Braves-Nationals Preview

Seeing Bryce Harper build on the best offensive show of his career could go a long way toward boosting the surging Washington Nationals’ inconsistent lineup.

The slugger will try to lead the Nationals to their eighth win in 10 games Friday night in the series opener against the visiting Atlanta Braves.

The 22-year-old Harper became the youngest player to have a three-homer game since Joe Lahoud on June 11, 1969, in Wednesday’s 7-5 win over Miami. He hit one 393 feet in the second inning, a two-run shot that sailed 442 feet in the third and a 445-foot blast in the fifth before an RBI groundout in the seventh gave him a career-high five RBIs.

Harper, whose 26 walks lead the majors, has eight home runs and 20 RBIs through 29 games after finishing with 13 homers and 32 RBIs in 100 contests in 2014.

"That’s how I expect myself to play," he said. "If it’s hitting homers, hitting doubles, that’s what I need to do."

Wednesday’s power display was a good sign for the right fielder after he had gone 1 for 17 in Washington’s previous five games. The Nationals (14-15) failed to score more than one run in four of them. They’re 4-8 when he goes hitless.

Washington’s best offensive performances came in the final two games of a series in Atlanta from April 27-29. The Nationals lost the opener 8-4 for their sixth straight defeat overall before totaling 13 runs and 15 hits in each of the next two games, sparking the club’s current 7-2 stretch.

Harper went 3 for 8 with two doubles and four walks in those two victories after going hitless in the first game, including 0 for 2 with a walk off left-hander Eric Stults – Atlanta’s starter Friday. Harper is 4 for 22 versus southpaws this season.

That’s the only win for the 35-year-old Stults (1-2, 4.91 ERA), who allowed two runs and four hits over 6 1-3 innings. He didn’t serve up a homer that day but has allowed five in as many outings this season after surrendering 26 in 2014, tied for fifth-most in the majors. Stults gave up two homers, 11 hits and six runs over seven innings in Saturday’s 8-4 loss to Cincinnati.

Danny Espinosa is 5 for 9 with a homer against Stults, including a single and a double last month as he went 7 for 11 in the series.

Atlanta (14-14) is opening a nine-game road trip after totaling 16 runs in its last two games to beat Philadelphia in both. Andrelton Simmons and Freddie Freeman each had three hits in Wednesday’s 7-5 win, capping a 5-5 homestand.

Simmons has heated up this month, going 10 for 21 while hitting safely in all six games. Freeman is 9 for 16 with seven RBIs in his last four and was 8 for 13 against the Nationals last month.

"Going into Washington, you wanted to feel good with a couple wins back-to-back," said Freeman, who hit .475 in 10 games in D.C. last year.

Gio Gonzalez (2-2, 3.86) hasn’t enjoyed such success in this matchup, going 0-7 with a 5.32 ERA in his last eight starts against the Braves. However, he hasn’t faced them since August and is coming off his second scoreless outing in three starts, striking out nine over seven innings in Saturday’s 1-0 win over the New York Mets.

Simmons has gone 5 for 14 with two homers against Gonzalez since the start of 2013.

Washington’s Jayson Werth could miss a third straight game due to an achy shoulder.