On Aug. 22, after avoiding a sweep at the hands of the Washington Nationals, the Atlanta Braves’ Martin Prado stood at his locker and reflected on the magnitude of what was to come during the final month of the season. At the time, the Nationals held a six-game lead and the teams’ remaining schedules appeared nearly identical. “We’re just trying to be in a good position whenever we’re going to play them again,” he said.
Since then, the Nationals have pushed their Nationals League East lead to a season-high 81 / 2 games. Even if they’re swept, the Nationals cannot leave Turner Field following Sunday’s game with less than a 51 / 2-game lead.
There is magnitude to every meeting between the Nationals and Braves. They’re two of the three best teams in the National League and in strong position to lock up early playoff berths. But the Nationals insist they won’t treat this series any different despite their division lead. They’ve already beaten the Braves 10 of 15 times this season.
“We know it’s gonna be two good pitching staffs going head to head,” reliever Sean Burnett said. “Runs are scarce. We’re looking to go in there and make a statement.”
The Nats’ offense has been a tear since the previous Braves series. They’re averaging 5.3 runs and hitting nearly two home runs a game; the Braves are scoring nearly 3.2 runs and averaging one home run per game. Combine that with the Nationals’ hitting success at Turner Field — a .285 team average , better than at any other division opponent’s ballpark.
The pitching matchups are also favorable for the Nationals. Manager Davey Johnson considered adjusting his rotation to have John Lannan face the Braves, a left-handed-heavy hitting team susceptible to left-handed pitching (they’re just 26-29 against lefty starters). But Johnson opted not to mess with his starters’ schedules.
The Braves will still see two Nationals left-handers in Ross Detwiler and Gio Gonzalez. Detwiler has a 3.86 ERA over four starts against the Braves, and Gonzalez — emerging as a Cy Young candidate at 19-7 with a 2.93 ERA — has a 4.86 ERA against them in three starts.
The Nationals’ left-handed relievers are all well-rested. Burnett got his feet wet on Wednesday in New York, his first appearance after sitting for 10 days with an irritated nerve in his left elbow. Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez last pitched on Tuesday. Call-up Zach Duke hasn’t pitched in a week.
The Nationals’ stiffest test could likely come in the series opener on Friday. The Braves have played unevenly in recent weeks, but have been strong whenever right-hander Kris Medlen is the on the mound, having won eight straight games started by him this season. He recently went 342 / 3 innings without allowing a run, including seven scoreless innings against the Nationals on Aug. 22.
The teams enter this weekend moving in opposite directions, with the Nationals coming off a three-game sweep of the New York Mets, and the Braves getting swept three straight by the Milwaukee Brewers.
“We needed to kinda drive the nail in their coffin [in New York] and come into Atlanta with a good frame of mind,” Johnson said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”