at ATLANTA BRAVES
First pitch: Sunday, 8:10 p.m. ET
The top teams in the NL East, the Nationals and Braves, finish off their three-game series on Sunday night at Turner Field.
Washington took a solid 4.5-game lead in the division coming into this series after winning four of its past six games. The Nats' last series came against another NL East club when they took 2-of-3 games versus the Mets. The rubber-match was close though, as they won with a two-run, walk-off homer from OF Bryce Harper. Coming into this series, OF Denard Span is riding an 11-game hitting streak in which he is 14-for-44 (.318) with seven runs, 4 RBI and five stolen bases. Atlanta has been such a great team in recent years, but has scored the third-fewest runs in the league (426), and is only two games above .500 entering Friday. The Braves just completed an eight-game road trip in which they failed to record a victory while being swept by the Dodgers, Padres and Mariners. They scored only 18 runs on the trip (2.3 runs per game) and lost three contests in extra innings. In the midst of this horrible run, OF Jason Heyward (.271 BA) has put together four straight multi-hit contests while going 9-for-17 (.529) with three extra-base hits. The pitching matchup for this game will peg Washington LHP Gio Gonzalez (6-8, 4.01 ERA) against Atlanta LHP Alex Wood (7-9, 3.20 ERA). The Nationals sit just one game over .500 (28-27) on the road this season, while the Braves should be excited to get back to Turner Field where they are 31-24 (.564). As division rivals, these clubs have had plenty of experience against each other with Atlanta dominating; going 7-3 this year (3-0 at home) and 28-19 (.596) over the past three seasons. Even though these teams have gone head-to-head often, they have not played too many close games, with just two of their 10 meetings this year being decided by two of fewer runs.
Gio Gonzalez is putting up his worst season since 2009 if you look at his numbers on the outside, but if you dig deeper, many of his stats show that he should finish the year off strong. He has a more than one strikeout per inning (9.3 K/9) while walking fewer batters (3.6 BB/9) than his career average of 4.0 BB/9. Also, he has allowed just six homers in 103.1 innings on the mound (0.57 HR/9) while having a meager 5.9% HR/FB ratio. What has hurt him is leaving only 69% of runners on base and a BABIP of .303; his highest mark in five seasons. Gonzalez has lost four of his past five starts, and has seen his ERA jump 49 points in those outings. As mentioned before, longballs have not given him issues, and he has allowed one in his past nine starts. Gonzalez has not fared well against the Braves in his career, and over 10 starts, he is a woeful 2-7 with a 5.31 ERA and 1.54 WHIP, while doing poorly in his one start this season on April 13 (6 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 6 K). Both 1B Freddie Freeman (6-for-21, 2 HR, 9 RBI) and SS Andrelton Simmons (6-for-18, 2 HR, 5 RBI) have been thorns in the lefty’s side. On the other hand, OF Jason Heyward is only 5-for-23 (.217) with four strikeouts in the matchup. Entering Friday, the relievers for Washington have the fifth-best ERA (2.88) in the league while posting an 18-13 record and converting 28-of-37 (76%) save chances. Closer Rafael Soriano (1.83 ERA, 25 saves) has been solid in his 13th career season while benefiting from batters hitting just .243 BABIP against him.
Alex Wood is yet another solid product out of the Braves system and has made 26 appearances (15 starts) for the club this season. He’s actually been much better as a starter, posting a 2.96 ERA over 94.1 frames while having a bloated 4.70 ERA in 15.1 innings of relief work. One very impressive aspect of the 23-year-old's game is his low walk rate (2.5 BB/9) combined with his ability to strike out opposing batters in bunches with 8.8 K/9. While Wood has pitched well, he has just one win in his past seven starts despite having five quality starts in that timeframe. In his career against the Nationals (4 starts), the lefty is 1-1 with a 1.57 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, and has struck out 24 batters in 23 innings (9.4 K/9). Young 3B Anthony Rendon (.278), age 24, has absolutely owned Wood in his career, going 7-for-9 with a solo home run. OF Jayson Werth has also done well at 4-for-8, but SS Ian Desmond and 1B Adam LaRoche have combined to go 2-for-21 (.095) with nine strikeouts against Wood. Atlanta’s bullpen has pitched to a 17-18 record this season with a 3.28 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, and have gone 39-for-48 (81%) in their save chances. Closer Craig Kimbrel (2.05 ERA, 32 saves) does have four blown saves this season, but is striking out 15.3 batters per nine innings and is actually leaving 9.5% fewer men on base than his career average (85.6%).