Nationals-Braves Preview

The Associated Press

The Washington Nationals lead the NL East heading into Memorial Day weekend, but the Atlanta Braves can join them at the top if a return to Turner Field can help them end their recent slump.

With Tim Hudson on the mound, the Braves should feel pretty confident it will.

Stellar at home for the past year, Hudson looks to help Atlanta avoid a season-high fifth straight loss and post his 15th career victory against the Nationals franchise Friday night.

Philadelphia was the popular pick to win a sixth straight East crown with Miami also expected to contend after an expensive offseason, but both clubs are currently looking up at Washington (26-18) and Atlanta (26-20).

While the Nationals enter having won three of four despite being unable to solve Cole Hamels in Wednesday's 4-1 loss at Philadelphia, the Braves are in the midst of their worst stretch since opening 0-4. Atlanta mustered just eight runs while being swept in four games at Cincinnati, with Thursday's 6-3 loss marking the sixth straight game it failed to score four.

The Braves haven't exactly been at full strength, though. Chipper Jones (ankle) has missed six straight games, Brian McCann (flu) the past three and Freddie Freeman sat out Thursday as he continues to deal with contact lens issues.

"Most of our bats were in the dugout sitting with me, with Freeman, McCann and Chipper," manager Fredi Gonzalez told the Braves' official website. "It's tough to score runs, but you're going to go through this kind of spurt in a long season and you feel that the guys you're going to put in there are going to be OK."

The Braves may not need much offense with Hudson (3-1, 3.03 ERA) on the hill in their first look at the Nationals. After two less-than-optimal outings upon returning from back surgery in late April, Hudson has posted a 1.25 ERA in his last three starts.

He held Tampa Bay to four hits over 7 2-3 innings Sunday in a 2-0 road victory - Atlanta's lone win in the last six games. Hudson got 15 outs on the ground, keeping right in line with a 72.1 ground-ball percentage that's among the highest in the majors.

"My sinker has been key for me all year,'' Hudson said. "I was able to keep them off balance.''

He's certainly kept the Nationals guessing throughout the course of his career. Hudson is 14-3 with a 2.05 ERA in 23 starts against the Washington/Montreal franchise, including 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA in two post-All-Star break outings at Turner Field last season.

Another dominant effort wouldn't be surprising. The right-hander is 10-2 with a 2.11 ERA in his last 16 home outings, including 6-0 with a 1.66 ERA in his last eight.

The Nationals' rotation, meanwhile, has a major league-best 2.71 ERA. It's turned in four consecutive quality starts since Ross Detwiler (3-3, 3.65) gave up a season-high six runs and nine hits over five innings in Saturday's 6-5 loss to Baltimore.

The left-hander has a 7.31 ERA in his last three starts after posting a 1.59 mark through his first five.

"Det was throwing the ball good. The problem was they were getting on his fastball pretty good. He wasn't locating it that well,'' manager Davey Johnson said. "He didn't use both sides of the plate (Saturday) and also, his secondary stuff, he wasn't getting it over."

Detwiler is 1-0 with a 3.26 ERA in six appearances - three starts - against Atlanta. The win came in a 3-0 victory Sept. 25, when he pitched six innings of four-hit ball.

He'll face a Braves lineup that's struggling in the clutch. Atlanta is 2 for 22 with runners in scoring position during its 1-5 stretch.

The Braves and Nationals split 18 meetings last season, with Atlanta outscoring Washington 83-82.

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