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Nationals and Braves Battle for NL East Lead

This weekend at Turner Field the Washington Nationals (26-18) and the Atlanta Braves (26-20) will fight for a hold on first place in the National League East. The two teams are coming into the series with just one game separating them in the standings, but one team has the opportunity to differentiate itself as the clear front runner in the division.

Atlanta has flirted with first place in recent weeks, but has yet to overtake the Nationals for control of it. Historically, the odds of winning this meeting are tipped slightly in favor of the Braves, who are entering the series on a four game losing streak after being swept by the Cincinnati Reds. Since 2005, the Nationals are 63-64 against the Braves, and 27-37 on the road against them.

Stats

The Braves have a team of solid hitters. Their team batting average is .261, and they are slugging .406. In comparison, the Nationals are hitting .243 and slugging .391 as a team. They only have four active position players with slugging percentages in the .400 plus range, while the Braves have ten.

Capitalizing on their ability to hit, the Braves have scored the second most runs in the National League with 224. The Nationals, who we know are fond of one-run games and leaving guys on base, sit in 13th place with 163 runs scored.

From the opposite vantage point, the Braves have one of the higher ERA’s in the majors (3.96, 20th overall), although their closer, Craig Kimbrel, leads the National League with 13 saves in 14 opportunities.

The Nationals have maintained the top spots in pitching with their 2.90 first-place ERA and 379 strikeouts. If Stephen Strasburg’s bicep tightness has dissipated and if Detwiler performs more closely to his usual standard (in his last start he allowed nine hits and six earned runs in five innings), the Nats should be able to outpitch the Braves and hold their hot hitters at bay.

Some notable injuries

Third baseman Chipper Jones is still suffering from bruising on his left calf and ankle. He has made just one pinch hitting appearance since last Friday when he was hit in the leg with a hard ground ball. Jones is hitting .307 and slugging .485 with five home runs. The Braves are 19-5 when he starts, but just 7-15 when he sits. His numbers alone tell you he is an asset to the team, and according to MLB.com, manager Fredi Gonzalez hopes to have him back in the lineup to contribute to the fight against the Nationals.

First baseman Freddie Freeman has also struggled with an injury of sorts lately. Although he leads his team in home runs and RBI’s, he has been struggling with seeing the ball lately, due to issues with his contact lenses. He did not play on Thursday because his new sports goggles had not yet been delivered.

Catcher Brian McCann has also missed three consecutive games with the flu.

Homer problems

Home runs seem to be a problem for lefty Mike Minor. He has given up nine home runs in his last four starts, and his most recent start totaled a rough six innings pitched with five hits, four of which were homers. Minor surrendered 12 home runs in AAA ball last year and seven in the majors. However, he has already given up 12 this year, and is well on his way to exceeding that combined total. Minor will start on Saturday and face Strasburg.

The Braves’ pitching staff has given up a total of 47 home runs this year, which is tied for ninth place in the Major Leagues. The Nationals have surrendered only 28 – the second least in the majors.

Pitchers’ duel alert

As long as the defense can hold up their end of the deal, Sunday’s game pitting Gio Gonzalez and Braves’ ace Brandon Beachy against each other is sure to be a pitchers’ duel at its finest. Gonzalez and Beachy are two of only four qualifying pitchers in baseball with sub-two ERA’s (the other two are Clayton Kershaw, 1.90, and Johnny Cueto, 1.97).

The 26-year-old Beachy has only allowed four or more earned runs in a game once this year (the same stat also happens to be true of Gonzalez), and has given up four home runs while striking out 44. Gonzalez has given up just one home run this year, and he still leads the National League in strikeouts at 69, just six shy of overtaking Justin Verlander the top overall spot. The two pitchers are number one and two in the National League for lowest opponent batting averages – Gonzalez, .167 and Beachy, .183.

Beachy is coming off his worst start of the season, after allowing four earned runs – three of them home runs – through seven innings in a loss to the Cincinnati Reds. He is bound to be eager to get back on the mound to show the flame-throwing Nationals that he can pitch with the best of them.

Who’s hot?

Martin Prado (LF) .325 AVG, .485 SLG, 21 RBI,  3 HR

Michael Bourn (CF) .316 AVG, .430 SLG, 16 RBI, 3 HR, 13 SB

Freddie Freeman (1B) .254 AVG, .456 SLG, 32 RBI, 7 HR

Who’s not?

Juan Francisco (3B) .197 AVG, 24 SO, .225 OBP

Mike Minor (SP) 6.96 ERA, 12 HR, .286 AVG (second highest ERA among qualified major league pitchers)

Probable starters

Ross Detwiler (3-3, 3.65 ERA) vs. Tim Hudson (3-1, 3.03 ERA)

Stephen Strasburg (4-1, 2.21 ERA) vs. Mike Minor (2-4, 6.96 ERA)

Gio Gonzalez (6-1, 1.98 ERA) vs. Brandon Beachy (5-2, 1.77 ERA)

Joe Drugan

About Joe Drugan

Joe is the Managing Editor of The Nats Blog and host of the Nats Talk On The Go podcast. He's been blogging about the Nationals since 2010 and with The Nats Blog since 2011.

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