ATLANTA — Nationals closer Sean Doolittle knew his team couldn't afford to falter in the late innings for the second straight night.
"I hesitate to use the phrase that today was a must-win game because it's still the third week of July," Doolittle said. "But after a tough one (Friday) night and knowing what the standings already are, I think tonight was really, really important for us."
Aníbal Sánchez outpitched Mike Soroka and scored the go-ahead run in the fifth inning, Matt Adams homered and Washington beat the Atlanta Braves 5-3 on Saturday night.
Second-place Washington pulled within 5½ games of the NL East-leading Braves, improving to 33-14 since May 24, best in the majors over that span. Atlanta has dropped four of five.
Sánchez (6-6) got a big assist in the bottom of the fifth when shortstop Trea Turner turned a bases-loaded double play, leaping to nab Nick Markakis' liner and throwing to first to beat Josh Donaldson back to the bag.
Soroka (10-2) allowed four runs and nine hits in six innings. The 21-year-old All-Star had won 10 straight decisions, best by an Atlanta pitcher since Hall of Famer Greg Maddux had a 10-decision streak in 2001.
"They've got a very good team and they're very hot of late, too," Soroka said. "They're coming to win, too, with the same intent we do. It's going to be fun down the road. We play them a lot."
Doolittle got the last five outs, facing the minimum, for his 21st save in 25 chances. He struck out Ronald Acuña Jr. with a runner at second to end the eighth and breezed through the ninth.
That was hardly the case Friday, when Donaldson won it in the ninth off Fernando Rodney. This time, Rodney retired one batter in the eighth before Doolittle came in.
"I was able to pick him up," Doolittle said. "I felt really good about that because I think the last time I came in with his runner on, I didn't pick him up. I really wanted to help him out after he extended himself last night."
Washington went up 4-1 in the fifth when Sánchez reached on an infield single to third, took second on Donaldson's throwing error and scored on Turner's double. Turner took third on Adam Eaton's single and scored on Anthony Rendon's single. Eaton scored on Juan Soto's single.
The Nationals took a 5-3 lead in the eighth off A.J. Minter as Turner singled, stole second and scored on Eaton's single.
Adams went deep for the 15th time, an opposite-field homer that bounced off the top of the wall in left-center and into the stands to tie it at 1-all in the fourth.
Sánchez, who pitched for the Braves last year and helped them win the division, allowed three runs and six hits and has a 2.70 ERA in his last nine starts.
Atlanta led 1-0 in the first when Acuña reached on an infield single, stole second base, advanced on a flyout and scored on Freddie Freeman's single.
Brian McCann's ninth homer, a two-run shot in the sixth, chased Sánchez and cut the lead to 4-3.
Acuña has reached safely in 26 straight games, the longest active streak in the majors. He added two stolen bases and has seven in his last five games to become the first Brave since Jason Heyward in 2012 to have a 20-homer, 20-stolen base season. ... Rendon went 2 for 4 and is batting .436 with seven RBIs, five walks and six runs scored in his last nine games. ... Donaldson walked in the third and has reached safely in 17 straight games.
Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer, on the 10-day injured list with a mid-back strain, reported to the ballpark with less pain. The three-time Cy Young Award winner was allowed to stretch and throw from 90 feet and then 60 feet with no limitations before having a 15-pitch bullpen session. "We'll see how he feels tomorrow and try to throw another bullpen on Monday," manager Dave Martinez said.
Braves: LHP Max Fried, on the injured list with an index finger blister, will throw a side session Sunday in hopes of returning to the rotation next weekend at Philadelphia.
Nationals: RHP Erick Fedde and RHP Joe Ross are candidates to start if RHP Austin Voth (1-0, 4.35 ERA) is unable to pitch. Voth had a tender shoulder after his bullpen session Thursday, and Martinez said it's too early to know if he'll be ready for the series finale.
Braves: RHP Kevin Gausman (2-5, 6.21 ERA) will return from a stint with plantar fasciitis to make his first start since June 10. He allowed 15 earned runs in his last three starts, a span of 8 1/3 innings, before going on the injured list.