3-0 and hasn't allowed an earned run in three starts. The veteran lefty hadn't had much success against the Nats in his career (5.52 ERA in 10 starts before Sunday). But he effectively spotted his fastball inside to right-handed hitters and featured a solid change-up and a variety of other offspeed pitches to keep Nats batters off balance.

That was more than enough for his teammates, who provided enough runs in the first inning alone. B.J. Upton jumped on a Gonzalez fastball to start the game and ripped it into the left-field corner. He scored on Gattis' double to the same spot. Gonzalez was most upset about an 0-2 curve he left up to Johnson. That was smacked into center for a two-run single to make it 3-0, and Atlanta was well on its way to the sweep.

"This division got tougher," Nats shortstop Ian Desmond said. "I don't think there's gonna be a 100-game winner in this division. I really don't. It's gonna be a battle all year long. They played great. If we play a little better we probably put ourselves in a better position. But we got a good taste of what they're bringing to the table this year."