Braves vs. Nationals Preview: An NL East Showdown Arrives In Atlanta

ST. PETERSBURG - MAY 20: Pitcher Tim Hudson #15 of the Atlanta Braves pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the inter-league game at Tropicana Field on May 20, 2012 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

The top-two teams in the NL East battle this weekend at Turner Field in what should be a great series.

After playing a brutal schedule for nearly two months to begin the season (most of which featured games away from Turner Field) the Atlanta Braves will return home this weekend to face the first place Washington Nationals. The Nats are one game ahead of the Braves in the National League East and have been one of the biggest stories of the baseball season thus far.

The Nationals are led by pitching, pitching and more pitching. Their staff leads in ERA (2.92) and is second in xFIP (3.41) and are led by two Cy Young contenders, both of which will be pitching this weekend in Atlanta. Their bullpen isn't quite as good as their starting rotation is, but they still rank in the middle of the pack in most statistical categories.

Bryce Harper is the big story for Washington. He essentially replaced Jayson Werth on the roster after Werth broke his wrist two weeks ago, and the baseball world has had a love/hate relationship with the 19-year-old phenom ever since. A bit arrogant and featuring a stupid haircut, Harper undoubtably has the skill to become a superstar one day. He is batting .267/.350/.467 through 24 games and has been a spark plug for the lineup since getting called up from the Minor Leagues.

First baseman Michael Morse and catcher Wilson Ramos will both miss this series, and Ramos is not expected back in 2012. Adam LaRoche has had a very nice start to the season with an OPS of .937, and shortstop Ian Desmond is hitting for plenty of power with eight homers and a slugging percentage of .477. Ryan Zimmerman continues to be an elite fielder but has struggled with the bat thus far, posting a wOBA of just .309 in 30 games.

The Nats rank 26th in baseball in runs scored, and they have struggled at times without a few of their key hitters in the lineup. This is a team that relies heavily on their starting rotation, and Atlanta is going to face three very tough customers this weekend.

Pitching Matchups and Start Times:

Friday, 7:35 p.m. ET - Tim Hudson (3-1, 3.03 ERA) vs. Ross Detwiler (3-3, 3.65 ERA)

Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET - Mike Minor (2-4, 6.96 ERA) vs. Stephen Strasburg (4-1, 2.21 ERA)

Sunday, 8:05 p.m. ET - Brandon Beachy (5-2, 1.77 ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (6-1, 1.98 ERA)

Team Sites: Be sure to check out Talking Chop for Braves coverage and Federal Baseball for Nationals news.

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