Opposite dugout: First series against new-look Braves lacking usual feel

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

Record: 9-9

Last 10 games: 3-7

Who to watch: RF Nick Markakis (.338/.439/.371 with 11 BB), 1B Freddie Freeman (.235, 4 HR, 8 RBIs), 3B Chris Johnson (.314/.375/.429), SS Andrelton Simmons (.279, 11 RBIs), LHP Alex Wood (1-0, 3.00 ERA), RHP Jason Grilli (1.20 ERA, 7 saves)

Season series vs. Nationals: First meeting of 2015; 11-8 in 2014

Pitching probables:

April 27 - RHP Doug Fister vs. LHP Eric Stults, 7:10 p.m., MASN
April 28 - RHP Max Scherzer vs. RHP Julio Teheran, 7:10 p.m., MASN
April 29 - RHP Jordan Zimmermann vs. LHP Alex Wood, 7:10 p.m., MASN

Inside the Braves:

For the past several years, Nationals games against the Braves took on a postseason feel, and nothing was more satisfying for the team from D.C. than a victory over Atlanta. Well, this isn't your mother's Nats-Braves rivalry, not after a curious offseason during which the Braves spent big on free agent outfielder Nick Markakis (four years, $44 million) and then began dismantling under new president of baseball operations John Hart. And certainly not with the Nats losing five straight, their longest skid since 2013.

Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, Justin Upton, Melvin Upton, Craig Kimbrel - all are gone, dealt away over the winter as part of the Braves' retooling. First baseman Freddie Freeman, who has torched the Nats to the tune of a .323 average with nine homers and 42 RBIs in his six major league seasons, remains. But he's got little protection in the lineup and, as a result, the Braves are struggling to score runs. They're in the bottom half of the majors in most offensive categories, but they have managed to hit 16 homers, good for 15th best - not bad for a team that shipped away most of its power, leaving little protection in the lineup for Freeman.

Markakis and third baseman Chris Johnson have picked up some of the slack, but both are more on-base guys than sources of power. On offense, the once-mighty Braves are a collection of useful hangers-on (catcher A.J. Pierzynski, outfielder Jonny Gomes), one-more-chancers (infielder Kelly Johnson, closer Jim Johnson, outfielders Cameron Maybin and Eric Young Jr.) and prospects with upside (second baseman Jace Peterson, catcher Christian Bethancourt). Holdovers like Freeman and slick-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons must wonder what happened. Even Jason Grilli, who inherited the closer's role when Kimbrel was shipped to San Diego just before the season started, was no better than a non-roster invitee hoping to extend his career when spring training dawned.

The Braves rotation, long a hallmark of consistency, is a shadow of its former self. Instead of knowing their starting pitchers are good for six or seven innings a night, manager Fredi Gonzalez hands his starter the ball and hopes for the best. If Atlanta can get to ninth with the lead, Grilli can close it out; if Gonzalez needs to go to his bullpen by the fifth or sixth, things are far more complicated. The Nationals will miss righty Shelby Miller this time around - he's 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA and easily the best pitcher on the staff early on.

Journeyman lefty Eric Stults, Monday's starter, is 35 and still searching for sustained consistency in his ninth major league season. If he could replicate the 11 wins and 3.93 ERA he posted in San Diego in 2013, the Braves would probably be thrilled. At least he's gone five innings in each of his three starts this season. Opposing batters are hitting .267 against him, but the southpaw his limited the damage with a 1.118 WHIP. Stults is 1-1 with a 5.17 ERA in three career starts against Washington. Washington's Reed Johnson is a career .429 (6-for-14) hitter against Stults, so expect him to get a spot start or come off the bench as a pinch-hitter with an opportunity to do some damage.

Right-hander Julio Teheran will start Tuesday, and in another season, a matchup against Nats ace Max Scherzer might have been hyped as a marquee battle of their respective teams' best pitchers. But the 24-year-old Teheran's ascension has been stunted by the lack of offense behind him, and he'll have to work a lot harder for wins this season because there's a slimmer margin for error. The Braves have won three of Teheran's four starts this year, but he's failed to make it past the fifth inning in the past two outings. Teheran is traditionally a more dangerous pitcher at Turner Field, where he's 15-8 with a 2.76 ERA and 1.073 WHIP lifetime. He's had mixed success against the Nats, against whom he's 3-2 with a 3.06 ERA. He might not even face Scherzer, the $210 million man who has been battling a right thumb sprain; if Scherzer can't go, the Nats may turn to right-hander Tanner Roark or call up an emergency starter from the minors.

In the Wednesday series finale, Braves lefty Alex Wood draws Nats righty Jordan Zimmermann. Wood is in his first season as a full-time starter, and Atlanta is high on the 24-year-old. While Zimmermann has struggled with his control, Wood has used the early portion of the season to solidify his standing as an up-and-comer. He's always pitched well against Washington, as his lifetime 3-1 record and 1.49 ERA against them suggest.

Instead of first place being at stake, instead of a chance to clinch as they did last September, the Nats are hoping a trip to Atlanta provides a chance to right their scuffling offense, which might get injured third baseman Anthony Rendon back soon, perhaps while the Nats are in Georgia. They can set the tone in their first meeting with the Braves, or let a team without any legitimate postseason aspirations perpetuate their early-season malaise that has resulted in a five-game skid. The Braves have made things difficult for the Nationals over the past couple of years, and would like to find a way to keep that trend intact.

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