Opposite dugout: Braves trying to keep Nats from clinching NL East in Atlanta

braves-logo.jpgManager: Fredi Gonzalez, fourth year
Record: 75-74
Last 10 games: 3-7
Who to watch: 1B Freddie Freeman (.293/.390/.476, 41 doubles, 18 HR, 73 RBIs, 90 R); LF Justin Upton (.277/.351/.502, 32 doubles, 27 HR, 96 RBIs); LHP Alex Wood (10-10, 2.83 ERA, 1.14 WHIP); RHP Ervin Santana (14-8, 3.76 ERA, 1.30 WHIP)
Season series vs. Nats: 10-6, 64 runs scored, 48 runs allowed

Pitching probables
Sept. 15: Ervin Santana vs. Stephen Strasburg, 7 p.m., MASN HD
Sept. 16: Aaron Harang vs. Tanner Roark, 7 p.m., MASN HD
Sept. 17: Alex Wood vs. Gio Gonzalez, 7 p.m., MASN HD

Series breakdown
The Nationals have a chance to clinch the division title sometime in the next three days in Atlanta, and the Braves are the only team able to put that off for a while.

Washington arrives at Turner Field with its magic number down to four. The Braves stand second in the National League East, 10 1/2 games behind the Nats. While catching up is highly unlikely with such a wide margin at this point, the best Atlanta can do is keep a division title from being clinched in its own ballpark. If the Nats take two of three in the series, the race is over and they will claim their second National League East crown in three years.

So the Braves have to hope they can continue their dominance of the Nats in order to make it so. Atlanta, which plays Washington for the second time in three series, is 10-6 against its most heated rival this season. But the Nats took two of three in D.C. last week to help put the Braves on the brink of elimination.

Atlanta still has a postseason spot to play for, however, as they trail the Pirates by four games for the second NL wild card.

The Braves have been struggling of late, losing six of seven to sink to one game over .500 for the first time since Aug. 14. A loss tonight could drop Atlanta to .500 for the first time since they were 1-1, and two straight could give the club a losing record for the first time since it was 0-1.

The Braves have been outscored 29-17 over the last seven games. While they aren’t pitching terribly - especially with much of the runs against coming in yesterday’s 10-3 loss to the Rangers - they aren’t scoring. The Braves have scored more than three runs only twice in the last seven contests.

Offense has been an issue all year, as the Braves’ 545 runs are the second-fewest in the NL. They’re also 10th with 118 homers and a .243 average, and 11th with a .674 OPS.

Left fielder Justin Upton is tied for third in the NL with 27 homers and 96 RBIs, ranks sixth with a .502 slugging percentage and eighth with an .853 OPS.

First baseman Freddie Freeman is second in the NL with 41 doubles, fourth with a .390 on-base percentage and fifth with an .866 OPS. He also has 18 homers and 73 RBIs.

Catcher Evan Gattis has added 22 homers and 52 RBIs.

The Braves have stayed afloat thanks to their pitching, which ranks fourth in the NL with a 3.35 team ERA. However, Atlanta is 11th in the NL with a 4.41 ERA this month. The Braves are also fourth in the NL with a 3.43 starters’ ERA and a 3.16 bullpen ERA overall.

Closer Craig Kimbrel is second in the NL with 43 saves while owning a 1.74 ERA.

The Nats again miss Atlanta ace Julio Teheran in this series, but will still be seeing some difficult pitching with veteran right-handers Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, and left-hander Alex Wood slated to start.

Santana pitches tonight’s opener with an intriguing match-up against Stephen Strasburg. Santana is 14-8 with a 3.76 ERA in 28 starts. He struggled against Washington last week, allowing five earned runs in five innings, and has surrendered nine runs in 11 innings for a 7.36 ERA over his last two starts.

Harang faces Tanner Roark in the second game of the series. He’s 11-10 with a 3.72 ERA in 30 starts this season. The 36-year-old tamed the Nats last Wednesday, allowing no earned runs in seven innings. That came one start after allowing six runs in 3 2/3 innings.

Wood will take on fellow lefty Gio Gonzalez in the final game between the clubs this season. The 23-year-old has been terrific since July 30, stringing together nine quality starts in a row. He’s 3-2 with a 1.88 ERA during that streak, improving to 10-10 on the season and lowering his overall ERA to 2.83.

As the two clubs arrive at the final push for the postseason, the Braves will be looking to spoil the Nats’ chance to wrap up the NL East in Atlanta. But they’ll have to play a lot better than they have of late if they want to avoid a celebration on their home turf.

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