Our Atlanta Braves went into this week's series with the Phillies with a slim lead atop the division while Philadelphia was 6.5 back in last place. The Phillies only gained a half-game lead on the overall lead in the division, but they gained 3 games on the Braves after sweeping them. Now, the Braves are currently tied for 2nd with the Miami Marlins and are 1.5 games behind the 1st place Washington Nationals, who will be hosting the Braves for a crucial 4-game series.
The Nationals have actually only won 2 of their last 6, with those 2 being their most recent mini-series against the Houston Astros. Before then, they got handed a 3-game sweep by the St. Louis Cardinals, which was preceded by a loss to the Giants. However, that 1 loss to the Giants was the only one in a 4-game series. The Giants are currently the best team in the NL, which means that's a pretty creditable result for the Nationals. So don't let 2-4 in their last 6 fool you: The Nats are playing some pretty good baseball at the moment.
Any conversation about the Nationals has to start with Stephen Strasburg and the rest of their pitching staff. Lucky for us, Washington has the top of their rotation going for this entire 4-game series! What luck for Atlanta! Sarcasm aside, the Braves' bats will probably face a stern test this weekend. If it's possible for a player of his status and hype, Strasburg is having a sneakily excellent season, as he is at or near the top of baseball's pitching leaderboards in FIP (2.43), K/9 (10.82), and fWAR (2.7). Maybe it's because he was hyped to be the next coming of Cy Young himself that people aren't exactly enamored with Strasburg this season, but he's been excellent and he'll be a handful for the Braves on Friday night.
Jordan Zimmermann and Tanner Roark (tonight's and Sunday's starters, respectively) have not been far behind in that department. Roark has come out on the winning side of his last 3 starts, as has a microscopic 1.42 ERA and 1.41 FIP over those starts. After a rough May, Zimmermann's come into June like a lion and he's also had a grand ol' time in his last 3 starts, compiling a 0.36 ERA and a 2.18 FIP. Doug Fister, on the other hand, got blown up in his last start, as he gave up 7 hits, 4 runs (all earned) and 2 HRs against the Cardinals his last time out. With that being said, Saturday will be the first time that some of the Braves will face Fister (there are a few holdovers from when the Braves took on the Tigers in 2013), and we all know that this Braves team doesn't adapt to new things very well.
To round it all off, according to fWAR, the Nationals have the best pitching staff as a whole in the NL, with a combined WAR of 9.8. That's including the bullpen, which has no glaring holes in it and is anchored by Tyler Clippard and a resurgent Rafael Soriano, who have both served as a solid 1-2 punch at the end of games for Washington.
As Washington's bats are concerned, they've been middle-of-the-road in that regard (they're tied for 10th in the NL in fWAR with the Diamondbacks), which is expected when INF Anthony Rendon and 2B Adam LaRoche are your two best bats in lieu of Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos, who are both on the DL and probably won't be back until late June or in Harper's case, July. None of the Nationals have an ISO at or above .200. To put that in perspective, the Braves have 3 (Gattis, J. Upton, and Freeman), and Evan Gattis' ISO is nearly at .300. So, despite the fact that Rendon and Desmond both have 13 and 10 HRs, respectively, this particular crew is not a team of big boppers. As a team, they're hitting .249/.317/.385 with 95 wRC+. As far as offense is concerned, the Braves have the clear advantage in this department. It will just be a matter of the pitching being able to take advantage of this light-hitting bunch.
After examining the two teams on paper, there's also the mental factor going on here: The Braves have owned the Nationals as of late. The two teams have played 6 times this season. The Braves have won 5 of those 6, including an extremely lopsided series here in Atlanta. The Braves have also beaten the Nationals in 18 of the last 25 games. However, with the way that the Braves have looked as of late and with the Nationals on the rise, this actually has the potential to be a watershed series for the Nationals.
Could this finally be the moment when the Nationals actually cash those checks that their mouths have been writing for a year or so, now? Despite the fact that the teams appear to be going in opposite directions, the Braves may very well still hold a mental edge going into this series. Every time the Nationals have played the Braves, they've either been completely outclassed or they were the ones who blinked first during a metaphorical staring contest and the Braves pounced on those opportunities to come out of those games with victories. Obviously, we're all hoping that the recent trends between these two teams continues.
Thursday, June 19th at 7:05 PM EST
Friday, June 20th at 7:05 PM EST
Mike Minor (ATL, 2-4, 4.42 ERA, 4.42 FIP, 0.1 fWAR)
Stephen Strasburg (WAS, 6-5, 3.06 ERA, 2.43 FIP, 2.7 fWAR)
Saturday, June 21st at 7:15 PM EST
Julio Teheran (ATL, 6-4, 2.31 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 1.4 fWAR)
Doug Fister (WAS, 5-2, 3.08 ERA, 4.28 FIP, 0.2 fWAR)
Sunday, June 22nd at 1:35 PM EST
Ervin Santana (ATL, 5-4, 4.12 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 1.0 fWAR)
Tanner Roark (WAS, 6-4, 2.85 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 1.3 fWAR)