Opposite dugout: Braves bank on second meeting with Nats going better than first

braves-logo.jpgManager: Fredi Gonzalez (5th season)

Record: 14-14

Last 10 games: 5-5

Who to watch: C A.J. Pierzynski (.344/.377/.541 with 3 HR, 14 RBIs), 1B Freddie Freeman (.318/.376/.561 with 5 HR, 17 RBIs), RF Nick Markakis (.301/.390/.340), IF Kelly Johnson (6 HR, 17 RBIs), RHP Julio Teheran (3-1, 3.82 ERA, 28 K in 33 IP), RHP Jason Grilli (0-1, 9 SV)

Season series vs. Nationals: 1-2

Pitching probables:

May 8: LHP Eric Stults vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
May 9: RHP Julio Teheran vs. RHP Doug Fister, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
May 10: LHP Alex Wood vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann, 1:35 p.m., MASN2

Inside the Braves:

Atlanta comes to Nationals Park for the first time this season on a two-game winning streak. But they miss throwing their best pitcher, right-hander Shelby Miller, at the Nats - in fact, Miller didn't work against Washington during its visit to Turner Field last month. That series in Atlanta marked the start of the Nats' turnaround - remember the 26 runs the Nats put up over two games, rallying from 9-1 down in the first to win 13-12? - and was part of a stretch in which the Braves lost five of seven. Still, Atlanta is 14-14, in second place in the NL East, and begins the weekend series a half-game up on the Nationals.

Considering this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Braves, that's a bit of a surprise. But they're getting the most out of an offense built around first baseman Freddie Freeman, who's producing without a lot of protection around him. Freeman has four extra-base hits and seven RBIs in his past four games. A.J. Pierzynski was supposed to be mentoring catching prospect Christian Bethancourt from the bench; instead, the career .282 hitter is batting at a .344 clip, has driven in 14 runs and wrestled away the starting job. With third baseman Chris Johnson on the disabled list with a broken left hand, veteran Kelly Johnson is getting more playing time and has responded with a team-leading six homers and 17 RBIs, tied with Freeman for the top spot (Kelly Johnson had seven homers and 27 RBIs in 106 games for three teams last year). Right fielder Nick Markakis has assumed the leadoff spot, and is on base at a .327 clip after slashing .323/.400/355 in 14 games in the three-hole. Of Markakis' 31 hits, only four have been for extra-bases, so the Braves may feel he is more valuable setting the table than moving the line along with singles. While the Braves are a middle-of-the-road major league club in terms of most offensive stats categories, they rank eighth overall in on-base percentage (.326), a mark that's fourth-best in the National League.

The Braves are throwing the same three pitchers at the Nats as they did when the teams met in Atlanta from April 27-29. Starting pitching has been up and down - Atlanta's 4.11 staff ERA is fourth-worst in the NL and its 1.354 WHIP is third from the bottom in the league. Braves pitchers are letting opponents reach base with alarming regularity - try a .330 clip - and have issued 103 walks, second-most in the league. Manager Fredi Gonzalez no longer has a bevy of reliable flamethrowers in middle relief and setup roles, so things are dicey when foes knock Atlanta's starting pitcher out of the game. Veteran righty Jason Grilli has nine saves in 10 tries, the lone blemish coming against the Nats, an outing that helped inflate his ERA to 4.50.

Friday starter Eric Stults checked the Nats on four hits over 6 1/3 innings on April 27, producing the Braves' lone victory in the first meeting of the teams. He's gone at least six innings in three of his six 2015 starts - no small trick for a guy who has bounced around the majors for nine seasons, pitching for five clubs - and is coming off his best start of the season. He worked seven innings at Cincinnati on May 2, but was the loser in an 8-4 game, yielding six runs on 11 hits. He's prone to giving up home runs, having allowed five in 29 1/3 innings (after coughing up 26 in 176 innings, third-most in the NL, for San Diego a year ago). Right-handed hitters can do some damage against the southpaw - they have a .296 average and five longballs already this year. Sustaining success has been Stults' issue, and when he loses it, it happens quickly - from his 46th to 60th pitches, opponents bat .357 and from his 61st to 75th pitches, they hit .364. He's a career 2-1 pitcher with a 4.50 ERA against the Nats, and has no decisions and a 3.38 ERA in one lifetime start on South Capitol Street.

The home run ball has also been an issue this season for Julio Teheran, the righty who gets the nod Saturday. He's allowed six homers in 33 innings already in 2015. But he has some good numbers against the Nats, though those came in the days when he was a middle-of-the-rotation arm relying on a good fastball with a lot more offense behind him. In nine career starts against Washington, Teheran is 3-2 with a 3.23 ERA, including a 2-1 mark with a 3.46 ERA in four starts in D.C. His most recent outing, six shutout innings on three hits with no walks and four strikeouts versus the Reds on May 3, is more in line with last year's version of Teheran, when he posted his second consecutive 14-win season and a career-best 2.89 ERA. His stuff is still good enough to confound hitters, and Teheran is putting up some pretty confounding splits this year. Left-handed hitters are battering him at a .340 clip while right-handers have a .227 average but four home runs. With no outs and no runners on, Teheran has yielded a .324 average; with runners in scoring position, he seems to bear down, as indicated by foes' .182 average.

Lefty Alex Wood gets a rematch with right-hander Jordan Zimmermann in Sunday's series finale. The last time the two met, on April 29, Wood was touched for five runs on six hits over five innings, though he did fan eight Nationals. He's failed to get to the sixth inning in his last three starts, and lasted only 4 1/3 innings against Philadelphia on May 4. Wood can be attacked early - opposing hitters are batting .412 on his first through 15th pitches and .407 against him in the first inning over his career. Right-handers have a lot of success, slashing .337/.408/.457. Still, he's 3-2 with a 2.40 ERA in seven career starts against the Nats, and 0-1 with a 1.54 ERA at Nationals Park. Gonzalez might want to catch Bethancourt when Wood works on Sunday - with Bethancourt as his backstop, opponents hit only .224 against the lefty, but when Pierzynski is behind the plate, their average rises to .325.

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