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Nationals look to stay hot Friday hosting Braves
By: Freddy Wander - StatFox
Published: 4/11/2014  at  3:51:00 AM
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WASHINGTON NATIONALS (7-2)

at ATLANTA BRAVES (5-4)

First pitch: Friday, 7:35 p.m. ET
Line: Atlanta -125, Washington +115, Total: 7

A great National League East battle continues on Friday night as the top two teams from the division last season meet up for the second time in 2014.

Many picked the Nationals as not only the team to win the NL East this season, but also go to the World Series for the first time since the team moved to Washington in 2005. The Nats have run off four straight wins by a combined score of 24 to 9, wrapping up a three-game sweep of the Marlins on Thursday with a 7-1 rout. Strong starts from Gio Gonzalez (6 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 5 K’s) and Stephen Strasburg (6.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 12 K’s) earned two of the wins, while the team’s offense backed a poor start by Jordan Zimmermann with 10 runs in Wednesday's win. Atlanta has set the bar high after taking the division in 2013 but has faltered of late and cannot be happy after losing 2-of-3 games at home against the Mets. The Braves lost the rubber match of the series on Thursday night by a score of 6-4 as they were shut down by the Mets bullpen. Looking to extend the Nationals winning streak to five games will be RHP Tanner Roark (1-0, 3.00 ERA) who will be starting only his seventh career game and will be matched up against one of the most promising young pitchers in the game, RHP Julio Teheran (1-1, 2.77 ERA). These two clubs already played a series this season, as Atlanta took 2-of-3 games on the road and held the potent Nationals offense to just four total runs in the three contests. Going back to the beginning of 2012, Atlanta holds a 23-17 record in this matchup, but is surprisingly only 10-9 when playing at home. Some trends to keep an eye on include the fact that Washington is 72-49 (.595) in road games versus teams whose hitters strike out seven or more times per game since the start of the 2012 season. Also, the Braves have gone 21-5 (.808) in home games when playing against a team with a winning record since the start of last year.

Tanner Roark was never a top prospect, so his strong numbers since starting for the Nationals last year has been a pleasant surprise. He will not blow anyone away with his fastball -- averaging just over 91 MPH in his season debut -- and depends on the defense behind him to be on their toes. Roark had a successful start to 2014 when he took on the Mets, going six frames while allowing six hits, two runs and striking out five (3 walks). Roark did have one start against the Braves last season and they had no answer for him as he went seven scoreless innings while giving up just two hits and fanning six batters (1 walk). The only starters on Atlanta who have a hit against the 27-year-old are 2B Dan Uggla (1-for-3) and OF B.J. Upton (1-for-2), and those two have combined to go 11-for-67 (.164) with 24 strikeouts to start the 2014 campaign. Roark will need to be careful when facing 1B Freddie Freeman (.419 BA) though, as he leads the Braves in hits (13) with two of them leaving the yard, and has walked six times compared to whiffing in just four at-bats. One of the reasons many pundits like Washington so much this season is because of its strong bullpen, which has allowed just six runs in 34 innings (1.59 ERA) and has an incredible 48 strikeouts in that time (12.7 K/9). The Nats continued their success on Thursday night, backing Strasburg’s great start with 2.1 frames of scoreless pitching while mowing down five. Closer Rafael Soriano (0.00 ERA, 2 saves) already has six strikeouts in just three innings of work, and has been perfect in his two save opportunities.

Julio Teheran has been one of the Braves top prospects for years now and will look to improve in his sophomore season after going 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA (1.17 WHIP) and striking out 170 batters last year. He pitched well in each of his first two outings of the year (13 IP, 10 H, 4 ER, 8 K’s), but is only 1-1 as his offense gave him no run support in the season opener. He’s already faced Washington six times in his young career, compiling a 3-1 record (5-1 team record) with a 2.92 ERA (1.32 WHIP). His three victories came over his past three starts against them, where he lasted an average of 6.1 innings while giving up just three runs (2 HR) and getting five strikeouts per contest. His biggest challenge in the Nationals’ lineup has been OF Bryce Harper (5-for-13, 2 doubles, 2 HR, 3 RBI), while SS Ian Desmond (6-for-17) and OF Denard Span (7-for-18) have also had their way against Teheran. One of Washington’s hottest hitters this season, OF Jayson Werth, is only 2-for-13 (.154) with six strikeouts against the 23-year old ace. Unlike the Nationals, the Braves relievers have not been effective, pitching to a 4.09 ERA while getting a save in four of their five chances. Craig Kimbrel (2.45 ERA, 4 saves) is arguably the best closer in baseball and has gone 4-for-4 in save chances while striking out eight batters in 3.2 innings on the mound this season.

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