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Dodgers-Braves Preview

AP - Sports

The Atlanta Braves still sit atop the NL East, but haven't looked much like a first-place team lately.

The last-place Los Angeles Dodgers, meanwhile, are starting to pick up the pace.

Slumping Atlanta hopes to get a boost from Jason Heyward, who makes his return in the opener of a three-game set against the visiting Dodgers on Friday night.

After belting 25 homers in opening 12-1, the Braves (22-18) have hit .234 with 27 long balls during a 10-17 stretch. Atlanta concluded a 4-6 road trip with Wednesday's 5-3 defeat to Arizona, its fifth loss in six games.

Freddie Freeman went 3 for 4 with three RBIs for the Braves, who collected 11 hits but left a season-high 12 runners on base.

"For losing two of three (to the Diamondbacks), you feel like we won a couple of those games the way we hit the ball," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "It's just the way it goes sometimes. I don't know how many times I felt like the ball was going to go through the infield and it was a line drive at somebody."

While things haven't gone its way of late, Atlanta could get a lift from Heyward, who underwent an emergency appendectomy and was placed on the disabled list April 23. The slugging right fielder, who led the team with 27 homers last season, was batting .121 with two long balls in his first 17 games.

Heyward is a career .111 hitter versus Los Angeles - his lowest against any NL team - without a home run in 20 matchups.

The Dodgers (17-22), who have hit .303 while winning four of five following an eight-game skid, pulled out a 3-1 victory over Washington on Wednesday.

Starter Zack Greinke impressed in his return from the DL and Matt Kemp stayed hot with two hits and two runs scored.

"I'm feeling a lot better at the plate," Kemp, batting .328 during a 14-game hitting streak, told MLB's official website.

Kemp, though, is a career .200 hitter at Turner Field - his lowest mark at any NL ballpark. He's collected just three hits over his last 32 at-bats there.

Kemp will try to break out of that slump against Paul Maholm (4-4, 3.94 ERA), who labored through 4 1-3 innings during Saturday's 10-1 loss at San Francisco. The left-hander allowed six runs and eight hits, dropping to 1-4 with a 6.83 ERA over his last five outings.

"Pauly usually goes through the lineup rather quickly with a limited amount of pitches," bench coach Carlos Tosca said. "His pitch count was up a little bit with that amount of innings. He always competes. But he wasn't the Maholm we're used to knowing."

Maholm could benefit from getting back home, where he's posted a 1.32 ERA over two starts - significantly lower than his road mark of 4.98.

Maholm had gone 0-5 with a 5.33 ERA over his first eight starts versus Los Angeles before throwing six innings of one-run ball and earning the win during a 5-4 victory May 4, 2012, while with the Chicago Cubs.

The Dodgers counter with rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu (4-2, 3.40). The South Korea native gave up one run and five hits over 6 2-3 innings during Saturday's 7-1 win over Miami.

"He's a master craftsman, the way he changes speeds," manager Don Mattingly said. "He's fun to watch."

Like Maholm, Ryu has struggled on the road, going 1-1 with a 4.68 ERA. He'll need to be wary of Chris Johnson, who's hitting .410 against lefties.

Justin Upton, though, is batting .156 with 15 strikeouts over his last nine home games. Brother B.J. Upton is last in the NL with a .145 average.

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