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Next stop: Atlanta

Aug 8, 2014, 10:34 AM EDT

Photo by USA Today Photo by USA Today

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.”

  1. NatsLady - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:48 AM

    Late thought. I kept wondering why Matty didn’t give Harper the bunt sign. Harper’s a good bunter, Desi’s a good runner, you are playing for one run. I’d like to think Matty was simply supporting Harper, but I did find another reason when I was writing up my game post. Carlos Torres had given up four homers in six innings of work since the All-Star Break. He was wild, you could see that, walking Desi after an 0-2 count.

    When a guy’s that off-target, finding a pitch to bunt isn’t any easier than finding a pitch to hit. And a pitch to hit has a good chance of being a homer.

    • Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:52 AM

      Interesting point. The AP also noted Torres’ struggles of late in their write up of the game. It certainly seems plausible that MW was smartly exploiting a weakness that just so happened to put Bryce in a position to be a hero.

      • NatsLady - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:55 AM

        I guess I owe the AP a virtual drink. (I admit, I rarely read other write-ups. Partly out of indolence, but mostly because I like to do my own research).

      • Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:57 AM

        Just to be clear, I wasn’t trying to call you out! I was just trying to say you’re not out on a limb with that theory. If you noticed it and the AP noticed it, surely the Nats’ brain trust did, too.

      • NatsLady - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:01 AM

        Eric, I didn’t think you were calling me out. I’m glad you mentioned it because as a fledgling sports writer I’m glad to see my thoughts validated. ;)

      • Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:02 AM

        Well alright then, good deal! :)

  2. Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    Is it 7:35 p.m. yet? I’m ready for this!

    Go Nats!

  3. unterp - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    With LaRoach, Desmond now in the mix, and hopefully Harper, the Nats can run away with it…

    • Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:52 AM

      Really excited to see what Stras will bring, too. He’s been on his game lately.

      • unterp - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:01 AM

        +

    • laddieblahblah - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:20 PM

      My thoughts, exactly. La Roche seems poised to go on his annual August rampage, and just in time. Desmond has been taking the ball and hitting it where it’s pitched. He could have been, and should have been, doing that all year long, but better late than never. And Ramos will be back tonight, too. He has also been raking.

      Even without Zim, this team is better than the Braves, and always has been. It’s about time they showed it on the field of play. If the Braves can be swept by the Mariners, the Padres and the Dodgers, I can’t think of a single good reason why they can’t be swept by the Nationals, as well. Pack a stake in DC, bring it to Atlanta, drive it into that vampire, and put an end to it, once and for all.

      The Braves are the ones with their backs to the wall. The schedule favors the Nats from here on out. If the Braves are in a deep hole after this series, they will have to play way over their heads just to get back in it. I expect them to go all out to sweep. The Nats had better be ready to play smart, as well as tough and aggressive baseball.

      But the pressure is all on the Braves.

      • Soul Possession, Sec 3 My Sofa - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:39 PM

        If the Braves are in a deep hole after this series, they will have to play way over their heads just to get back in it. I expect them to go all out to sweep.

        They already will have to win a lot more than they lose, regardless. Going all-out the rest of the way is all they have left.

        But consider, even if they were to sweep and get to 1.5 back, they’re still 1/5 back, and probably exhausted for the next two series, against the first-place Dodgers and the best-in-MLB A’s. Whereas the Nats get Monday off, and then the Mets and Pirates.

        The Barves have dug themselves a very deep hole in the past two weeks.

  4. NatsLady - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:53 AM

    P.S., other than Stammen and probably Thornton, the bullpen shouldn’t be that exhausted. Clip and Sori threw Sunday (in a non-stressful situation) and Thursday.

    Pitches-strikes: Storen 12-7, Blevins 7-5, Clippard 10-8, Soriano, R 8-7, Thornton 11-8.

  5. natsfan1a - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:54 AM

    Not sure that I’ll see all of this one in real time but will have the DVR set just in case I nod off (okay, ready for when I nod off).

    Go, NATS! Stop the chop!

  6. Hiram Hover - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:55 AM

    “The first game on Friday night will arguably be the biggest start of Strasburg’s career to date.”

    Ack. Seems like needless over-dramatization to me, and we already get way too much of with Stras (and Bryce too–but at least he seems to welcome it).

    • NatsLady - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:59 AM

      I don’t see why that’s the case, the “biggest game of Strasburg’s career to date.” Yes, it would be great if he’d go eight. It would be a great moment for his no-hitter. But, eh, it’s one game, and the Nats are 4.5 games up. I don’t see this game as a “turning point” in the season one way or the other.

