Nationals end impressive first half against Braves (Jul 09, 2017)

BY AP • July 9, 2017

WASHINGTON -- The first-place Washington Nationals will enter the All-Star break knowing that they have one of the best starting rotations in the major leagues, with All-Star pitchers Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg leading the way.

But manager Dusty Baker knows that the middle part of his batting order is also among the best in the major leagues.

All-Star position players Bryce Harper (.322), Ryan Zimmerman (.333) and Daniel Murphy (.341) will get one last chance to pad their first-half statistics when the Nationals host the Atlanta Braves in the series finale on Sunday against rookie pitcher Sean Newcomb (1-3, 3.58 ERA), who will face Washington for the first time.

Right-hander Joe Ross (5-3, 4.86) is slated to start for the Nationals, who are averaging more than 10 runs in the eight home starts this year by Ross.

That could be a deadly combination for Newcomb as the 3-4-5 hitters in the order (Harper, Zimmerman and Murphy) combined to hit .330 in the first 86 games. The Washington lineup was a little different Saturday when Harper hit second, Zimmerman third and Murphy fourth in a 13-0 loss to Atlanta.

No major league team has finished with that high of an average from its 3-4-5 hitters since Larry Walker, Jeff Cirillo and Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies batted a combined .334 in 2000.

The Nationals entered Saturday leading the National League in average (.278), on-base average (.345), slugging (.470), extra-base hits (316) and runs (476) before being shutout for the first time this year. Throw in right-handed-hitting Anthony Rendon and the offense is dangerous.

"That's why they're batting where they are," Baker said. "And that's why they're left-right-left-right. They're not called the heart of the order for nothing, because that's the life source for you, your heart. I'm just glad these guys were healthy."

Newcomb will have a big challenge in the finale before the All-Star Game on Tuesday in Miami.

The left-hander made his major-league debut earlier this year and has posted four quality starts in five chances since he joined the rotation last month.

Newcomb has worked 27 2/3 innings and given up 28 hits and 11 walks with 23 strikeouts.

His teammates have been inspired this weekend, winning two of the first three games of the series.

"Right now, we have confidence," Braves right fielder Nick Markakis said after Saturday's win in which he had three hits and scored four times. "Win one more before the break" is the goal Sunday.

The Braves had 15 hits Saturday and pitcher Julio Teheran threw seven shutout innings.

"Everyone is good to go tomorrow and then you have four days off" for the All-Star break, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said after Saturday's victory.

The Nationals are potent at home on Sunday afternoons.

With Ross on the mound, they scored 23 runs at home against the New York Mets on Sunday, April 28, 18 runs against the Cincinnati Reds at home on Sunday, June 25 and 11 runs at home on Tuesday, July 4 against the New York Mets.

All three of those were day games.

Washington has 34 runs in the four road starts for Ross, meaning the Nationals have scored 119 runs in his first 12 starts this year.

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