On Friday, the Washington Nationals begin one of their most important series since baseball returned here, a four-game series against the Atlanta Braves. Ahead by 3 ½ games in the National League East standings, the Nationals could widen their lead to 7 ½ games with a sweep of the second-place Braves or fall out of the top spot by a half-game if they are swept. In other words, the stakes are clear and a great opportunity is before them.
“Huge deal,” shortstop Ian Desmond said.
The four-game series will feature two similar franchises, built on the farm system and reliant on pitching. The Nationals hold the edge over the Braves with their pitching, owning the best staff earned-run average in the majors (3.22 ERA) and have allowed the fewest walks and hits per inning (1.20 WHIP). Led by their bullpen, the Braves enter the series with a 3.97 team ERA and 1.31 WHIP.
The meeting loses a little bit of the luster because Washington’s Gio Gonzalez and Atlanta’s Tim Hudson pitched Thursday and won’t take the mound in this series. And, the Braves are sending a weaker back end of their rotation to the mound for Saturday’s doubleheader: Ben Sheets (who is making his second start after missing all of 2011) and Randall Delgado (who was sent down to make room for Sheets). With Stephen Strasburg, Edwin Jackson, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler scheduled to take the mound in the series, the Nationals hold the edge with starters.
(In the bullpen, however, it may be hard to match Atlanta reliever Craig Kimbrel, who is perhaps the NL’s best closer.)
Offensively, there aren’t many major statistical differences between the teams. The Braves, heavy on left-handed hitters, and Nationals match up similarly. The biggest edge: the Braves score more runs (4.62 per game, third-best in the NL) than the Nationals (4.16 runs per game). That is, in large part, because the Braves are better at getting on base (300 walks and .324 on-base percentage) than the Nationals (267 walks and .315 on-base percentage).
Four of the Braves more important bats in the lineup are left-handed: first baseman Freddie Freeman, catcher Brian McCann, center fielder Michael Bourn and right fielder Jason Heyward. And none of them has hit particularly well against the Nationals this season. McCann is 2 for 15, Freeman is 4 for 22 with one home run, Bourn is 7 for 33 and Heyward is 7 for 29 with one home run.
Manager Davey Johnson used only right-handed relievers in Thursday’s game so he could save his left-handers and have them fresh for the upcoming series. For such a left-handed-heavy lineup, the Braves have been decent against left-handed pitching. As a team, they’re hitting .251 (16th in the majors). Against right-handers, the Braves are only slightly better, hitting .261 as a team. The Nationals are allowing left-handed opponents to hit only .234 off them, fourth-best in the majors.
“It’s going to be a fun four games,” Johnson said. “My guys are looking forward to it.”
FROM TODAY’S POST
Gio Gonzalez gets beat up for 3 1/3 innings in a rare clunker for the Nationals starters in a 9-5 loss to the Mets, Adam Kilgore writes.
The Braves-Nationals series could be the start of an annual pennant-race ritual, Thomas Boswell writes.
Oblique injuries across the league have been on the rise and four Nationals are dealing with them.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Pawtucket 4, Syracuse 3: Corey Brown launched his 21st home run and drove in his 57th run of the season, and is hitting .300.
Harrisburg was suspended.
Potomac 11, Lynchburg 8: Shortstop Rick Hague went 2 for 5, including a triple, and drove in four runs. Xavier Nady went 0 for 2 with an RBI.
Hagerstown was postponed.
Batavia 3, Auburn 0: Center fielder Wes Schill went 2 for 4. Third-round pick Brett Mooneyham pitched four scoreless innings and allowed only two hits.