The Nationals’ next crack at the now-reeling Braves starts tonight

brushback_harperOn April 14, having laid waste to the Nationals, the Braves packed their things in the Nationals Park visitors’ clubhouse and headed toward the rest of their season as the unquestioned best team in baseball. They had swept the Nationals in a three-game series and outscored them, 18-5, to run their record to a major league-best 11-1.

In the opposite clubhouse, Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa hesitated to crown the Braves. He called them a talented team, but also expressed the opinion that their torrid, season-opening pace would slow.

“I still don’t think that they’re better than us,” Espinosa said then. “They’re hot right now. They’ve come back on people. They’re playing well. It doesn’t last forever. I’m not worried about it. I’m going to be real confident going into these next 16 games” against the Braves.

Atlanta fans hurled criticism Espinosa, taking his comment as a sleight. In one sense, he was right. In the past two weeks, the Braves have cooled considerably. Since they left Washington, the Braves have gone 4-8, including four consecutive losses and a weekend sweeping at the hands of the Tigers.

They still have the best record in the National League, but the Rangers and Red Sox both passed them for best mark in the majors. They enter a four-game series this weekend leading the Nationals by a mere 2 ½ games. Espinosa, fully aware of the momentum his comments gathered after the last Braves game, took stock of them on the eve of the teams’ rematch.

“I think they’ve cooled down a little bit,” Espinosa said. “I said they were a really talented team. They’re going to be really good. The rate that they were at – 12-1 or 11-1, whatever the hell they were – you’re just not going to stay there. I’m sorry. I’m not being [a jerk]. It’s just not reality. They’re not going to go 150-10.

“It’ll be fun. They’ve come back to reality a little bit. I know they got Freddie [Freeman] back. Freddie’s a really good hitter. I know they’re had a few tough losses. I’m sure their confidence isn’t riding as high as it was. I’m excited to play them.”

The Braves’ downturn has been fueled by a rash of strikeouts. They have 224 strikeouts on the season, a dozen clear of the second-highest National League total, and they have whiffed 10 times per game since their series in Washington ended.

The Braves will look a little different starting tonight than they did back at Nationals Park. Last week, right fielder Jason Heyward underwent an emergency operation to remove his appendix and landed on the 15-day DL. The Braves could at least replace him with Freeman, who came back from an oblique injury. Freeman has gone 4 for 22 with no walks and eight strikeouts since his return.

Regardless of the Braves’ recent skid, the Nationals will be primed to play them for the second time. By the end of the Thursday night, the Nationals could trail the Braves by 6 ½ games in the division or lead them by 1 ½ games. It may still be the first few days of May, but that is a major potential swing for any time of year.

“It’s a big series,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “It is. Regardless of what time of the year it is, it’s a time when we can turn the tides a little bit. They came in here and killed us. So it will be nice to try to even that out, get some momentum going.”

Manager Davey Johnson said the series mattered simply because, “they’re ahead of us.” He liked how the match-ups lined up, starting tonight with Stephen Strasburg against Julio Teheran. The Braves have made Strasburg look closer to average than most opponents. In his career against Atlanta, Strasburg is 3-4 with a 3.59 ERA.

In Washington, the Braves beat Strasburg after an error led to a mammoth, tomahawk home run from Evan Gattis. Everything else that weekend went the Braves’ way, too. The Nationals now have their first chance to shift the momentum within the division.

FROM THE POST

Adam LaRoche is stuck in wicked slump, but he’s been here before, Boz writes.

Ross Detwiler fell victim to the Reds and rotten luck in a frustrating, 5-2 loss that prevented a four-game sweep.

From Steinberg, ESPN will debut a film about Bryce Harper’s early professional career.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

LaRoche to stay in lineup, Ramos coming back

Davey still tweaking the bullpen

Zimmerman to rehab in Potomac

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Durham 13, Syracuse 3: Chris Marrero went 3 for 4 with a double and is hitting .352. Carlos Rivero went 2 for 3 with a double. Zach Walters went 1 for 5 with his sixth home run. Xavier Cedeno, recently claimed off waivers from Houston, allowed a hit, a walk and three unearned runs without recording an out.

Harrisburg 1, Bowie 0: Blake Treinen, 24, allowed no runs in 6 2/3 innings on three hits and three walks, striking out six. Treinen, an extra piece in the Michael Morse trade, has allowed two earned runs over his past 20 2/3 innings with 18 strikeouts, hitting the mid-90s with his fastball. Sandy Leon went 1 for 3 with an RBI single.

Myrtle Beach 9, Potomac 5: A.J. Cole allowed three runs in six innings on six hits and two walks, striking out seven. Caleb Ramsey went 2 for 4 with a double.

Hagerstown 3, Hickory 0: Ivan Pineyro, a 21-year-old from the Dominican Republic, allowed no runs in six innings on three hits and two walks, striking out 12. David Fischer allowed no runs in three relief innings on two hits and no walks, striking out six. Pedro Severino went 2 for 4 with a double. Shawn Pleffner went 2 for 4 with a double.

Also on Nationals Journal

Adam LaRoche will remain in the lineup, and Wilson Ramos is returning to it