      If the Nats were tied with the Barves, or if they were, heaven forfend, 1 game back on Sept 15, yes, THEN I’ll go for the drama.

    • NatsLady - Aug 8, 2014 at 10:59 AM

      In other words, HH, I agree with you…

    • Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:01 AM

      Maybe, but I must say, I’m really excited for this one, and I do think it’s a big opportunity for Stras. Is it too soon to say the final push for the pennant could start with this series?

      • Hiram Hover - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:14 AM

        I’m excited too, don’t get me wrong.

        But judgments like “beginning of the final push” are ones we can only make after the fact, so I’m content to leave them for the end of the season reviews.

        Whatever happens tonight, it’s just one step on the path, either way, and we still won’t know where the path leads–which is enough excitement for me.

      • Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:28 AM

        I agree it’s one step on the path, I guess what I mean is, we’ll be somewhere between 1.5 up and 7.5 up on Monday morning. I think either of those bookend outcomes would be significant as far as what the rest of the season will look like, i.e., a dogfight for both of us or desperate chase for them. Something in between probably would feel more like “a step on the path.”

      • Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:30 AM

        Oh, and the corollary to the range of Monday morning outcomes and what the might mean is that it starts with Stras’ outing tonight. To be sure, it’s by no means all up to him, it’s just a big opportunity, especially given his occasional struggles at Turner field.

        I agree “most important of his career so far” is probably a bit much…but if he wins and we <<<>>> sweep, it’ll look pretty significant I think.

      • Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:31 AM

        UGH. <<<>>> was originally <<<>>> without the spaces and colons.

      • Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:32 AM

        ARGH! The word “GASP” was supposed to show up between the brackets. Sheesh.

      • Hiram Hover - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:45 AM

        GASP. UGH. ARGH.

        WordPress is driving you to quite the conversation with yourself, Eric!

        That’s how I feel about the comments functionality too.

      • 6ID20 - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:49 AM

        Name another Strasburg start when he’s had the opportunity to remove the monkeys off both his team’s back and his own back. Can’t do it, can you? This is indeed the biggest start of Strasburg’s career to date. By far.

      • Hiram Hover - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:08 PM

        Two points:

        1. I don’t really buy into all this “monkey” business, but if you think Stras and the Nats are the ones with the lower primates on their backs, you’re not paying attention.

        The Braves have lost 8 straight and fallen to 4.5 games back. The best case scenario for them after tonight is they’re still 2-8 over their last 10 and still 3.5 games back.

        2. Bowndenball gives an excellent example of an important start for Stras vs ATL below, one where the Nats were the skidding team and they were tied in the standings.

    • bowdenball - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:47 AM

      I agree with you. One that comes to mind:

      There was a start against the Braves in June of 2012 that came after day off and a rainout, The teams came into the game tied, with the Nats having blown a 2.5 game lead over the previous 5 days and a miraculously healthy Brandon Beachy going for Atlanta. Strasburg threw 7 innings of shutout ball, 9 Ks, zero walks, and the Braves lost their best, last chance to take over the division lead that season. They got within 1.5 after the first game of that famous doubleheader where Lannan saved the day, but they never again had a chance to take over first.

      • natsfan1a - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:30 PM

        Oh, yeah. Thanks for the reminder. Take a hike, munk. ;-)

    • Another Tyler - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:22 PM

      If I was on twitter I would make #notinourstras because it makes sense and I still chuckle when I think about it.

  7. Ghost of Steve M. - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:12 AM

    So much for Kasten making no trades.

    “@mlbtraderumors: Dodgers Not Done Pursuing Pitching Help http://t.co/M4qWx1Kvdg

  8. tcostant - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    I’m so sure the Nats will do well in Hotlanta, that I just paid my deposit on my post season tixs.

    • scnatsfan - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:30 AM

      I love it

  9. masterfishkeeper - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:35 AM

    Just want to point out that according to the Fangraphs’ playoff odds, it is far more likely that the Nats make the World Series (17.4%) than the Braves winning the Division (5.6%).

    http://www.fangraphs.com/coolstandings.aspx

    Of course, that doesn’t prove anything, because the Nats still have to keep winning and stay healthy, but I like the odds.

    • Rich Shipe - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:26 PM

      Actually that is the Nats’s percentage change of WINNING the World Series. Even better!

    • Rich Shipe - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:27 PM

      34.1% to make it to the World Series.

