Nationals chasing Braves as series continues

Veteran Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis is making a push to become an All-Star for the first time in his career.

Markakis takes a .332 batting average into Saturday’s game against the Washington Nationals, when the Braves send right-hander Brandon McCarthy (5-2, 5.02) against Washington lefty Gio Gonzalez (6-2, 2.10) in the third game of the four-game set at SunTrust Park.

Atlanta has won the first two games of the series to recapture first place in the National League East. The Braves lead the Nationals by 1 1/2 games.

“That would be just great, if that happened,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s been one of the best and most consistent hitters in the National League from Day One. He’s that engine that makes the thing run. He’s dependable and you can count on him.”

Markakis tied for the National League lead with 42 hits in May, three more than teammate Freddie Freeman. He also tied for the league lead with 11 doubles, while his .362 average was third best and his .397 on-base percentage ranked seventh. His 14 extra-base hits were two off the league lead.

Markakis became just the second Atlanta Brave hitter with at least 42 hits in May. Ralph Garr and Hank Aaron share the modern-era franchise record with 47. Markakis’ total marks just the 19th time a Braves player has collected 40 hits in May since 1900.

Markakis finally appears to be completely healthy after undergoing neck surgery in 2014, shortly after he signed as a free agent with the Braves.

“A lot of work goes into it,” Markakis said. “The past couple years, I’ve been able to build on it and strengthen myself. I feel almost as good as I’ve ever felt on a baseball field.”

He will have his hands full with Gonzalez, who is off to a great start in 2018. In 11 starts, the veteran has struck out 63 batters in 64 1/3 innings and allowed only three home runs. He has allowed two or fewer earned runs in ten of his 11 starts and his ERA ranks third in the league.

Gonzalez has not faced the Braves this year. In 2017, he started four games against Atlanta and was 1-2 with a 5.32 ERA. In 21 career starts against the Braves, Gonzalez is 5-11 with a 5.11 ERA.

Atlanta’s McCarthy will be trying to shake off a poor start in his last outing. He was tagged for five runs in May 28 in a loss to the New York Mets. That broke a streak of back-to-back games where he allowed only one run.

McCarthy will be making only his fifth career start against the Nationals. He is looking for his first career win against Washington, even though he has a 2.00 ERA against the Nats. He received no decision when he faced Washington on April 21, when he allowed one run in five innings.

McCarthy will need to keep Washington shortstop Trea Turner off the bases. Turner had a single in the ninth inning on Friday to extend his hitting streak to 13 games. He leads National League shortstops in on-base percentage, runs scored, walks and stolen bases.