Vazquez's gem keeps Braves rolling

Vazquez's gem keeps Braves rolling

WASHINGTON -- There's nothing complicated about what the Braves need to do in the final games of the season. If they want to have any kind of shot at the National League Wild Card, they must keep winning.

Javier Vazquez made sure the Braves did just that on Friday at Nationals Park. Of course, a strange first inning that basically handed Atlanta two runs didn't hurt, either. But Vazquez played a big role, throwing a three-hitter for second complete game in three starts as the Braves defeated the Nationals, 4-1, before 28,276.

Atlanta (83-70) is a season-best 13 games over .500 and now have won four in a row and 12 of its past 14. The victory didn't help the Braves much, thanks to the Rockies' win over the Cardinals. Atlanta remains 3 1/2 games back in the NL Wild Card chase with nine games left. They have a game in hand over Colorado, as the Rox have only eight to go.

Vazquez (15-9) removed most of the suspense from this game. He needed only 104 pitches (72 strikes) to win his fourth consecutive game, striking out seven and walking just one. Washington (52-101) rarely got any scoring chances as the right-hander was in command from the start.

"Just another normal Vazquez start," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He wasn't hit very hard at all tonight. That was normal for Javier. He's finishing extremely strong."

Vazquez's only problem came when he gave up a leadoff homer to Josh Bard in the eighth. But Vazquez then retired the final six batters to close it out.

"I feel good, like I've been all season," Vazquez. "It's very important for us to win every game from now on. We need to win as many games as we can."

Washington starter John Lannan (9-13) was the hard-luck loser. He gave up two runs (both unearned) on six hits in seven innings and really had little trouble except for that first inning.

In fact, the first three Braves' runs were unearned, thanks to two Washington errors and misplays. Martin Prado's leadoff homer, which gave Atlanta a 4-1 lead, was the Braves' lone earned run on the night.

Prado also said that Vazquez deserves a lot of the credit because of how well he pitched in a game the Braves needed to win in order to keep the pace.

"Everything was so, so good tonight [for Vazquez]," Prado said. "He's been like that all year. He deserves it. It's a great win for us and for him."

Vazquez had a 2-0 lead before even stepping on the mound after a bizarre top of the first in which the Nationals gave the Braves several extra at-bats after Lannan retired the first two batters.

Chipper Jones then hit a liner at right fielder Josh Willingham, who apparently lost the ball in the lights to allow Jones to reach with a single.

Brian McCann walked before Yunel Escobar lined a ball that second baseman Pete Orr misplayed for an error, allowing Jones to come in for a 1-0 lead. Garret Anderson then hit a fly ball to left-center, but left fielder Willie Harris and center fielder Justin Maxwell both stopped, letting the ball drop for a single that scored McCann to make it 2-0.

That was all Lannan gave up in his strong seven-inning stint.

"I really didn't let it get to me," Lannan said. "There have been plenty of times I didn't have my best day, and they come back to pick me up."

Another odd play helped the Braves push across a run in the eighth, when the Washington bullpen took over. Escobar led off with a bloop that dropped in front of a sliding Maxwell. Shortstop Ian Desmond picked the ball up in shallow center and made a weird throw that flew toward the right side of the infield, letting Escobar get to second. He later scored on a Matt Diaz single to give the Braves a 3-0 lead.

Bard started the bottom of the eighth by lining a homer to right. But Vazquez wasn't rattled and bounced back to finish things out.

The Braves know what their task is now, and that they can only control so much. Several of them -- including Cox -- were sitting in the clubhouse after the game, watching the Cardinals-Rockies contest.

Cox said before the game that all they can do is take care of their own business. They did that, thanks mainly to Vazquez.

"He looked strong out there," Cox said. "He wasn't tired at all going out in the ninth."

Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.