Coming off a sweep of the White Sox, the Nationals are hot, 6-0 at home, and 7-2 overall. However, the Braves are just as hot, coming off their own sweep of Miami and bringing an 8-1 record into Nationals Park. Some say the games in April don’t matter, but they count as much in the standings as any others, and it doesn’t get much bigger than a home series against Atlanta, widely regarded as the Nationals’ top competition for the NL East and perhaps the second best team in the NL.
Last season’s Braves-Nationals rivalry was exciting, division-race baseball in its highest form. Despite being swept in September in Atlanta, the Nationals won the season series against the Braves 10-8, and won the division by four games. That may seem like a decently-sized margin, but if the season series had instead been 10-8 in Atlanta’s favor, the two teams would have tied atop the division and been forced into a one-game playoff to determine the division champion. Suffice it to say, every game against the Braves is a big one.
Game one of the series is tonight, and pits Ross Detwiler against Atlanta’s Julio Teheran. Detwiler looked strong in his first start of the season, pitching six shutout innings but earning a no-decision as the Nats beat the Reds 7-6 in extras. Teheran, the rookie who was ranked as Baseball America’s #44 prospect before this season, dominated in Spring Training with a 1.08 ERA and led the MLB in strikeouts. He was not nearly as successful in his first start of the season, allowing five runs in five innings, and letting up as many home runs as strikeouts (two). As far as matchups of #5 starters go, this is as good as it gets.
On Saturday, aces Stephen Strasburg and Tim Hudson will square off. Strasburg dominated on Opening Day, recording seven scoreless innings, but struggled in his second start against Cincinnati, allowing six earned runs in just 5.1 IP. As a preseason NL Cy Young candidate, his beginning could have been more auspicious, but there is no sense in reading into just two starts, especially if one came against arguably baseball’s best offense. Hudson has had a similar start to his 15th MLB season. He allowed three runs in 4.1 IP against the Phillies on Opening Day, but rebounded in his next start against the Cubs with 6.2 IP of one-run ball.
Sunday’s finale will see Gio Gonzalez and Paul Maholm lock horns. Gonzalez has been stellar this season, with only one earned run and twelve strikeouts in eleven innings. However, he has had some trouble with what has always troubled him: walks. He has four walks on the young season, and has only pitched eleven innings due to his unfortunate penchant for getting behind in counts, bumping up the number of pitches he throws. As good as Gonzalez has been, Maholm has been even better. He has thrown 12.2 scoreless innings, allowing only seven hits while recording 13 strikeouts. He had a 3.54 ERA with the Braves last year, so it’s fair to say he’s a candidate for a bad start sometime soon, and perhaps the Nats could give it to him.
Regardless of your rooting interest, this will be an exciting series, and could loom large when the playoff race starts to take shape.