Opposite dugout: Loss of Freeman leaves a big hole for Braves to fill

braves-logo.jpgManager: Brian Snitker (2nd season)

Record: 16-21

Last 10 games: 5-4

Who to watch: LF Matt Kemp (.336/.373.588 with 6 HR, 23 RBIs), CF Ender Inciarte (.261, 5 HR, 16 RBIs), RF Nick Markakis (.315, 21 RBIs), RHP R.A. Dickey (3-3, 4.22 ERA), RHP Jim Johnson (3.38 ERA, 6 saves)

Season series vs. Nationals: 0-3

Pitching probables:

May 19: LHP Gio Gonzalez vs. RHP R.A. Dickey, 7:35 p.m., MASN2
May 20: RHP Max Scherzer vs. RHP Bartolo Colón, 4:10 p.m., MASN
May 21: RHP Stephen Strasburg vs. LHP Jaime García, 1:35 p.m., MASN2

Inside the Braves:

The Nationals are making their second trip to brand-new SunTrust Park in Cobb County before the Braves have played a game in D.C. (and that won’t happen until June 12-14). The Braves continue to battle the Mets, Phillies and Marlins to stay out of the National League East basement. But the loss of slugging first baseman Freddie Freeman for 10-12 weeks with a broken left wrist sustained Wednesday against the Blue Jays will put added pressure on a team that isn’t stacked with offense. It’s anyone’s guess how long the Atlanta rotation - which skews decidedly to the veteran (read: older) side - will hold serve. So far, the Braves pitchers rank 28th in the majors in ERA (4.85) and dead last in strikeouts (251).

Of late, left fielder Matt Kemp has been getting on base at an impressive clip, reaching base in 22 straight games, the longest active streak in the NL, and hitting .337 in that span. But the loss of Freeman will rob him of protection in the lineup and make it easier for opposing pitchers to negate his hot bat. Freeman was ranked in the top 10 in the National League in most offensive categories, and he’s been particularly hard on the Nationals, with a .330/.399/.520 career slash line that includes 13 homers and 58 RBIs. But how do the Braves replace his production? Trouble is, no one else is contributing a lot offensively. Right fielder Nick Markakis is batting .315, but hasn’t flashed much power, though he has driven in 21 runs, third-most on the team. The Braves need center fielder Ender Inciarte to heat up. He’s trending in the right direction with seven multi-hit games in 15 May contests. Shortstop Dansby Swanson, the former No. 1 overall draft pick who’s starting in the majors at 23, is still looking up at the Mendoza line with a .190 average, and there are whispers that he may be overmatched.

In the first two games of the weekend series, the Nats will face a pair of soft-tossers they’ve got significant history with, right-handers R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colón. Both were signed to give the Braves rotation some veteran leadership and allow for more time for pitching prospects to develop. Knuckleballer Dickey, who starts Friday night’s series opener, has given the Braves length, reaching at least six innings in five of his seven starts. But he’s yielded nine homers in 42 2/3 innings, a potential red flag against a team boasting power in the lineup, and he’s not missing bats, having recorded only 22 strikeouts. He’s 4-8 with a 3.69 ERA in 17 games (15 starts) against the Nats, and Jayson Werth owns a career .481/.563/.815 slash against him. Colón, the 20-year veteran who takes the mound Saturday, has struggled badly this season, posting a 6.80 ERA in eight starts. He hasn’t pitched six innings in any of his past four starts after working seven frames in back-to-back April starts. He’s also had trouble with the longball: eight allowed in 43 2/3 innings. In 12 games (11 starts) lifetime against Washington, Colón is 4-6 with a 3.71 ERA. Opponents are slashing .303/.344/.543 off Colón this season. Lefty Jaime García starts Sunday’s series finale and has limited foes to a .229 overall average ad left-handed hitters to a .167/.242/.200 slash. He’s posted a 2.84 ERA in one start in the new Braves home and has handled the Nats well in his career, with a 5-2 record and 3.21 ERA in eight starts.

Closer Jim Johnson’s 3.38 ERA is a little high for an elite ninth-inning guy, but his 1.00 WHIP shows there’s still life left in his right arm. Johnson has converted six of eight saves so far this season, and if he keeps it up, the Braves could deal him for something useful come July.

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