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Nationals Leave Atlanta More Banged Up and Looking Up to Braves

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There will be no cakewalk to the National League East division crown for the Washington Nationals. The young up-and-coming Atlanta Braves and the equally built Philadelphia Phillies are formidable challenges. The Nationals learned of the Braves this weekend, as they dropped three of four to Atlanta, leaving the Nats 1.5 games behind in the NL East standings. Four-game series leaves the Nationals 4-6 this season against the Braves.

No Max Scherzer, not on the mound, proved costly for the Nationals in this series. Instead Tanner Roark was out-dueled by Sean Newcomb 4-2. Then, Stephen Strasburg struggled through cramps in his non-throwing wrist that led to the Braves scoring three earned runs off him and winning 4-0. Scherzer came to save the day on Saturday — with his bat — getting a pinch-hit single in the 14th inning and later scoring from first base off a triple from Wilmer Difo.

Any momentum was killed on Sunday when Jeremy Hellickson exited the game after facing two batters. The Nationals bullpen was solid in relief but in a 2-2 tie Roark, who pitched in relief with a drained bullpen, gave up a two-run walk-off home run to Charlie Culberson, giving the Braves the series and sending a notice to the Nats that the Braves are for real and here to stay as a challenge.

“Atlanta is not gonna go away,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said, per Mark Zuckerman of MASN. “They’re really good. They are. We just have to continue to play baseball. My concerns are the Washington Nationals and the boys. That’s what I look at every day.”

Now the narrative of the NL East and the Nationals’ season has been altered. They are now chasing the Braves. And it’s unfortunate as Washington’s schedule set up for them to grab control of the East and their season. The Nationals entered the four-game series riding a six-game win streak with back-to-back sweeps of Miami and Baltimore and winners of eight of their last nine. The Nationals led the division by one-half game and were looking to extend their lead.

Unfortunately, that did not happen. The weekend just did not present itself in the best favor of the Nationals.

1. Jeremy Hellickson to Undergo MRI for Hamstring Injury

Hellickson will undergo an MRI on Monday to learn the extent of his hamstring injury. The injury occurred when he reached up to grab a high throw from Mark Reynolds. Hellickson immediately grabbed the back of his leg as he came down on the bag.

“Just kind of grabbed on me,” Hellickson said to reporters following Sunday’s loss. “I think when I came down on the bag, it just kind of — I felt like a little cramp. Tried to stretch it out a little bit, felt a little better, and then started to walk again and it kept grabbing on me, so get it looked at tomorrow and go from there.”

The Nationals now are left to cross their fingers hoping the Monday’s MRI reveals something positive.

Hellickson had settled in as the Nationals’ fifth starter. In nine starts, including Sunday’s, he posted a 2.28 ERA and his 3.30 FIP and 0.923 WHIP and 5.67 strikeouts per walk are career-bests.

If Hellickson is out for any extended time, the Nationals will be left searching for a fifth starter and the 31-year old is at risk of losing all the momentum he has built this season. The injury bug has hampered the Nationals’ 2018 campaign tremendously. Losing Hellickson only adds to their troubles.

2. Braves Rotation Got the Best of the Nationals

The Nationals have the best ERA among starters in the National League at 2.90, however, the young Braves’ starting rotation is not far behind. During the four-game series, Atlanta’s starters lowered their ERA to 3.38, third in the NL. They did so by out-dueling the superior Nats rotation.

The 24-year old Newcomb has been fantastic to say the least for Atlanta and on Thursday he outlasted Roark, allowing two runs in seven innings as opposed to Roark giving up four in 6 2/3 innings. Mike Foltynewicz provided more of the same against Strasburg, pitching a complete-game shutout while striking out 11 Nationals to a 4-0 win on Friday. Even journeyman Brandon McCarthy whiffed through the Nats’ lineup allowing two runs in six innings while striking out seven on Saturday. Then Anibal Sanchez pitched seven strong innings allowing just two runs on Sunday.

The Nationals were 3-for-21 (.143) with runners in scoring position and batted .137 for the series collecting 19 hits in 139 at-bats with 44 strikeouts through the four games.

In contrast, the Braves were 5-for-21 (.238) with RISP. They batted .203 for the series with 28 hits in 138 at-bats and had 34 strikeouts.

If the Nationals are to get to their ultimate goal of the World Series, they’ll have to conquer the Braves and they’ll have nine more cracks at them this season.

3. Bryce Harper Struggles at the Plate

Highlighting the Braves’ dominance of the Nats at the plate was their ability to ice the red-hot Bryce Harper. Harper had been hitting home runs at an alarming rate with 18 to lead the majors entering the start of the series, however, the Braves kept him off the bags and in the ballpark.

The majors’ leader in walks managed one walk in 14 plate appearances during the series. He went 2-for-13 (.154) at the plate with eight strikeouts.

While he has pumped out more homers than anyone else in MLB, Harper has struggled at the plate when not launching long balls. His .232 average is concerning giving how powerful he is at the plate. Is he pressing? Quite possibly.

Nonetheless, the Nationals’ energy starts with its alpha and without his hitting stroke, there’s no protection within the rest of the lineup.

4. Daniel Murphy’s Rehab Not Looking Good, per Scout

As Hellickson adds to the growing list of injuries, it’s apparent the Nationals won’t be getting back one of its best bats to help Harper. According to a scout, Murphy does not look ready to join the Nats anytime soon. Murphy was described as “gimpy,” “struggling to move laterally” and lacking “straight-ahead speed.”

Not good news to say the least. Murphy underwent knee surgery to repair articular cartilage in his right knee during the off-season. His initial target return date was mid-April, but now it’s June and by the looks of things he is not even close to being activated off the disabled list. His absence is combated by the numerous injuries piling up in the organization that includes Adam Eaton, Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick. At this point all that can be done is wait and hope Murphy’s knee progresses, and Difo continues his contributions.

5. Must Look Past Injuries and Weekend Stumble

As aforementioned, there are nine games remaining against the Braves, but there are still 104 games remaining in total for the Nationals. They have a five-game home stand that starts against the Tampa Bay Rays before facing the surging San Francisco Giants. Washington must shake off the effects of their series loss to Atlanta.

And there may not be a better way to start back on track than having their ace, Scherzer, on the mound Tuesday. Scherzer leads MLB with nine wins and 120 strikeouts. He also can swing the bat good. Despite the failed trip to Atlanta, Washington is still an arm reach from Atlanta in the standings. The continued chase continues hoping for better results this upcoming week.

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