The Nationals need a strong start from Stephen Strasburg against the Braves

brushback_harperIn the opening game Thursday of an important four-game series against the Atlanta Braves, the Washington Nationals produced a familiar result against a common opponent. They were jumpy against Gavin Floyd, an opposing pitcher throwing well, and did nothing against a recently inconsistent bullpen after Floyd left with an injury.

Jordan Zimmermann threw well over seven innings but allowed two decisive runs in the fourth inning. The Nationals retreated to the dugout with only three hits, another loss to Atlanta and an NL East lead down to half a game.

For the Nationals, Friday would be an ideal time for a strong performance from Stephen Strasburg (6-5, 3.06 ERA). Strasburg is in the midst of a strong stretch: He has a 2.10 ERA over his past four starts, and a 2.15 ERA over his past 11. Strasburg has a 3-5 record and 3.86 ERA in 13 career starts against the Braves, a pretty good track record against them but not dominant. Yet many of Strasburg’s struggles against Atlanta have been at Turner Field, where he has a 5.79 ERA over six starts, the oppressive heat a factor in the past.

Pitching at home — where has a career 2.49 ERA, nearly a run better than his 3.57 road ERA — will help. The low-scoring Braves have inconsistent all season on offense. Strasburg leads the NL with a 10.82 strikeout rate and the Braves have second most strikeouts in the NL with 623. The match-up should be in his favor. Strasburg’s lone start against the Braves this season was on April 5. He gave up six runs, only three earned, over 4 1/3 innings that included a costly Ryan Zimmerman throwing error. (Zimmerman eventually left the game with shoulder soreness, which then renewed concerns about his future at third base.)

Some of Strasburg’s other games against the Braves have come in unusual circumstances. He left his May 31 start in Atlanta after two innings with an oblique strain. He was ejected in the second inning for throwing behind Jordan Schafer and Andrelton Simmons, a day after the Braves hit Bryce Harper again. Amazingly, the Nationals won both of those games.

Despite those two unusual games, Strasburg still managed to post a 2.86 ERA against the Braves over 22 innings last season. The Atlanta lineup is mostly the same this year, so Strasburg’s 2013 performances are good indicators of what he is capable of. If the Nationals can top the Braves thanks to Strasburg on Friday, they can nab a match-up that is in their favor. They will face struggling left-handed pitcher Mike Minor (2-4, 4.42), and they have feasted on southpaws all season.

The Nationals will have their hands full on Saturday against Julio Teheran (6-4, 2.31 ERA), who will be opposed by Doug Fister. Tanner Roark will start Sunday against the Braves, who send struggling Ervin Santana to the mound. If Vegas were placing odds, Friday and Sunday look like potential Nationals wins.

FROM THE POST

The Braves continue to own the Nationals, the latest example a 3-0 loss in the series opener, writes Adam Kilgore.

The Nationals and Braves battle to be top dog in the NL East, writes Thomas Boswell.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 9, Norfolk 3: Taylor Hill won his ninth game after allowing three runs and striking out five over six innings. Zach Johnson fired two scoreless innings and Matt Grace fired a spotless ninth. Zach Walters hit his ninth home run, Brandon Laird hit his fifth and Tyler Moore added his third. Josh Johnson went 3 for 3.
New Britain 13, Harrisburg 5: Brett Brach gave up eight runs over three innings, Paul Demny allowed three and Colin Bates coughed up two more. Michael A. Taylor went 3 for and raised his batting average to .339. Jeff Kobernus started in left and went 2 for 5. Matt Skole and Quincy Latimore each added two hits.
Lynchburg 10, Potomac 3: Blake Schwartz allowed two runs over five innings. Ian Dickson allowed four unearned runs and Chris Manno allowed four earned runs. Estarlin Martinez tripled and Oscar Tejeda went 2 for 4.
Hagerstown 11, Greensboro 6: Hector Silvestre gave up four runs on six hits over seven innings. Drew Ward hit his seventh home run and collected three hits. James Yezzo hit a two-run home run. Wilmer Difo went 3 for 4 with two RBI. Rafael Bautista scored two runs.
Mahoning Valley 3, Auburn 0 (7): Reynaldo allowed two runs and walked four over four innings. Brett Mooneyham gave up one run over two innings. Jose Marmolejos-Diaz had one hit and two walks. Garrett Gordon had Auburn’s only other hit.
Auburn 2, Mahoning Valley 0 (7): Luis Torres fired 4 2/3 scoreless innings, while Robert Orlan and David Napoli combined for 2 1/3 scoreless frames. Jean Carlos Valdez went 2 for 3 and an RBI.

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