Nationals-Braves Preview

The Associated Press

The Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals clearly don't like each other.

Bryce Harper seems to be a magnet for the Braves' angst.

After being hit twice in the series opener and being held out of the starting lineup Saturday, Harper figures to be back Sunday to face Julio Teheran for the first time since being plunked by him earlier this month.

Atlanta (75-48) owns the best record in baseball and is cruising to an NL East title, sitting 14 1/2 games ahead of Washington (60-62). Despite that gap in the standings, the Braves and Nationals continue to stoke their growing rivalry by throwing at each other.

The Braves have won 11 of 15 games in the season series and have hit the Nationals five times, with Washington returning the favor with five of its own.

Harper has been on the receiving end of three of those pitches this month, doubling his career total. The reigning NL Rookie of the Year was plunked twice in Friday's 3-2 loss and suffered a left triceps injury when he was hit by Luis Avilan, who exited the game to a standing ovation from the Turner Field crowd.

Prior to Saturday's game, Nationals manager Davey Johnson denied that he'd seek retribution for Harper being hit.

"I never ordered a pitcher to go after anybody, but we have a way of protecting our own," Johnson told the team's official website.

Johnson scratched Harper from the lineup Saturday before Washington went on to defeat the Braves 8-7 in 15 innings on Adam LaRoche's solo homer.

Johnson, however, wasn't in the dugout to see the end. He was ejected with starter Stephen Strasburg, who threw back-to-back pitches behind Andrelton Simmons' back. That came after Strasburg hit Justin Upton following Jason Heyward's homer.

Johnson denied that Strasburg was throwing at Simmons intentionally, but conceded that he may have been trying to hit Upton.

"It didn't look like he was trying to hit (Simmons). He couldn't find the strike zone," Johnson said. "Well after somebody goes deep and you hit him in the rear end, I don't think it's a big deal."

Harper wound up coming in to play left field in the ninth inning and went 0 for 2 in extras.

Assuming he's back in the starting lineup Sunday, he'll face Teheran (9-6, 3.08 ERA), who leads the NL with 12 hit batters. One of them was Harper on Aug. 6, two innings after Harper went deep in a 2-1 Atlanta victory. Harper jawed at Teheran after the incident, and the benches cleared but no punches were thrown.

The animosity even spilled over to the teams' Twitter accounts, which exchanged barbs.

Teheran has allowed Harper to go 3 for 7 with a double and two homers.

The right-hander was 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA in his first four starts after the All-Star break, but gave up four runs in six innings of Monday's 5-1 loss to Philadelphia.

The Nationals will again counter with Gio Gonzalez (7-5, 3.42).

The left-hander allowed two runs in seven innings Aug. 6, but also hit Freddie Freeman with a pitch an inning before Harper was plunked.

Gonzalez found himself embroiled in another incident Tuesday. That one, however, was with teammate Jayson Werth, and the two jawed after Gonzalez was late covering first in the opening inning.

Gonzalez's outing ended after a prolonged rain delay, limiting him to four scoreless innings in a 4-2 win over San Francisco. It was his fifth straight start without a win, and he has an 0-2 record and 5.19 ERA over that stretch.

The offense has backed him with just one run in four of those outings.