Opposite dugout: Braves hope to halt slide with critical home series against Nats

braves-logo.jpgManager: Fredi Gonzalez, fourth year
Record: 58-56
Last 10 games: 2-8
Who to watch: C Evan Gattis (.279/.337/.522, 13 doubles, 17 HR, 43 RBIs); LF Justin Upton (.281/.350/.496, 27 doubles, 19 HR, 64 RBIs); RHP Ervin Santana (10-6, 3.59 ERA, 1.25 WHIP); LHP Alex Wood (7-9, 3.20 ERA, 1.24 WHIP)
Season series vs. Nats: 7-3, 42 runs scored, 27 runs allowed

Pitching probables
Aug. 8: Ervin Santana vs. Stephen Strasburg, 7:30 p.m., MASN2 HD
Aug. 9: Aaron Harang vs. Tanner Roark, 7 p.m., MASN2 HD
Aug. 10: Alex Wood vs. Gio Gonzalez, 8 p.m., ESPN

Series breakdown
The Braves have to hope their dominance of the Nationals can get them out of their deepest funk of the season, or they just might end the weekend nearly out of the National League East race altogether.

Atlanta is in a rut, to say the least, as it welcomes Washington to Turner Field for a three-game weekend series. The Braves have lost a season-high eight straight, going 0-8 on a dreadful West Coast swing where they were outscored 41-18. Atlanta scored more than three runs just once the whole trip and allowed seven or more three times. The Braves haven’t lost nine in a row since 2010.

The Nats didn’t take full advantage, however, as they only added 3 1/2 games to their division lead during the skid, growing a half-game edge to four as the series gets started.

So no matter what happens this weekend, Washington will still be in first when it’s done. It will just need to reverse its recent trends against the Braves to make it happen. Atlanta is 20-9 against the Nats over the last two seasons. The Braves have won seven of 10 meetings this year, outscoring them 42-27.

But the teams haven’t played since late June, when Washington won the last two contests of a four-game set to earn a split.

Even with their current slide, the Braves pitching staff still ranks among the best in the NL. They stand fifth with a 3.44 rotation ERA and a 3.28 bullpen ERA to rank sixth with a 3.40 team ERA.

Atlanta won’t have ace Julio Teheran on the mound for this crucial series, but it won’t be hurting for quality starting pitching as all three probable pitchers have ERAs of 3.59 or better.

Right-hander Ervin Santana starts things off tonight against Stephen Strasburg for a fantastic pitching match-up. Santana is 10-6 with a 3.59 ERA in 21 starts and has pitched quite well of late.

Santana hasn’t allowed more than four runs in a start since June 12 and has been even better over his last four outings, going 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA and striking out 28 in 28 innings.

Veteran right-hander Aaron Harang starts against Tanner Roark on Saturday afternoon. The 36-year-old Harang has been one of the Braves’ most pleasant surprises this season, going 9-6 with a 3.41 ERA in 23 starts one year after going 5-12 with a 5.40 ERA with the Mariners and Mets.

Harang has tossed four straight no-decisions, but he also hasn’t lost a game since June 18, going 4-0 with a 2.72 ERA and seven quality starts over his last eight outings.

Left-hander Alex Wood has gone back and forth between the rotation and bullpen this year, but went back to starting in late June. Since then, he’s 2-3 with a 2.92 ERA in eight starts. Overall this season, he’s 7-9 with a 3.20 ERA in 26 appearances (15 starts). He pitches against fellow southpaw Gio Gonzalez on national television on Sunday night.

The back of the bullpen hasn’t been as stout of late, however. All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel has taken two losses in his last four outings to see his ERA jump from 1.82 to 2.05. He has 32 saves this season.

Pitching hasn’t been a big problem for the Braves, even during their struggles. But run production sure has.

Atlanta ranks 13th in the NL with 426 runs, 11th with 89 homers and a .678 OPS, and ninth with a .245 average. So far this month, the Braves have scored the fewest runs in the majors. They haven’t hit a single home run since July 30, going six straight games without clearing the fence.

Despite those ugly numbers, catcher Evan Gattis, left fielder Justin Upton and first baseman Freddie Freeman have all had standout seasons for Atlanta.

Gattis has 17 homers, 43 RBIs and a team-best .859 OPS in just 76 games. Upton leads the Braves with 19 homers and 64 RBIs while hitting 27 doubles and posting an .846 OPS. Freeman leads the club with 30 doubles and 70 runs scored while hitting 15 homers, driving in 62 runs and posting an .842 OPS.

Center fielder B.J. Upton has continued to be a disappointment, batting just .212 with 29 extra-base hits, 27 RBIs and a .608 OPS in 106 games.

However, the negative numbers for the Braves might not matter as much with such critical games ahead. Atlanta needs wins with its season falling away from them, and a sweep or series loss at the hands of the Nats would be especially damaging in the club’s quest for a second straight division title.

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