Braves-Nationals Preview

It took longer than most anticipated, but the Washington Nationals are beginning to make good on expectations as the team to beat in the NL East.

After their series-opening win over the Atlanta Braves, they’ve matched their largest division lead of the season, though exceeding it Wednesday night against Shelby Miller could prove difficult.

Washington (38-33) has won four straight behind elite pitching, and Tuesday’s 3-1 win was no exception. The starting staff has allowed one earned run in that span and enters with a scoreless streak of 21 1-3 innings.

The Nationals are 2 1/2 games up on the New York Mets, matching the lead they held entering play on May 26.

Atlanta (35-36) won the first meeting of the season, but Washington has taken six straight since while scoring 8.5 runs per game and batting .363. Danny Espinosa is hitting .441 on a 10-game hitting streak in the series.

Michael A. Taylor’s adding to the offense lately with a 7-for-15 stretch in his last four.

"He is finding his way as a big leaguer," manager Matt Williams told MLB’s official website.

The problem is Washington’s recent mound presence is more reminiscent of Miller’s against the Nationals than anything opponent Jordan Zimmermann has provided.

Miller (5-3, 1.99 ERA) hasn’t won in his last six starts, but that’s been due to little fault of his own even though he’s been more hittable than his early season dominant form. He’s 0-2 with a 2.97 ERA in that span, and he dropped his season ERA back below two after allowing four runs – one earned – and seven hits in 5 2-3 innings of Thursday’s 5-2 home loss to Boston.

The right-hander has received a 1.73 run-support average in the six starts with a .270 opponent batting average after posting a .156 mark through his first eight outings.

Some fielding issues behind him accounted for much of the trouble against the Red Sox, but Miller took blame for serving up hittable stuff.

"I gave up some hits over the middle of the plate that were pretty crucial at times and they ended up putting a good inning together against me," Miller said.

Washington has had no success against him, with Miller going 2-0 with a 0.73 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 24 2-3 innings in four career starts. Ian Desmond (1 for 12), Denard Span (1 for 11) and Bryce Harper (1 for 8) have been the major contributors to Miller’s .170 OBA against the Nationals.

Zimmermann (5-5, 3.75) has lost three straight starts with a 7.63 ERA, though his last was at least passable. The right-hander, who has never lost four straight starts, gave up three runs and eight hits while striking out eight in seven innings of last Wednesday’s 5-0 home loss to Tampa Bay. The two home runs he allowed brought his season total to just five, and he’s limited opponents to six in his last 23 home starts.

"I thought it was good. A couple of solo home runs. I could live with that," Zimmermann said.

He’s been substantially better at home, going 3-3 with a 2.75 ERA and .257 OBA in eight starts as opposed to 2-2 with 5.40 and .338 marks in six road outings.

Zimmermann won’t have to face Freddie Freeman (wrist), who is 9 for 24 in their matchups but went on the 15-day disabled list Tuesday, and Andrelton Simmons (3 for 19) and Cameron Maybin have struggled (2 for 11) against him.