Braves vs. Nationals: Key Battles in NL East Showdown

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 Braves vs. Nationals: Key Battles in NL East Showdown
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Justin Upton (No. 8) will look to continue his hot streak against the Washintgon Nationals tonight.

The teams with the two best records in the National League face off this weekend in the nation's capital. The Atlanta Braves, winners of six games in a row, travel north to take on the Washington Nationals in a National League showdown. 

The series opens up tonight at 7:05 p.m. ET on the MLB network, and Nationals Park is sure to be electrified under the lights.

Early on in the season, both teams have their fair share of storylines, and we will see how those will be played out on the diamond this evening. Looking at the team rosters, there will be a few matchups and battles which both teams will wish to exploit throughout the weekend series.

 

Justin Upton vs. Nationals Pitchers

The younger Upton brother is on a tear in the young 2013 season, as he currently leads the NL with six round-trippers and is tied for third with nine RBI. In the three games in the series, Washington is scheduled to throw Ross Detwiler tonight, Stephen Strasburg on Saturday and Gio Gonzalez in the series finale on Sunday. Upton is 2-for-18 against those three pitchers, so on paper it appears as if he may struggle.

However, when a player is hot, pitching around him may be the best option. With Freddie Freeman on the disabled list and Jason Heyward's early struggles (especially against left-handed pitching), the Nats might be best served pitching around the slugging Upton.

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Braves Hitters vs. Strikeouts

Early on in the season, the Braves are No. 2 in the majors in total strikeouts. That doesn't bode well for them as they go up against the strikeout-loving Nationals, whose pitching staff led the MLB in K's in 2012 with 1,325. 

 

This matchup will be especially difficult for the older Upton, B.J. So far, he is third in the league in strikeouts with 12 and has struck out in roughly 40 percent of his at-bats. Pair that with a .212 on-base percentage, and it appears Upton may not be fit for the top of the lineup. For now he is, though, and the Nationals will look to eliminate the free-swinging B.J. Upton early in the series.

 

Jason Heyward vs. Nationals Pitchers

As mention above, Jason Heyward is struggling to open the season. But if he wants to turn around his early season struggles, this is the series to do it. 

Heyward has a career batting average of .357 against Detwiler, .333 against Gonzalez, and a blistering .583 against Strasburg (courtesy of Anthony Schreiber of Yahoo! Sports). Clearly, something has to give. If Heyward can come out of his doldrums, he could provide some solid lineup protection for Justin Upton and second baseman Dan Uggla.

 

Bryce Harper vs. Braves Pitchers

While Justin Upton has been hot, the same could be said for the Nats' Bryce Harper. Through nine games, the 20-year-old left fielder leads the Braves in all major offensive categories with four home runs, eight RBI, eight runs and an OPS of 1.225. The sophomore has impressed early on and is raking against right-handers to a tune of .464. Add in his stellar defense in the field, and it might be in the Braves' best interest to keep the ball away from him.

 

Nationals Bullpen vs. Braves Left-Handed Hitters

The only reliable left-handed name in the Nationals bullpen is Zack Duke, who was roughed up against the Cincinnati Reds on April 5. He has not pitched since, and the Nationals have not released any news as to why he hasn't seen the mound.

Washington has plenty of solid right-handed hurlers in its bullpen, including former closers Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, as well as current closer Rafael Soriano, who is currently second in the NL in saves. But, it will be difficult for them to play to certain matchups against the Braves without a reliable southpaw reliever.

 

Outlook

Taking in to consideration the issues with each club (and they are few and far between), the Braves seem to have a spot of momentum with six consecutive wins. If B.J. Upton can set the table for his brother and Heyward, the Braves should put out enough offense to win the series.

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