Opposite dugout: Braves within reach, but not at same level of Nats

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

Record: 35-35

Last 10 games: 6-4

Who to watch: 1B Freddie Freeman (.299/.367/.520 with 12 HR, 41 RBIs), RF Nick Markakis (.293/.386/.324 with 21 RBIs), CF Cameron Maybin (.288 with 5 HR, 35 RBIs), RHP Shelby Miller (5-3, 1.99 ERA), RHP Jason Grilli (20 saves, 2.73 ERA)

Season series vs. Nationals: 1-5

Pitching probables:

June 23: LHP Alex Wood vs. Stephen Strasburg, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
June 24: RHP Shelby Miller vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
June 25: RHP Matt Wisler vs. RHP Doug Fister, 4:05 p.m., MASN2

Inside the Braves:

The rival Braves return to Nationals Park this week looking to get their first win of 2015 in Washington, D.C. The Nats swept the Braves from May 9-11, which included a Bryce Harper walk-off home run in the second game of the weekend series. That weekend, the Braves were outscored 22-12, so that's something else they are looking to change this week. But while these two teams are coming off similar results in their respective series at home this past weekend, they are not quite playing at the same level.

But who is playing at the level of the Nationals, considering what they just did to the Pirates (Max Scherzer threw a no-hitter on Saturday and was a strike away from perfect in case you didn't know)? The Braves swept the Mets over the weekend, just like the Nats did with the Bucs, but they were not as dominant as Washington. Atlanta only needed nine runs over the whole series to take care of New York; Washington scored nine in the first inning on Sunday and 19 for the whole series. So while the Braves are at .500, only two games back from the NL East-leading Nats and a coming off a weekend sweep, they are coming into D.C. to face a team that is, to put it simply, rolling.

It's going to be tough for the Braves to match up well against the Nats this time around. The Braves are very sporadic in terms of the statistical rankings in the National League. They are in the middle of the pack in runs (294), hits (612) and RBIs (276), but rank fifth in batting average (.259) and on-base percentage (.322). Meanwhile, they rank near the bottom of the league with a slugging percentage of .370 and are dead last in the majors with only 41 home runs. The Nationals rank in the top five in all but hits and batting average in the NL.

So who do the Braves need to have a big series? They actually have a good group of hitters, but first baseman Freddie Freeman and right fielder Nick Markakis are a good pair to start with. Freeman is slashing .299/.367/.520 and leading the team with 12 homers and 41 RBIs, while Markakis adds a line of .293/.386/.324 with 21 RBIs, although the former Oriole has yet to hit a home run this season. Center fielder Cameron Maybin is slashing .288/.366/.389 with second baseman Jace Peterson right there with him at .284/.363/.289, and while the two have combined for 66 RBIs, they have only hit seven home runs between them. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons is hitting .279 with 28 RBIs and catcher A.J. Pierzynski is batting .272 with 24 RBIs. So the Braves have decent hitters, even though they don't hit for power all that well.

Left-hander Alex Wood starts tonight's series opener at Nats Park. The Braves lost both of Woods' two starts against the Nationals this season, although he is only 0-1 himself. That one loss was an interesting game for Wood down in Atlanta. He had a season-high eight strikeouts, but also gave up his season-high five runs in an outing that's tied for his second shortest at just five innings pitched. In his first start at Nats Park this season, Wood gave up eight hits, three runs, one walk and struck out seven while taking the no-decision. Wood is 4-4 with a 3.40 ERA on the season. He is 4-1 with a 2.58 ERA in his eight starts on the road this year, but has never won at Nats Park in three career starts.

Shelby Miller will start Wednesday night's game in what should be a great matchup against Jordan Zimmermann. The righty started the season 5-1 through May 17 when he was one out away from a no-hitter against the Marlins, but gave up a single to pinch-hitter Justin Bour and settled for his third career complete-game shutout. He ended up surrendering two hits and one walk while striking out four. That effort might have taken a toll on Miller since he is 0-2 in his six starts since, but that record could also be attributed to a lack of run support as he has an ERA of 2.97 over those starts. The former Cardinal has yet to face the Nationals this year, but is 1-0 while not giving up a run in 12 innings pitched over two career starts at Nats Park.

Thursday's starter, 22-year-old right-hander Matt Wisler, is coming off his major league debut last Friday against the Mets, earning a win. He was impressive, pitching eight innings and giving up six hits and one run with no walks and two strikeouts on 88 pitches, 63 for strikes. The Ohio native was drafted by the Padres out of high school in the seventh round of the 2011 draft and was traded to Atlanta right before opening day this year. Wisler throws a 92 mph fastball 56 percent of the time and an 80 mph slider 23 percent of the time, with an 86 mph changeup and 74 mph curveball also in his arsenal.

In the underwhelming NL East, the Braves are still within reach of the division-leading Nationals and can even overtake Washington with a sweep this week. But if they are going to make their move on the Nats, now would be a good time to do it. With the Nationals bats coming alive over the weekend and the pitching they've gotten all year from their staff, they might not get a better chance. The Braves are doing well considering this was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but how much longer can they keep it up?

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