Nats face Braves with opportunity for Strasburg to set the tone

Nats face Braves with opportunity for Strasburg to set the tone
August 8, 2014, 10:45 am
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In the seven weeks since the Nats and Braves last squared off on June 22, the two teams have traveled very different paths.

The Nationals in that span have gone 23-16. They lost Ryan Zimmerman to a hamstring injury, but now have Bryce Harper, Asdrubal Cabrera and Matt Thornton in store. They have a 4 1/2 game lead in the NL East, their best margin since 2012.

The Braves have gone 20-19 and along the way cut Dan Uggla and traded for Emilio Bonifacio. That stretch included a nine-game winning streak in late June and early July. It also includes eight straight losses, their most recent run.

There's no question the Nationals are in better shape as of today, but over the last few years the Braves have had their number. Since 2012, the Nats are 9-20 against their division rivals and have been outscored 76-113 in those games.

Just because the Nats are playing better now, does not mean it won't be a tough series.

"Atlanta's very good. They are very good at home," Harper said. "They just came off an eight-game losing streak, so they're gonna want our throat. Hopefully we can go in there and we have three good starters going, hopefully we can win some ballgames."

The pitching matchups for this weekend's Nats-Braves series are good ones, though the spots of each team's best starter this season - Doug Fister and Julio Teheran - will be missed.

Friday - Stephen Strasburg (8-9, 3.39) vs. Ervin Santana (10-6, 3.59)

Saturday - Tanner Roark (11-7) vs. 2.94) vs. Aaron Harang (9-6, 3.41)

Sunday - Gio Gonzalez (6-8, 4.01) vs. Alex Wood (7-9, 3.20)

The first game on Friday night will arguably be the biggest start of Strasburg's career to date. Two years ago he was battling through the shutdown controversy, knowing he would not be pitching the rest of the year and through the playoffs. Now he has a chance to set the tone in a late season series against the Nats' archrivals in a pennant race he knows he will remain a part of.

Strasburg is coming off two very strong outings against the Marlins and Phillies, 14 total innings with one earned run allowed. He has his season ERA down to 3.39 after an up-and-down month of July.

The Nationals are also riding high after their walk-off victory over the Mets on Thursday. It was a long, 13-inning game that nearly exhausted their bullpen, but it gives them two consecutive wins before they head to Atlanta.

"It puts us in a positive mode before going to face the Braves," Craig Stammen said. "We know these three games are going to be big because they are right on our tails."

"We’re playing good. We’re playing good ball," Jordan Zimmermann said. "We’re pitching well and driving in some runs. So we’re feeling good going into Atlanta, and we’ll see what happens."

The Nationals are presented an opportunity this weekend to create some distance between them and the Braves. With a 4 1/2 game lead, they could leave Atlanta up 7 1/2 games. On the other hand, they could let the Braves back in the race if they lose the series.

That dynamic is not lost on the Nats.

"We want to go down there and at least win the series, 2-out-of-3. I think we’ll be happy if we can do that," Zimmermann said. "We have a rough time with them, so we’re going to have to play some good ball and then see what happens."