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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Five-game homestand begins against Atlanta Braves

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Another series, another sweep for the Nationals who have only won won of their last 10 games. Next up, the Braves come to town for a three-game series this weekend...

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

After a rain-filled series with the New York Mets, the Washington Nationals will be hoping to wash away the bitter disappointment of a sweep when they return to Nationals Park this weekend.

In truth, the series probably wasn’t quite as bad as the sweep would indicate.

The Nationals had a lead late in the series opener, but the new-look bullpen couldn’t quite hold on. Then, after tying the game in the final inning of the finale, Nats killer, Pete Alonso, did Pete Alonso things with a walk-off home run that barely crept over the fence. Game of inches, blah blah blah.

Now the Nationals come back home to face the Atlanta Braves this weekend.

Having had a largely disappointing season up until the All-Star Break, the Braves have surged of late. They’re 15-11 since the All-Star game and are 7-2 in their last 9 games, sitting just one game out of the division lead in the National League East.

Here’s the lowdown from Nationals Park ahead of the three-game weekend set...

The schedule

  • Game One: Friday, August 12th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2 and MLB Network (out-of-market only), Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Saturday, August 13th, 6:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2 and MLB Network (out-of-market only), Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Sunday, August 14th, 1:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Josiah Gray (0-0, 4.00 ERA) vs Charlie Morton (10-4, 3.52 ERA)
  • Game Two: Patrick Corbin (6-11, 5.83 ERA) vs Max Fried (9-7, 3.91 ERA)
  • Game Three: Paolo Espino (3-3, 3.74 ERA) vs Drew Smyly (8-3, 4.41 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Ryan Zimmerman: In the series finale against the Mets, Zimmerman was finally able to eclipse Tim Wallach for the most game played in franchise history with an incredible 1768 games.

It’s fitting that it would be Zimmerman to sit atop of that category. He’s been through the highs and the lows with this franchise since he was drafted in 2005, culminating in 2019’s World Series title. Nobody deserves that honor more than Zimmerman.

The now-first baseman is also heating up a bit at the plate too. In his last eight games, Zimmerman is slashing a strong .368/.455/.526 with three doubles and five RBIs.

While that hot stretch is being propped up by an unsustainable .538 BABIP, some of that is created by the lack of home runs in a small sample that may correct itself if he can start launching a few balls over the fence again as he has done frequently when he’s played this year.

Jorge Soler: At the end of a bonkers trade deadline, the Braves’ acquisition of Soler went extremely under the radar. He’s not under the radar anymore after his red hot start with his new team.

In 11 games with the Braves, the slugging outfielder is slashing a strong .316/.447/.579 with three home runs and a double while walking nine times and striking out 11. His 173 wRC+ in that span is 15th in the National League among qualifiers.

Soler’s production has been huge for an Atlanta team that still sorely misses their talisman in right field, Ronald Acuña Jr., who is out for the season. Soler may not keep up this torrid pace, but the power is real and should continue to inject some life into the Braves lineup.

Who’s not?

Paolo Espino: The magic of Espino’s 2021 season might finally be wearing off.

Following the trades of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, Espino shifted into the rotation full-time. Unfortunately, he’s not been anywhere near the form he had at the start of the year.

In his last eight appearances, seven of which have been starts, the journeyman right-hander holds an underwhelming 5.68 ERA, allowing six home runs while walking six and striking out 23. And in his three starts since the deadline, he has a 6.35 ERA, mostly bloated by allowing six runs to the Phillies a couple of starts ago.

Given the lack of major-league-ready options in the minors for the Nationals, Espino will likely stay in the rotation the rest of the season, barring injury. Just don’t expect too much out of the 34-year-old based on his good results at the start of the season.

Will Smith: After a solid, if not spectacular, first half of the season, Smith hasn’t been getting jiggy with it at the end of games for the Braves.

Coming into last week’s series between the Nationals and Braves, Smith had blown two saves all season. Now, after a blown save in the second game thanks to a Riley Adams home run and another on Wednesday against the Reds, he’s doubled that within a week.

It’s only two blown saves in three appearances for Smith, so they likely won’t make a change at closer just yet. The Braves also aren’t exactly flush with options to replace the left-hander if his struggles continue, so they will likely just ride this out for now.

Smith had made the ninth inning interesting in the worst way for the Braves fans lately, so the Nationals could be looking to pounce if they’re only down by a couple at the end of games.

From the opposing dugout

Check out some of the top Braves storylines from our friends at Talking Chop...

One more thing to watch

As has become routine in the last two weeks, a lot of eyes will be on Josiah Gray whenever he starts for the Nationals. That happens when you’re one of the centerpieces of a big deal like the Max Scherzer-Trea Turner trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Gray is set to pitch in the first game of this three-game series against the Braves, and it will be the first time that’s he faces a major league team for a second time in his big league career.

The last time he faced the Braves, while he didn’t go deep into the game, he did strike out 10 batters in just five innings, generating an incredible 20 swinging strikes in the outing.

“Obviously that’s a really accomplished team,” Gray said after that start. “I think I line up against them in my next start, so I just want to build off this and make sure that next start is just as good and I’m making my pitches.

“That’s what it all comes down to, those hitters are obviously really accomplished over there, but at the end of the day I have to make my pitches, and when I do that, my chances to succeed will be high.”

As Gray mentions, even without Acuña Jr., the Braves still have a fearsome lineup. Dealing with them once when they haven’t seen you before is one thing for Gray, but now they’ve seen him and his impressive stuff, having another such performance will be tougher.

The right-hander has already been tapped as a big part of the team’s rebuild following their trade deadline sell-off. Facing a divisional opponent that he’s likely to face many more times and adapting his game to stay effective will be a big part of his development on the mound.

Gray is set to go in the series opener this weekend and continues to have plenty of eyes on him.