Monday kicks off the Nationals’ biggest series of the season, maybe the biggest since baseball returned to Washington. Washington holds a five-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East standings and face each other three times over the next few days. Here’s a quick look at the matchups to keep in mind, namely the Nationals’ major league-leading pitching staff against the Braves, who have the third highest-scoring team in the NL.
■Monday’s starter: Jordan Zimmermann. Braves hitters have just a .206 average against Zimmermann. The right-hander leads the majors with a 2.38 ERA but has only thrown six innings once in three tries this month, and hasn’t faced Atlanta this season.
Tuesday’s starter: Stephen Strasburg. Braves hitters have a .303 batting average against Strasburg. The right-hander has won his past three decisions, allowing only eight hits and three runs over 18 innings. He has beaten the Braves once in three tries this season.
Wednesday’s starter: Ross Detwiler. Braves hitters have a 290 batting average against Detwiler. The left-hander has pitched better over the past month, including a July 22 start against the Braves in which he allowed only one earned run over seven innings and induced 15 ground balls with his fastball and sinker. He is 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA in the past four starts at home in the season’s second half.
■Relievers: The key to the series may be the three left-handers in the Nationals bullpen: Tom Gorzelanny, Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez. Braves hitters aren’t hitting particularly well against them: .250 combined against Gorzelanny, .281 against Burnett and .207 against Gonzalez. Burnett hasn’t pitched in five days and Gorzelanny in a week, so expect to them out of the bullpen first.
Even though the Braves lineup is heavy with left-handed hitters, Nationals closer Tyler Clippard has pitched well against them (a .157 batting average against) and that’s likely because of his tailing, disappearing change-up that’s effective against left-handers. He has converted five of six saves against Atlanta this season. Manager Davey Johnson likely wouldn’t be afraid to throw Craig Stammen out there, either. Despite also being a right-hander, he has allowed a .214 batting average against Braves hitters, likely because of his power slider and sinker.
Braves hitters to watch:
■Dan Uggla: This is the name that Strasburg probably hates to see in the lineup. Uggla is a free-swinging slugger, adept at hitting even a blazing fastball. The right-hander is 8 for 15 with two home runs and five strikeouts against Strasburg. But against Zimmermann and Detwiler, Uggla is a combined 1 for 18. So maybe Manager Fredi Gonzalez will consider sitting Uggla on Monday and Wednesday. (Jason Heyward is no slouch against Strasburg either, a career 5 for 9 against him.)
■Martin Prado: The right-hander may not be effective against Strasburg, but against Zimmermann and Detwiler he is a combined 13 for 24 (.542) with four doubles and a triple. While Prado has been the Braves’ near-everyday left fielder, he has also seen time at third base and the other infield positions. So if Gonzalez is pressed to take advantage of matchups, he has flexibility with Prado.
■Reed Johnson: Even though he spent five years with the Toronto Blue Jays, Johnson has torched National League pitching in his career. The Braves traded for him and starter Paul Maholm from the Chicago Cubs in July. Johnson is hitting .320 (39 of 122) against the Nationals. (The Nationals shouldn’t feel slighted; Johnson has hit the New York Mets and Miami Marlins even harder in his career.)
The right-hander is hitting .400 (18 of 45) against the current Nationals pitching staff. He has never faced Strasburg but he has seen Zimmermann and Detwiler, the two other starters in the series. And if they face him, they should be wary: Johnson is 3 for 4 against Zimermmann and is 4 for 6 with a home run against Detwiler.
If Johnson doesn’t start, a likely scenario, Braves’ Gonzalez could try and force reliever Burnett to face Johnson, who is 4 for 8 with two home runs against him in his career.