  10. ehay2k - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:36 AM

    For me, the important thing to see in this series is how the Nats handle the pressure. Honestly, with a 4.5 game lead, the pressure is on the Barves. But the Nats, particularly THESE Nats, meaning those from the DJ era, seem to press and play poorly when they feel the have to prove something. What I want to see is a relaxed squad go out and play their game. No pitchers ( or catchers named Ramos!) trying to stretch a single, no sending Moses or Ramos unless an Upton loses the ball under his ego, and no walk-producing nibbling by pitchers – challenge them to hit it. So Nats, play like you ALREADY own them, because record-wise, you already do.

    GYFNG!

    • Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:01 PM

      This is exactly why I was so glad when the Braves lost their second in Seattle the day we beat the Mets: it took first place off the table for the Braves this weekend. Winning yesterday just reduced the pressure even further.

      • ehay2k - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:06 PM

        I agree that it should take the pressure off. It’s just that, in my view anyway, these Nats put way too much pressure on themselves, even when the situation doesn’t warrant it. Right now, all the pressure is on the Barves, and they are starting to sweat. We need to relax and let the Barves cook in their own juices.

      • Eric - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:42 PM

        I agree completely, which is why the lack of needing to defend first place this weekend is a good thing. Just relax and have fun fellas!

    • bowdenball - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:18 PM

      “But the Nats, particularly THESE Nats, meaning those from the DJ era, seem to press and play poorly when they feel the have to prove something.”

      If this were true, they would not have done any of the following this season:

      – Won the final game of their first three- game series with the Braves this year after getting crushed by them in 2013 and losing the first two head to head games of this season (April 6)

      – Beaten Michael Wacha and the Cardinals amidst a stream of fan and media complaints that the Cards were in their heads and/or that they couldn’t beat ace starters (April 18)

      – Taken two of three from the Dodgers in response to fan complaints that they’d gotten fat off bad teams and couldn’t hang with the contenders (May 5-7)

      – Bounced back from two losses to start a 4 game series with Atlanta to take the next two and earn a split amidst full-scall DEFCON 1 panic from the fans that they couldn’t beat the Braves (June 21-22)

      -Won 5 of their first 6 games after Harper’s return in the face of constant negative coverage of Harper’s comments on the lineup and supposed slight of Span and concern over how it would affect the clubhouse (June 30-July 6)

      – Beaten the Orioles 6-2 in Baltimore after hearing about their poor recent head-to-head record against their neighbor/rival (July 9)

      – Outplayed the Mets in extra innings, repeatedly getting runners on base while shutting down the Mets completely and ultimately winning despite constant reminders of their poor record in extra innings, especially at home (yesterday)

  11. alexva6 - Aug 8, 2014 at 11:57 AM

    while not necessarily the biggest game of Stras’s career it would be nice to win game one, something they have not done much against the Braves in ’13 and ’14.

  12. adcwonk - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:00 PM

    Relax. Enjoy. This is totally awesome.

    Folks, this is what real baseball fans wait for — and we have it right here. A solid team (at close to full strength) going down to ‘Lanta to play some serious baseball.

    To be the best, you gotta beat the best — and the Braves are (record-wise) the second best team in the division.

    Enjoy! Enjoy the ups and downs, the thrills and heartaches. The next best thing to “meaningful games in Sept” are “meaningful games in August”.

    We endured decades without baseball, then back-to-back 100+ loss seasons. Well, now we got what we want, let’s not forget to smell the roses and enjoy it.

    This is going to be fun.

    What I want to see is a relaxed squad go out and play their game.

    Yep. I’ll make a deal with the Nats — I’ll be a relaxed fan, and the players should be relaxed players.

    We have ALR and Ian heating up. Perhaps Harper, too (or, at least he has the monkey off his back). Span continues to be a machine. Strasburg coming off two great starts.

    Let’s go Nats!

    GYFNG!

    (And, yes, we all have in our back pocket that no matter what happens this weekend, we come out the other end still in first place).

    • Eugene in Oregon - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:40 PM

      Agree completely on the meaningful games point — whatever happens, these games matter and that makes them so much more interesting to watch and follow.

    • bowdenball - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:45 PM

      Great post. If you’re not enjoying this and enjoying the weekend series, you shouldn’t be a baseball fan. This is what it’s all about. Especially since the risk is so minimal, worst case scenario they have a 1.5 game lead and are still the favorites to win the division and we have to listen to a bunch of whining about how they can’t beat the Braves for a few days until the division lead gets back to 3 or 4 games thanks to the upcoming schedules.

    • Hiram Hover - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:58 PM

      + another!

  13. veejh - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:12 PM

    I know we’re ahead in the standing, but a series win this weekend would make it official that we own this division once again.

