Braves begin important series with Nationals tonight

Could Kris Medlen be the final piece the Braves need to make the postseason? (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Monday is the big night for the Atlanta Braves.

Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers left the Braves five games back in the NL East and headed north to face the major league leading Washington Nationals for three of the last six games they’ll play against the division leaders. The race has been hot, although without a lot of action in the standings. The Braves have squandered many chances to gain ground on the surprise Nats, who don’t seem to lose much. Monday starts a series that could find the Braves two games back with a sweep in DC, although that’s just wishful thinking.

This particular race was certainly unexpected at the start of the season. Though many thought the Nats would perform better than they had, getting ace Stephen Strasburg back and having some of their younger players step up, the prevailing opinion was the fresh-faced Miami Marlins would be a bigger threat. The Braves had a brutal spring training in which they couldn’t seem to buy a win. And the reigning division champ Phillies loomed large, even without two of their big bats.

We all know what has happened since, and it’s down to the Nats and the Braves with about 40 games left in the regular season. The Braves are one of five teams in all of baseball with 70+ wins, but they face the steep challenge of overcoming the five-game deficit and holding it until the end.

The major question mark in the Nats camp is whether or not they will hold to Mike Rizzo’s claim that Strasburg will be shut down around the 160-inning mark. It seems that won’t be the case, as that number has increased from 140 to 160 and new sources claim that number could go as high as 180. If the Braves have a chance to gain some major ground in the pennant race, it’s clear it will have something to do with that decision.

As it stands, the Braves are in a familiar place, with solid footing in the wild card race over the Pirates, Dodgers, Giants and Cardinals. But this new wild card race brings an entire season down to one game, and though the Braves are certainly good enough to win one game, no one wants the chances to be so slim.

When the season opened, the Braves pitching staff looked good on paper, as long as Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens came back strong, and Tim Hudson recovered from his offseason back surgery. Oh yeah, and if Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor looked as good as they did last year. It wasn’t as promising as my fellow Braves fans and I wanted to believe it was. Then it seemed as if the whole pitching staff was going to come apart at the seams. Beachy went out for this season and at least half of the next. Jurrjens lost his mojo and hasn’t made much progress finding it again. Minor lost his control. Hanson did the same, although he still won 12 games during the process. The big Ryan Dempster move fell through days before the trade deadline.

But dark-horse Ben Sheets appeared with a new game and Paul Maholm came in Dempster’s place, and both brought big games to Atlanta. Then, as if in answer to my fervent prayers, Kris Medlen was brought back in to the rotation (finally!) and has dazzled every game since, culminating in his first complete game shutout against the Padres last Thursday. Suddenly, the face of the Braves rotation makes a much prettier picture.

Sure, come September, when the Braves brass has to make the hard decision of paring the current six-man rotation down to five, someone’s feelings are going to be hurt. But it’s certainly much better to be in that position than like last season, when Braves pitchers were falling out left and right coming down the stretch.

Sheets is still a big question mark, dropping his last two games and three of his last four. Obviously, he was a gamble from the beginning, and the four games he has won helped the Braves over the hump. If he regains the form he showed through his first three wins, he’ll be an incredibly valuable asset coming down the stretch. Hanson is in much the same boat, giving up three runs in 6.2 innings in his first start off the DL last Friday.

The Braves’ offense has shown an ability to compete with the best, but the last three games showed how the lineup can shut down simultaneously. They scored 18 runs in three games against the Padres, then put up just six in the three game set against the Dodgers. It’s a trend that’s has to come to a screeching halt if they want to beat the Nats at their own game. Though the Braves lead the Nats in both runs scored and runs per game, they have come on a lot of highs and lows.

Hudson takes the mound for the Braves on Monday, and Atlanta fans should be happy the veteran pitcher will try and set the tone for the rest of the series and hopefully the road trip. Depending on how much you read into these things, this series against the Nats could very well set the tone for the division race between these two teams over the rest of the season.

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