What to watch for in the Nationals-Braves series


Freddie Freeman. (Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

Atlanta is in town for a crucial four-game series against the Nationals. The Braves, however, have limped to Washington. They were swept by the Phillies at home and have lost 10 of their past 15 games. In fact, since April 28, only three teams have a worse winning percentage — Rays, Mets and Padres — than the Braves’ .404 mark (19-28).

The Nationals have a 1 1/2 game lead on the Braves entering Thursday night’s game. Their better play has improved their division standing and afforded them a cushion in the standings before four head-to-head match-ups with a second-place team. Even if the Nationals are swept this weekend, the Braves would hold a 2 1/2-game lead with 88 games to play. The series is a good opportunity for the Nationals to gain ground and prove that they can play with the Braves, but it is not the end of the world either way.

“I think we feel good being where we’re at,” Nationals Manager Matt Williams said. “We face a really difficult team over the next four games. I think it was really important to win this one [Wednesday], and we need to look to [Thursday] now and be prepared for that. Beyond that, we can’t look. We can’t peek around the corner.”

Some things to watch this weekend:

The pitching matchups: Thursday: Jordan Zimmerman (5-3, 2.98 ERA) vs. right-hander Gavin Floyd (1-2, 2.98 ERA). Zimmermann has a career 2.98 ERA in eight starts against the Braves. He held them to one run and struck out nine over five innings in an April 4 loss. Zimmermann is also in a groove: He has allowed one run and struck out 21 batters over the past 25 innings. Floyd has been good for the Braves, but his 4.03 FIP indicates he is due for a regression. Before his Tommy John surgery last season, Floyd faced the Nationals on April 10 while with the White Sox and allowed five runs over 5 1/3 innings in the loss.

Friday: Stephen Strasburg vs. left-hander Mike Minor (2-4, 4.42 ERA). Strasburg has a career 3.86 ERA in 13 starts against the Braves, but allowed six runs, three earned, over 4 1/3 innings in his only start against them this season. At home, Strasburg has a career 2.49 ERA, more than a run better than his road 3.57 ERA. Minor has struggled since his return: He has allowed 10.9 hits per nine innings and has given up nine home runs in nine starts. Why could this match-up could be in the Nationals’ favor? They have a .752 OPS and are 11-7 against left-handers, tied for seventh in the majors.

Saturday: Doug Fister (5-2, 3.08 ERA) vs. right-hander Julio Teheran (6-4, 2.31 ERA). Fister will face the Braves for only the second time in his career. He faced them last season and allowed three runs and struck out eight over seven innings in an April win. Teheran has been one of baseball’s best pitchers this season. His ERA is sixth-best in the majors and his 0.93 WHIP is third best. He also has a 2.93 ERA in seven career starts against the Nationals.

Sunday: Tanner Roark (6-4, 2.85 ERA) vs. right-hander Ervin Santana (5-4, 4.12 ERA). A great stat from the Nationals PR department: Since Roark’s major league debut on Aug. 7, 2013, he has the fifth best ERA (2.35) in the majors among pitchers with at least 100 innings. Ahead of him? Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke, Andrew Cashner and Clayton Kershaw. Roark has a career 2.55 ERA in four games against the Braves, including a five-run clunker earlier this season. Santana has struggled of late; he has allowed 29 earned runs, 17 walks and six home runs over the past 42 1/3 innings.

The Nationals’ play: Since 2013, the Nationals have wilted against the Braves. They are 7-18 against them, including 1-5 this season, and have been outscored 49-73. In that span, the Braves have posted a 2.21 ERA and played stronger defense. The Braves seem to play with more confidence against the Nationals, no matter the standings, and the Nationals appear to play with less. They have made costly mistakes, perhaps because they are pressing to reverse their rough record against their fiercest division rival.

“We definitely get our game together,” Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons said. “We play more solid whenever we’re playing against them. I don’t know if there’s a reason behind it. Our defense is always on point whenever we’re playing them. We hit well. Our pitching does great. It’s not that we just out-hit them. We just play good. For what reason, I have no idea.”

After the Braves swept the Nationals out of Atlanta in April, Simmons suggested it was Washington who played different in their match-ups. He reiterated that sentiment this week: “Maybe it’s something with them. I don’t know. I think we play well. Hopefully we keep it like that.”

The Braves’ best hitters: The Nationals will need to find a way to limit Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis. While Freeman has slumped of late, he normally kills Nationals pitching. He has a career .304/.364/.477 slash line with seven home runs against them in 60 career games. This season alone, he has a 1.481 OPS (two home runs, 11 for 22) against the Nationals and dominated both series.

Upton left Tuesday’s game with light-headedness and it’s unclear if he will play Thursday, but he has also crushed Nationals’ pitching in the past. He has a career .296/.391/.495 slash line, including going 11 for 21 with two home runs against the Nationals in six games this season.

Gattis is perhaps the Braves most dangerous hitter in recent weeks. He has been catching more regularly than before and his offense has picked up. Since May 25, he is hitting .391 (27 for 69) with eight home runs. Just don’t leave anything up in the strike zone; he will crush it.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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