Braves-Nationals Preview

The Associated Press

Although Stephen Strasburg's season could be cut short because of a management-imposed innings limit, the Washington Nationals staff ace is one of the top contenders for the NL Cy Young Award.

The Atlanta Braves, however, are one of the few team that have given him problems on multiple occasions.

With the Nationals building their largest division lead in 18 years with a wild victory in the series opener, Strasburg hopes to push the advantage over the Braves to seven games on Tuesday night.

As the owner of baseball's best record, Washington (76-46) has had plenty of exciting victories, but Monday's 5-4, 13-inning win over Atlanta might have been the biggest. Danny Espinosa scored the winning run from third on a ball bobbled by Braves second baseman Dan Uggla off the bat of Chad Tracy. Espinosa got to third after advancing all the way from first on a Kurt Suzuki chopper behind the mound that third baseman Chipper Jones and shortstop Paul Janish converged on.

"It was almost like a playoff game,'' manager Davey Johnson said. "They had their chances. We had our chances. It was that kind of game.''

The Nationals took a six-game lead over the Braves - the franchise's first lead of this length since Montreal concluded the 1994 strike-shortened season six ahead of Atlanta. The Expos' largest lead that year was seven games one day before the season ended.

The Nationals are 9-4 against the Braves this season, but Strasburg's last two starts in the series have both been defeats for Washington. He had a 7.56 ERA in those outings.

He has been hit hard by several Atlanta players this year, with Brian McCann going 3 for 8 with a homer and double and Jason Heyward 5 for 7 with a double. Uggla, likely eager to take the field after Monday's fielding gaffe, is batting .533 with two homers and two doubles in 15 career at-bats against Strasburg (14-5, 2.91 ERA).

Strasburg, though, comes into this meeting with a 1.50 ERA in winning his three starts this month. In San Francisco on Wednesday, he allowed two runs and four hits with seven strikeouts in six innings of a 6-4 victory.

Strasburg increased his strikeout total to 173 while bumping his inning count up to 139 1-3. There are rumors that he will be shut down after reaching either 160 or 180 innings, but the right-hander has said he hasn't been told of any limit.

He hasn't gone more than six in his last four starts, but might be asked to go a bit longer after the Nationals used seven relievers to pitch eight innings Monday.

The Braves had five relievers go 6 1-3 innings in the opener, and have said starters Ben Sheets and Tommy Hanson could move to the bullpen Tuesday in case Paul Maholm (11-7, 3.39) gets into trouble.

That hasn't happened yet, however.

Maholm gave up a run and five hits in seven innings of Wednesday's 6-1 win over San Diego, improving to 2-1 with a 1.57 ERA in three starts since being acquired from the Chicago Cubs on July 30. The left-hander is 7-1 with a 1.19 ERA in his last eight starts overall, knocking almost two runs off his ERA from 5.38.

"He's really figured out how to pitch, he's really figured out what type of pitcher he is," Uggla told the Braves' official website.

This will be his first start of the season against the Nationals after going 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA in two outings against them last year with Pittsburgh.

Jayson Werth is 4 for 9 with two doubles versus Maholm since 2010, and Ryan Zimmerman is a career .333-hitter against him in 18 at-bats.

Zimmerman is batting .359 with seven RBIs and six walks in his last 10 games.

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