Turning to the ace

ATLANTA - Hello from lovely Atlanta, where you’ll have trouble finding a Pepsi anywhere and the tomahawk chop plays seemingly every 27 seconds at Turner Field.

The Nationals open a big three-game set with the Braves tonight, and given that Davey Johnson’s boys come into this series already 5 1/2 games back of their first-place hosts, this could be a relatively big weekend, at least as a May-June series goes.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but things won’t be affected too much if the Nats and Braves end up splitting these three games, with one team earning two wins and gaining a game in the National League East standings. Should one of these teams sweep this three-game set, however, the division could get shaken up in a hurry.

A Nats sweep means a measly 2 1/2-game deficit in the division. A Braves sweep means the margin swells to 8 1/2 games, which would be pretty daunting, even with more than 100 games remaining.

I do the math so you don’t have to, folks.

Tonight, the Nationals will turn to Stephen Strasburg, who has really looked like an ace over his last three outings. Since that disastrous fifth inning against the Cubs on May 11, in which Strasburg allowed five straight hitters to reach and four runs to come across after Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing error, the 24-year-old right-hander has improved his mental approach to the game and found fantastic results.

Over his last three starts, Strasburg has gone 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA and a .232 batting average against. He’s allowed just 13 hits over 23 innings in that span, struck out 20 and walked six.

Perhaps just as impressive has been the way Strasburg has been able to work deep into games by keeping his pitch count low, attacking hitters and getting early contact. He threw a career-high eight innings on 117 pitches against the Padres on May 16, worked seven innings on 108 pitches the next time out against the Giants and held the Phillies to one run on eight innings, throwing 112 pitches last Sunday.

He’s found a way to move pass various in-game disappointments - be it a broken-bat hit, a bad call or an inconsistent strike zone - and has stayed on more of an even keel.

Strasburg is 3-4 with a 3.51 ERA in nine career starts against the Braves, with a 1.336 WHIP, 59 strikeouts and 19 walks in 48 2/3 innings.

At Turner Field, however, Strasburg has struggled, posting a 5.31 ERA and a 1.672 WHIP over four starts, spanning 20 1/3 innings.

He’s has had trouble working through the heat here in Atlanta at times, but the weather shouldn’t be a problem tonight. We’re looking at low 80s and a little muggy around first pitch.

Looking at Strasburg’s numbers against Braves hitters, you’ll notice he’s had trouble against a number of guys on the Atlanta roster, none moreso than Dan Uggla.

Uggla is 11-for-23 (.478) in his career against Strasburg, with two homers, two doubles, three walks and eight RBIs. Of the 12 times that Strasburg has been able to retire the Braves’ second baseman, however, eight have been strikeouts.

Jayson Heyward is 7-for-14 lifetime against Strasburg, Brian McCann (back after missing the first month of the season due to shoulder surgery) is 6-for-15 off Strasburg with a homer and a double, and Freddie Freeman is 4-for-12 with three RBIs against the Nats ace.

On the positive side, Strasburg has dominated the Upton brothers in his career, holding B.J. to a .125 average in eight at-bats (including three strikeouts) and keeping Justin to an .091 average in 11 at-bats (including four Ks).

The Nats will face right-hander Julio Teheran tonight. Like Strasburg, the Braves’ young right-hander has been in a groove lately, having not allowed more than three earned runs in each of his last six starts.

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