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Series Preview: Nationals take on the Old Guard (Atlanta Braves)

NATS’ HISTORIC APRIL

With no game Monday evening, the Washington Nationals (13-12) can look ahead to their upcoming series with the Atlanta Braves (11-14). While just one game above .500 now, the Nationals went 13-10 in April, posting a winning record in the month for the first time since the franchise moved to Washington. With star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman returning after missing 8 games so far, optimism abounds at Nationals’ Park.

EAST UP, A-TOWN DOWN

The Braves, on the other hand, are off to a rough start and currently are in sole possession of last place in the ultra-competitive NL East. Prior to sweeping their most recent series with the Houston Astros, the Braves had lost nine consecutive games, including sweeps by the New York Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Braves certainly hope that this three-game sweep of the Astros will help right the ship in Atlanta.

Based on preseason predictions, this team has been a disappointment to date. Chosen by many to finish second in the division and by others to win the NL Wild Card, the Braves are last in the division and 3.5 games back of the San Francisco Giants in the wild card race. The pitching staff – featuring marquee names like Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, and Billy Wagner – has been good but not great with a team ERA of 3.97. The real struggle has been with the bats. The Braves’ offense has been, well, offensive. The team is 24th in the majors with a .238 batting average, 28th in slugging percentage, and 25th in both home runs and runs scored. While second baseman Martin Prado has been very good (.354/.414/.475) and right fielder Jason Heyward has played well, the rest of the club has sputtered. Offensive stalwarts such as catcher Brian McCann, first baseman Troy Glaus, shortstop Yunel Escobar, and third baseman Chipper Jones have struggled mightily, hitting .242, .238, .215, and .206, respectively, with six home runs between them. Nowhere has the Braves’ offensive ineptitude been more pronounced than at the leadoff spot, where Atlanta ranks last in the league with a .195 average. The leadoff spot has primarily been manned by Melky Cabrera, Nate McLouth, Matt Diaz, and the aforementioned Escobar, none of whom is hitting than Escobar’s .215. If the Braves expect to turn their season around, the offense will need to find its rhythm.

WHO’S HOT?

Jason Heyward: 5-10, 2 HRs, 4 runs, 6 RBIs

Melky Cabrera: 3-6, 2 BBs, 3 RBIs

Omar Infante: 6-12, 2 BBs, 3 runs

Braves’ Pitching Staff: 4 ERs in 27 innings

WHO’S NOT?

Chipper Jones 0-10 2 Ks

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tuesday, May 4: Kenshin Kawakami (0-4, 5.48) vs. Livan Hernandez (3-1, 0.87)

Wednesday, May 5: Tommy Hanson (2-2, 2.17) vs. Luis Atilano (2-0, 2.25)

Thursday, May 6: Tim Hudson (2-1, 2.87) vs. Scott Olsen (2-1, 4.35)

BRAVE NEW WORLD

Jason Heyward appears to be coming down to Earth. After lighting the baseball world abuzz with a home run on the first swing of his Major League career, Heyward’s astronomical pace has slowed. While he is still performing at an extremely high level for a 20 year-old rookie, it seems as if pitchers are beginning to adjust to the Braves’ star. Heyward has struck out 26 times in just 81 at bats, so it will be important for him to increase his contact rate. Despite these early hiccups, scouts have constantly raved about his plate discipline, and, in addition, he struck out less than half as frequently in the minor leagues (1 per 6.34 at bats) so it can only be expected that his performance will improve. That said, Heyward is still batting .272/.388/.580 with seven home runs through his first 25 games as a major leaguer, no small potatoes for any player, let alone a 20 year-old. Braves fans can only hope he continues to “struggle” as he is.

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