Nationals-Braves Preview

Matt Williams recently stepped away from his normally calm demeanor to vehemently defend the slumping Bryce Harper, leading to an apology from the Washington Nationals manager.

Harper hasn’t needed Williams to speak for him since.

After Harper hit a game-winning homer to extend Washington’s NL East lead over Atlanta, the visiting Nationals look to add to that advantage and deal the Braves a ninth straight defeat Friday night.

Williams fielded multiple questions earlier in the week about the possibility of sending Harper to the minors with the 21-year-old outfielder mired in a 3-for-24 slump.

Finally fed up, Williams uncharacteristically lashed out at reporters prior to Wednesday’s 7-1 win over the New York Mets and cautioned to refrain from asking any more questions about Harper’s future with the major league club.

Harper went 1 for 3 in that contest, then hit an opposite-field homer in the 13th inning Thursday to give Washington (62-51) a 5-3 win and 4 1/2-game lead over Atlanta (58-56) atop the East.

"I want to apologize for the way I reacted (Wednesday)," Williams said. "My tact wasn’t very good. I’ll be better from now on."

Now the Nationals turn their focus to second-place Atlanta.

"We’re thinking we have a very important game (Friday) against a very good team," Williams said. "We’ll try to win that one. We have to keep grinding. We’ll have to play well if we want to beat them."

The Braves have won seven of 10 meetings this season and seven of the last eight in Atlanta, but they’re coming off a winless eight-game road trip.

Atlanta was outscored 41-18 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego and Seattle, marking the second time in club history it’s been swept on a trip of at least eight games.

The Braves, beginning a 10-game homestand, are on the verge of losing nine in a row for the time since April 2010.

”I don’t think you can ever imagine going winless on a road trip, but we are not too far out of it and we have a chance to get back into it this weekend,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said.

Atlanta hasn’t won since Ervin Santana (10-6, 3.59 ERA) struck out a season high-tying 11 over eight innings of a 2-0 victory over the Padres on July 28. Santana is 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA over his last three starts after allowing two runs in 6 2-3 innings of a 3-2, 12-inning loss to San Diego on Saturday.

Since allowing three runs in six innings of a 4-1 loss to Washington on June 22, the right-hander has gone 5-1 with a 2.57 ERA in seven starts. He’ll oppose Stephen Strasburg, who also has pitched well lately.

After giving up one run in seven innings of a 3-0 loss to Miami on July 29, Strasburg (8-9, 3.39) had his best start of the season Sunday. He allowed three hits and struck out 10 in seven innings of a 4-0 win over Philadelphia for his first victory in six starts.

”Stephen was the guy we went to the first day of the season, he’s the guy we went to after the (All-Star) break, and he’s proven why he’s a really good pitcher,” Williams said.

The right-hander has struggled in two starts against Atlanta this year, giving up 10 runs in 10 1-3 innings – both Nationals losses.