    • ArVAFan - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:25 PM

      +1 googol

  14. knoxvillenat - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:31 PM

    Well I still can’t get the scenario from last season out of my head when Harper appeared to have a bull’s eye on his back and Barves pitchers used him for target practice. Not only was that disgusting by itself but when Strasburg had to do what he had to do, (plunk JUpton), it couldn’t stop at that and he got crazy wild against Simmons.

    Hopefully this time around we don’t see Harper or any other Nat getting drilled nor do we see Strasburg or any other Nats pitcher losing composure or control of his pitches on the mound.

    GYFNG!!!

    • Eugene in Oregon - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:42 PM

      Atlanta — protecting the integrity of the game while disparaging native Americans.

      • rayvil01 - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:09 PM

        They aren’t as dilly with all that since McCann left.

        I think MW response would be a different from DJ.

      • rayvil01 - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:10 PM

        Silly. Arrrgh.

      • Eugene in Oregon - Aug 8, 2014 at 2:30 PM

        ‘Dilly’ worked too.

  15. Danny - Aug 8, 2014 at 12:49 PM

    Undefeated since you know who was booted!

  16. Joe Seamhead - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:29 PM

    The Braves with their tomahawk chop one minute and then the next they have a bugle playing the calvary “CHARGE!” piece. I mean what’s it going to be? You can’t be both the Indians and the Bluecoats. That’s the sign of some very weird and confused fans.

    • ArVAfan - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:44 PM

      And the Easter bunny brings chocolate eggs. Think about it.

      • Hiram Hover - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:48 PM

        That one I find more disturbing, actually, and would prefer not to think about.

    • npb99 - Aug 8, 2014 at 2:24 PM

      +1

  17. zmunchkin - Aug 8, 2014 at 1:52 PM

    If the Braves play at Oakland’s level for their remaining games (29-19), they would end the season with 87 wins. The Nats have to 26-23 to get to 88 wins. That is .530 – they are at .549 now.

    Since there is probably no way the Braves morph into the A’s, the pressure is clearly all on them!

    • bowdenball - Aug 8, 2014 at 2:00 PM

      Yup. And the math is even better when you look at the Braves’ upcoming schedule, which has four home games against the Dodgers followed by another road trip while the Nats play three in NY then come home for a long stay. The Nats don’t need to beat the Braves this weekend, they just need to not get blown away by them. 4-5 over the final nine head to head matchups could very well be enough.

      • knoxvillenat - Aug 8, 2014 at 2:13 PM

        After the Dodgers series, and before the Barves hit the road, they also have a little 3 game series with Oakland to deal with.

      • bowdenball - Aug 8, 2014 at 2:17 PM

        Forgot about that. Should make for a nice little respite for them before heading on the road, eh?

      • knoxvillenat - Aug 8, 2014 at 2:20 PM

        10 games in a row against first place teams from three different divisions. Either their fans will step up and support them or they turn that stupid chop against the home team. And boy that could be ugly.

      • Soul Possession, Sec 3 My Sofa - Aug 8, 2014 at 2:25 PM

        Like I said, they’ve already dug their hole. Nothing left to do now but throw the dirt in on them.

  18. Soul Possession, Sec 3 My Sofa - Aug 8, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand …. there goes WordPress, a-clusterin’.

  19. edshelton2013 - Aug 8, 2014 at 3:25 PM

    Iffy weather forecast tonight in Atlanta. 50% chance of t-storms throughout the evening.

  20. Soul Possession, Sec 3 My Sofa - Aug 8, 2014 at 3:32 PM

    So, who benefits more from the rainout? Nats (who just played 13 innings), or Barves (who’ve lost 8 straight)?

    • bowdenball - Aug 8, 2014 at 3:49 PM

      The Nats, easily. The Braves now have an extra day to sit on their losing streak. The Nats get to rest and recover after the 13 inning game and should have everyone but Stammen ready for the remainder of the season. And if they are forced to bump at least one game to September (forecast tomorrow also not good) that also helps the Nats, who would then face a worst-case scenario of leaving town with a 2.5 game lead ahead of a brutal stretch of schedule for the Braves and a relatively friendly one for the Nats.

      • bowdenball - Aug 8, 2014 at 3:50 PM

        Remainder of the series, of course, not remainder of the season.

  21. donniebenth - Aug 8, 2014 at 4:11 PM

    Does anyone have a link to the audio of Charlie and Dave calling Bryce’s walk off yesterday? I was listening on the radio until our local station cut off for the beginning of three hours of R@dskins pregame.

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