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MLB Spotlight 2013: Atlanta Braves - Washington Nationals Series Preview

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COMMENTARY | The Washington Nationals have opened the 2013 season winning six straight games at home, yet they are still looking up at the Atlanta Braves in the NL East division. Atlanta has jumped out to their best start since going 13-1 to begin the 1994 season (although any time you mention that strike-shortened year you have to knock on wood three times and spit over your left shoulder to avoid bad luck).

Even though it is still early April, the first meeting between these two NL powerhouses will take on a more playoff-like feel. The Nationals took the division crown away from Atlanta last season and forced the Braves into the first two-team wild-card play-in game -- and we'll just avoid discussing how that went. Needless to say, the Braves would love to make a statement and show the Nationals that the NL East will have to go through them in 2013.

Atlanta Braves (8-1, 3-0 away) @ Washington Nationals (7-2, 6-0 home)

7:05 p.m. ET, April 12, 2013 MLB Network

Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.

Game 1 Pitching Matchup: Julio Teheran (0-0, 9.00 ERA) vs. Ross Detwiler (0-0, 0.00 ERA)

Teheran tore up the spring competition -- tallying a 1.04 ERA in games that didn't matter -- but when the bright lights of the regular season officially came on, the 22-year-old looked more like the pitcher who struggled mightily the last time the Braves tried promoting him to the big leagues. Teheran gave up five runs in five innings of work against the Chicago Cubs in his first outing this season. The Braves will need to hope he can regain some of that spring magic against a much tougher Washington lineup.

Conversely, Washington loved what they saw from their No. 5 pitcher in his first start. Despite having to settle for a no-decision, Detwiler gave up zero earned runs in six innings. In five starts against the Bravos in 2012, Detwiler recorded a 3.38 ERA.

Keys to the Game

Beat the Over/Under on Strikeouts: Breaking News: B.J. Upton has already struck out three times on his walk from the hotel lobby to the team bus. This does not bode well for the series.

In just nine games, the Braves have gone down swinging 84 times, which ranks No. 2 in all of baseball. To make matters worse, these nine games were against the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs and Florida Marlins -- not exactly the cream of the MLB crop. Atlanta is now poised to square off with a staff that was the best in the National League at forcing opposing hitters to make the slow, sad turn back to their dugout. As a group, the Nationals' pitchers recorded 1,325 Ks in 2012.

The Braves are going to strikeout more than a few times in this series, but the difference between winning or losing could be in Atlanta's ability to limit the big strikeout totals. If they fan eight times in each game, so be it, but the Braves cannot expect to win if they are allowing the Nationals' starters to make highlight tapes of 15+ strikeout performances. Over/Under: 25 strikeouts for the series.

Keep the Ball Away From Bryce Harper: The Nationals' second-year phenom has started the 2013 season red hot. Harper is hitting .417 with four home runs and a .447 on-base percentage. However, it seems he has not yet mastered the art of going the other way. Harper has pulled nearly every one of his fifteen hits to either right or right-center. While he is hitting over .500 on pitches on the inner-half of the plate, the Nats' franchise player has been left begging on pitches low and away this season.

Tim Hudson is a master at living in the lower third of the strike zone, and Harper is 0-3 with three strikeouts in his lefty-lefty matchups with Paul Maholm. The big question mark will be in Game 1 when Harper gets to see Julio Teheran for the first time. Look for the Braves to have a consistent game plan in place to pitch Harper away, away and away some more.

Players to Watch

Justin Upton: The younger Upton brother has been one of the main reasons why Atlanta has gotten off to their best start since 1994 (wood three times then spit). Upton has already put six over the wall in the first nine games, but he is facing an uphill battle to keep his hot start going. Against the three pitchers he will face in this series, Upton is just 2-for-18 in his career.

Craig Kimbrel: In only 167 appearances, Kimbrel has already accumulated 93 saves. He is well on his way to becoming the fastest player ever to reach the 100-saves plateau. The current mark is held by Eric Gagne, as he touched 100 saves in just his 203rd MLB game. The Braves would love for their closer to inch three saves closer to the record in this series.

Jason Heyward: For fans who think B.J. Upton is off to a slow start, you may want to avert your eyes from Heyward's stat line. To start the 2013 season, the Braves' right-fielder is just 2-for-28, and both of those hits came in the second game of the year. But despite the tough pitching matchups Atlanta will face in this series, Heyward could be primed to come out of his slump. He is the one player in the Braves' lineup with great career number against all three of Washington's would-be starters.

Heyward is hitting .357 off of Detwiler, .333 when staring down Gio Gonzalez, and a cool .583 against Stephen Strasburg. This series could be the one in which the Braves' slugger busts out in a big way.

Game 2 Pitching Matchup: Tim Hudson (1-0, 3.27 ERA) vs. Stephen Strasburg (1-1, 4.38 ERA)

Game 3 Pitching Matchup: Paul Maholm (2-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (1-0, 0.82 ERA)

Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.

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