After blowing a sizable lead in the NL East, injury-plagued Washington is set to begin a three-game series against perennial division champion Atlanta, with aces Livan Hernandez and John Smoltz squaring off in the opener.
These teams have played three series this season with the Nationals winning two and splitting the other, though it’s been nearly two months since the teams met.
An 8-6 victory in the last matchup on June 2 sparked the Nationals’ 10-game winning streak and a 23-5 stretch that gave them control of the NL East. Washington has since crumbled with 13 losses in 18 games, blowing a 5 1/2 -game lead.
The Nationals have sunk into a tie with the Braves, winners of 13 straight division championships.
“We’re not—because they win 13 years in a row—going to say ‘OK, we’re going to give it to them,”’ Washington third baseman Vinny Castilla said. “We know it’s going to be a tough pennant race with them—and with all the teams in the division—but for us the team to beat is going to be the Braves.”
Atlanta has gone 22-12 since falling within a game of .500 in mid-June. The Braves could have gone into this series well ahead of Washington, but have dropped seven of their last 12 games.
“I think when you’ve got the division we’ve got, and it’s so tightly wound, every series within the division becomes a big potential series,” said Smoltz, who will be looking to extend a personal seven-game win streak. “If you sweep a team in our division that puts a big damper on their chances of catching up.”
Smoltz has a 1.86 ERA in eight outings since June 6, the last time he lost.
Hernandez, meanwhile, will be making his first start since a rambling postgame interview after his last outing—Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to Colorado. The Cuban right-hander said he would likely have season-ending knee surgery, but backed off that statement in a profanity-laced tirade at reporters the following day, saying he would have surgery after the season.
“I’m pitching with my knee more than 17 starts like that. I never quit. Somebody else maybe quit. But not me,” Hernandez said. “I’m going to make every start now. I don’t got no problem. I feel, last night, not good. … My knee looked like it want to explode last night.”
He has often imploded against the Braves. Hernandez is 0-10 with a 6.91 ERA in his last 13 starts against them, though he has hasn’t faced Atlanta this season.
Manager Frank Robinson’s lineup also has issues, but team batting leader Nick Johnson is expected to return for this series after sitting out a month with a bruised heel.
The Nationals are last in the majors in runs and have averaged just 2.7 in the last 13 games. They’ve hit .170 since the All-Star break.
“It’s going to take him a while to get back into it. If we’re going to depend on Nick Johnson to come in and wake us up and win ball games offensively, we’re going to be waiting a long time,” Robinson said. “Everybody’s got to get a wake-up call here.”
To make matters worse, top slugger Jose Guillen is not expected to play Tuesday after being hit by a pitch on his right wrist in Sunday’s 4-1, 14-inning loss to Houston. X-rays were negative.
Castilla was forced into the game due to Guillen’s injury and went 0-for-2. He had been sidelined since last Monday with a sore left knee, and though it was clear from his play defensively the injury is lingering, Castilla is expected to start Tuesday.
Castilla’s counterpart, the Braves’ Chipper Jones, has a foot problem and is just 3-for-18 (.167) since returning from a six-week stint on the disabled list.
While Chipper tries to get untracked, Andruw Jones will try to keep up his home run pace. He has 32 after hitting two in Sunday’s 3-2 loss to Arizona and the game-winning shot in Saturday’s 3-2 victory.