Atlanta's first look at top prospect Bryce Harper comes this weekend, and keeping the dynamic teen shut down will be a priority for Braves pitching.
After a 7 game road trip that started with a promising 2-1 series win over the Tampa Bay Rays, the Atlanta Braves limp back to Turner Field after being swept in 4 games at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds. The series with the Reds saw the Braves' formidable offense hit the skids in a big way, as they managed a grand total of 8 runs over the 4 game set. Do the math, and 2 runs a game isn't gonna cut it.
In order to turn things around, the Braves will have to find a way to hit the best pitching staff in baseball. The Nationals enter today's series with the best ERA in the majors, and it's not that close. On the season, the Nats' starters and bullpen has a collective ERA of 2.90 (The next lowest is the Dodgers at 3.23). The scary thing is that they're not performing too far over their heads either, as evidenced by their MLB-best 2.99 FIP and second-best 3.39 xFIP. Their staff's 8.1 WAR is 1.4 WAR greater than the 2nd place team in MLB (the Rangers). I could spend this entire preview listing pitching categories that the Nats are excelling at, but you get the picture: their pitching is top-notch.
The Nationals' offense is far and away the team's weak link. The Nats rank 25th in MLB in terms of runs scored with 163. By comparison, the Braves have scored 221. The Nationals' offense is paced by former Brave Adam LaRoche, who has shattered his reputation as a slow-starter by charging out of the gates to a .297/.392/.545 line with 7 homers and 32 RBI. Around the horn, the Nationals start LaRoche at first, Danny Espinosa at second, power-hitting short stop Ian Desmond, and face-of-the-franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Steve Lombardozzi has played the utility role well this season, and will probably see starts during the series. The outfield features Xavier Nady in left, former-Brave Rick Ankiel in center, and ballyhooed stud prospect Bryce Harper in right. Harper has been the talk of baseball for the past few weeks, and rightly so, as the 19 year old has posted a .264/.343/.471 line over 23 games. He's also managed 6 doubles, 3 triples, 2 homers, and 2 steals. The Braves will have to be careful of both his power and speed. Jesus Flores will do the bulk of the catching for the Nats after an injury cost Wilson Ramos the rest of his season.
Pitching matchups after the jump...
Game 1: Friday, May 25, 7:35pm
Ross Detwiler goes for Washington on Friday, and he is arguably the weakest link in the Nationals rotation.That said, Detwiler has still posted a 3.65 ERA and 1.20 WHIP to go with his 3-3 record. Additionally, he has a 31/11 strikeout to walk ratio in 44.1 innings this year. Detwiler's going through a rough stretch though, having given up 13 earned runs in his last 16 innings, and there's talk that he could lose his rotation spot to Chein-Ming Wang if Wang can come back healthy soon. Tim Hudson, on the other hand, continues to be a stabilizing force in the Braves rotation, posting a 3.03 ERA and 1.19 WHIP so far this year. In his last start, Huddy threw 7.2 shutout innings of 4-hit ball, picking up his 3rd win of the year.
Game 2: Saturday, May 26, 4:05pm
Since coming back from Tommy John's surgery last year, Stephen Strasburg has been nothing short of dominant. Strasburg will come into Saturday's start sporting a FIP of 2.20 and an xFIP of 2.54, marks that are good for 2nd and 3rd in MLB, respectively. His 10.87 K/9 ranks 3rd in baseball as well. With a fastball that touches 100 mph, a low 90s changeup, and a knee-buckling breaking ball, Strasburg's arsenal is just as terrifying as the statistics make it sound. He's only had one outing all year where he gave up more than 3 earned runs, so the Braves will have their work cut out. He has struggled a bit with going deep in games recently, have only thrown 9 innings in his last two starts. If the Braves can be patient, maybe they can get him out of the game early. Opposing Strasburg will be Braves sophomore Mike Minor, who desperately needs a good outing. After giving up 3 homers in 5 April starts, Minor has given up 9 in his 4 starts in May. His struggles have been well-documented, but perhaps returning to Turner Field is what Minor needs to get back on track. Let's hope.
Game 3: Sunday, May 27, 8:00pm
As good as Strasburg has been for the Nationals so far, Gio Gonzalez has arguably been better. Gonzalez comes in sporting a K/9 of 11.37, good for 2nd in baseball.That's right - the Nats have 2 of the 3 most prolific strikeout artists in the game. Not a good sign for a Braves team that has seemed to strike out a bunch of late. Gonzalez has posted a 1.98 ERA, 1.95 FIP, and 2.78 xFIP so far this year, marks that are good 4th, 2nd, and 3rd in baseball. To say he's been everything the Nats dreamed of since coming over from Oakland in the offseason would be an understatement. Fortunately for the Braves, we'll send the pitcher with the best ERA in baseball to the hill to counter. Beachy will be looking to rebound from his first lackluster start of the year, where he gave up 4 runs in Cincinnati. Beachy was bitten by the long ball, giving up 3 dingers, but he should be fine - several of them were cheapies that would have been fly balls at Turner Field.