The good news coming into this weekend’s final regular-season meeting between the Washington Nationals (89-56) and the Atlanta Braves (83-63) was that a series sweep at the hands of the Braves would leave the Nationals with a still-sizeable 5 1/2 game lead in the National League East. Of course, no one really expected that the Nationals would find themselves in such a position come Monday morning; but barring a win in tonight’s finale, it is exactly where they will find themselves, which explains the team’s renewed sense of urgency regarding the game.
“You don’t want to get swept anywhere, especially against the team behind you, so it’s a big game,” Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I think they’re all pretty big from here on out.”
If the Nationals hope to avoid a sweep and lower their magic number to a single digit for the first time this season, they will need a strong showing from Gio Gonzalez, the league’s sole 19-game winner. Braves left-hander Mike Minor will oppose him.
Tonight, the Nationals not only hope to avoid being swept, but they also hope to help Gonzalez (19-7, 2.93 ERA) along to a potential major league-leading 20th win as he continues to state his case for the NL Cy Young Award. Ask Gonzalez about the award, though, and you are likely to receive a humble response.
“I want to continue to win for this team, continue to stay healthy and strong, keep battling and get some more wins for them,” Gonzalez said. “We are playing such great baseball. I think it’s selfish for me to think [about] myself.”
Gonzalez, who is 6-1 through his last seven outings including a complete game and his first career shutout, has pitched masterfully in the second half of the season. In September alone, he is 2-0 with a 0.69 ERA and 15 strikeouts through 13 innings pitched.
In three career starts against the Braves, all of which were made this year, Gonzalez is 2-1 with a 4.86 ERA through 16 2/3 innings pitched.
One bit of good news for the Nationals is that Minor (8-10, 4.42 ERA) has failed to receive any regularity when it comes to run support this year. He pitched very well in his last outing, a 5 2/3-inning effort in which he allowed just two hits and two walks while striking out eight but failed to receive a decision in the Braves’ eventual 4-1 loss.
Minor has also failed to pitch especially well against the Nationals this year. In two starts, he is 1-0 with a 7.20 ERA through 10 innings pitched. In each of those starts, Minor allowed four earned runs with a combined seven walks and five strikeouts.
In five career starts against the Nationals, Minor is 2-2 with a 5.26 ERA through 25 2/3 innings pitched.
As noted yesterday, Nationals outfielder Michael Morse is expected to miss the Braves series and eyes a possible Tuesday return at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers. With a left-hander on the mound for the Braves this afternoon, expect to see rookie right-hander Tyler Moore in the lineup.
Another player to watch is Braves right fielder Jason Heyward, who is enjoying a six-game hitting streak against the Nationals during which has gone 11-for-26 for a .423 batting average.