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Atlanta Braves vs. Washington Nationals Series Preview: Nats look to start second half on a good note

The Washington Nationals are sitting at .500 as the second half gets underway. Will they show the Atlanta Braves that they’re still contenders in the competitive NL East?

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Braves (52-42) vs. Nationals (48-48) series info:

Game 1: Friday, July 20 at 7:05 p.m. EDT (MASN2/106.7 The Fan)

Game 2: Saturday, July 21 at 7:05 p.m. EDT (MASN2/106.7)

Game 3: Sunday, July 22 at 1:35 p.m. EDT (MASN2/106.7)

Pitching matchups:

Friday: Anibal Sanchez (4-2, 2.60 ERA) vs. Stephen Strasburg (6-6, 3.46)

Saturday: Sean Newcomb (8-5, 3.51) vs. Gio Gonzalez (6-6, 3.72)

Sunday: Mike Foltynewicz (7-5, 2.66) vs. Max Scherzer (12-5, 2.41)

What to watch for:

Strasburg, Zimmerman return from disabled list

The Nationals are now a closer short of full strength with Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman being activated off the DL. Strasburg has been out since June 10 with shoulder inflammation while Zimmerman has been battling an oblique strain since May.

Washington optioned relievers Wander Suero and Trevor Gott to AAA-Syracuse in corresponding moves, giving the Nats a six-man bullpen and long bench for their series with Atlanta. Closer Sean Doolittle is expected to be activated in the next few days and will prompt the Nats to make a tough decision involving their bench players.

Gonzalez aims to turn page in second half

It was a rough month of June for lefty Gio Gonzalez, who allowed 20 earned runs in 21.1 innings (8.44) and served up six home runs. This came after a strong April (2.67 ERA) and May (1.47 ERA) that had Gonzalez in the conversation for a spot on the All-Star roster before his struggles began.

Gonzalez’s biggest problems came on the long ball, so look for him to pitch up in the zone more often against power hitters to avoid their upper-cutting swing paths. The Nationals’ rotation has struggled mightily since the beginning of June and if it’s going to turn things around Gonzalez must find a way to get back on track.

Braves boast young slugger of their own in Albies

A lot of attention has been directed at the Nats’ young phenom Juan Soto — and deservedly so — but the Braves boast one of the best young players in the league as well in All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies. Albies leads the NL in doubles, runs and total bases, hitting .281 with 20 home runs on the season.

At 21 years old, Albies figures to be a staple in Atlanta’s lineup for years to come. Fellow youngsters Dansby Swanson and Ronald Acuna have shown flashes of potential but neither has yet risen to the star status quite like Albies.

Series history:

The Nationals lead the all-time series (2005-present) 130-120, including a mark of 73-51 in D.C. Atlanta has won six of 10 so far this season and the Braves the catalyst of the Nats’ slide when they took three of four from Washington at SunTrust Park in early June.