Opposite dugout: Braves look to get Nats monkey off their backs

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

Record: 36-40

Last 10 games: 4-6

Who to watch: RF Nick Markakis (.300/.387/.355 with 23 RBIs), CF Cameron Maybin (.286 with 6 HR, 36 RBIs), C A.J. Pierzynski (.268/.308/.404 with 4 HR, 24 RBIs), SS Andrelton Simmons (.271 with 28 RBIs), RHP Shelby Miller (5-3, 1.94 ERA), RHP Jason Grilli (21 saves, 3.14 ERA)

Season series vs. Nationals: 1-8

Pitching probables:

June 30: RHP Jordan Zimmermann vs. RHP Shelby Miller, 7:10 p.m., MASN
July 1: RHP Doug Fister vs. RHP Matt Wisler, 7:10 p.m., MASN
July 2: RHP Max Scherzer vs. TBA, 7:10 p.m., MASN

Inside the Braves:

The Atlanta Braves are still in search of just their second win against the rival Nationals this season. Since winning the season series opener 8-4 on April 27, the Braves have dropped eight in a row to the Nats. Over those eight straight losses, the Nationals have outscored the Braves by doubling them up 60-30. This streak was ignited by a dramatic Washington comeback victory from a 10-2 deficit that was capped off by a three-run home run from former Brave Dan Uggla in the ninth inning of an eventual 13-12 Nats win.

That first series was also the last to take place in Atlanta. The Nationals have swept the previous two series against the Braves, both of which were at Nationals Park. When these two teams met a week ago in D.C., the Braves were only two games back from the Nats in the National League East standings. After getting swept and dropping two out of three in Pittsburgh, the Braves are six games back, yet still find themselves right in the middle of the division.

The Braves at least competed in the series against the Pirates that fell in between these two Nationals series. They lost 3-2 in walk-off fashion in the first game on Friday and almost mounted a comeback on Saturday. The Pirates put up five runs in the first, but Atlanta was able to cut it to 6-4 in the top of the seventh before giving up two runs in the bottom of the inning for an 8-4 loss. But the Braves were able to ride a sharp start by lefty Alex Wood in the series finale on Sunday. Wood threw 7 1/3 scoreless innings while only giving up five hits and striking out eight in the 2-1 Braves win.

The Braves this week will be without their leading offensive weapon in first baseman Freddie Freeman. Freeman landed on the 15-day disabled list last week right before the series in D.C., with a right wrist injury. He's slashing .299/.367.520 and leading the team with 12 homers and 41 RBIs, but is not eligible to return to the team until July 3. That leaves the Braves depending on the same cast of characters as last week, starting with right fielder Nick Markakis, who is batting .300 with 23 RBIs, but has still yet to go deep. This is by far the longest he has started a season without a home run, the previous being May 1 last season. Center fielder Cameron Maybin is helping his outfield partner by hitting .286 with six home runs and 36 RBIs, while shortstop Andrelton Simmons (.271) and catcher A.J. Pierzynski (.268) have combined for seven longballs and 52 RBIs. Second baseman Jace Peterson is a solid contributor, batting .266 with 25 RBIs.

The first two games of this series are rematches between starting pitchers from last week's series. Right-hander Shelby Miller will once again go toe to toe with Nats righty Jordan Zimmermann to start off tonight. The two pitchers will look to duplicate their outings from last week when they combined for 13 scoreless innings. Miller was the first to flinch when he gave up an RBI single to Bryce Harper in the bottom of the seventh. Nonetheless, Miller still pitched seven innings while only giving up the one run on three hits and striking out five. Zimmermann just bested him with eight shutout innings, and although Drew Storen blew the save in the ninth, the Nats were able to walk off the Braves in the 11th. Miller is 5-3 with a 1.94 ERA on the season.

Rookie right-hander Matt Wisler, 22, will face righty Doug Fister again in the second game this time around. Wisler was not as successful as Miller was last week, giving up six runs (four earned) over the first three innings. He only lasted four innings and gave up nine hits (including a two-run home run to Ian Desmond) while walking and striking out none. Meanwhile, Doug Fister only gave up four hits and one walk while striking out four over seven scoreless innings in the Nationals' 7-0 victory. That was Wisler's first loss of his major league career, putting him at 1-1 with a 3.75 ERA on the season.

The Braves haven't officially announced who their starter is for the series finale on Thursday, but signs are pointing to left-hander Manny Banuelos making his major league debut after the Braves placed righty Williams Perez on the DL with a left foot contusion. The 24-year-old Banuelos may get to start his big league career by facing ace Max Scherzer. Scherzer is 3-0 and has gone at least eight innings while giving up two runs and striking out 33 in his last three starts, including a no-hitter. Banuelos was traded to the Braves on Jan. 1 from the New York Yankees for left-hander Chasen Shreve and current Nats righty David Carpenter. Banuelos, once a Yankees top prospect, has a 2.29 ERA in 15 starts this season for the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves.

This series starts an important stretch for the Braves before the All-Star break. At four games under .500 and third place in the NL East, they need to rack up some wins in the next two weeks to give them a chance in the second half. After taking on Washington, the Braves face the two worst teams in baseball in the Phillies and Brewers and then the 33-42 Rockies, who are in last place of the NL West. This 13-game stretch before the break is the perfect opportunity for the Braves to get themselves above .500 for the first time since June 1. Winning a home series against the division-leading Nationals will be a great first step toward that.

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