By David Ginsburg/The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Forget about last year. This season, the Atlanta Braves are looking very much like the team to beat in the NL East.
Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons homered, and the Braves cruised to their ninth straight victory Sunday, beating Washington 9-0 to complete a three-game sweep of the defending division champion Nationals.
Chris Johnson had four hits and two RBIs for the Braves, who received a sparkling pitching performance from Paul Maholm (Miss. State). After forging two-run victories on Friday and Saturday, Atlanta took a 7-0 lead in the third inning against Gio Gonzalez (1-1) and coasted to the finish.
“We know the Nationals are supposed to be pretty good, so it was good to make a statement early,” Simmons said. “Let them know we’re going to be tough to beat.”
In compiling the best record in the major leagues, the Braves (11-1) have outscored the opposition 62-23 and built a 20-6 advantage in home runs.
“It’s early,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I don’t think we’re going to play .998 baseball the rest of the way, but it sure is better than 1-11.”
The Braves have swept three straight series (Cubs, Miami and Washington) for the first time since April 2000, when they swept four in a row (Phillies, Pirates, Dodgers, and Padres).
Washington has lost seven straight to Atlanta, dating back to last year. The final game of this series was a stark contrast to the other two.
“We should have won the first one. We were right there on the second,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “We just got waffled today. I don’t put too much stock in it.”
Maholm (3-0) allowed four hits in 7 2-3 innings, walking one and striking out seven. The left-hander has not surrendered a run this season in 20 1-3 innings over three starts.
“He mixed it up well, mixed his speed up,” Fredi Gonzalez said. “We gave him a nice little cushion to work with, and he kept it. Sometimes that’s not easy to do.”
After giving up two singles in the eighth, Maholm was replaced by Luis Avilan, who walked Bryce Harper to load the bases before retiring Ryan Zimmerman on a comebacker.
Gonzalez yielded seven runs and seven hits in five innings for the Nationals, who won 98 games a year ago to Atlanta’s 94.
“I take the blame on this one 100 percent,” the left-hander said. “The Braves right now are running hot. They’re red hot right now. You got to give them the credit. They’re a tough hitting lineup and a good rotation.”
Gonzalez came in with an 0.82 ERA in two starts, but he struggled from the outset in this one.
B.J. Upton lined the first pitch of the game into the left-field corner for a double, only his second extra-base hit in 39 at-bats this season. Brother Justin Upton walked with one out and Evan Gattis doubled in a run before Johnson delivered a two-out, two-run single up the middle for a 3-0 lead.
Justin Upton hit his seventh homer leading off the third — he didn’t hit No. 7 last year until June 23. After a walk to Dan Uggla and a single by Johnson, Simmons drove a full-count pitch over the left-field wall to make it 7-0.
That, essentially, decided the issue.
“Our job is to make sure we keep them as close as possible, and I didn’t do that today,” Gio Gonzalez said. “Leaving the ball up, falling behind on good hitters, they made me pay for it.”
Maholm, on the other hand, permitted only one runner to reach second base over the first seven innings.
“He’s pitching incredible this year,” Washington shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He threw a great ballgame all day. He was working efficiently. Getting first strikes, getting ahead. His team gave him a big lead early. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
The Braves added two in the sixth against reliever Zach Duke. Maholm and B.J. Upton singled, Jason Heyward doubled in a run and Gattis hit a sacrifice fly.
B.J. Upton, who came into the game with four hits this season, went 3 for 5 to up his batting average from .105 to .163.
NOTES: The Nationals placed C Wilson Ramos (left hamstring strain) on the 15-day disabled list and recalled C Jhonathan Solano from Triple-A Syracuse. … Atlanta is 8-0 when scoring first. … Washington 2B Danny Espinosa was hit in the right hand with a pitch in the second inning and left in the fifth inning with a sore hand. … The Nationals will send Jordan Zimmermann (2-0) to the mound Monday night at Miami. The Braves are off. … Atlanta’s bullpen has not allowed an inherited runner to score this season. … Maholm improved to 2-6 lifetime against Washington, including 1-3 in the nation’s capital.