‘Biggest game to date’ vs. Nationals opens key stretch for Braves

Atlanta Braves' starting pitchers in 2019

So much for the Blue Jays and the White Sox and the Mets and the Marlins.

The National League East-leading Braves have beaten up on those teams, among others, recently. But their next 14 games will come against the second- and third-place teams in their division, starting with the opener of a much-anticipated four-game series against the Washington Nationals on Thursday night at SunTrust Park.

“It’ll be the biggest game to date,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Any time you play that club, man, it’s a dogfight and tough. It’s two good teams going at it.”

Although the teams are 6-6 against one another this year, the Braves lead the second-place Nationals by a substantial seven games in the NL East, an advantage rooted in Washington’s inexplicably poor play early in the season.

The Nationals went 19-31 through games of May 23, at which point they were 10 games behind Philadelphia, 8-1/2 games behind the Braves and 5-1/2 games behind the Mets. But from May 24 until now, the Nationals have MLB’s best record, 59-29, a .670 winning percentage.

And yet there’s a very good reason they haven’t come close to catching the Braves during that sizzling stretch.

That’s because the Braves have MLB’s second-best record since May 24, 58-31, a .652 winning percentage, which ranks just ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees (both of whom are 59-32 from that date through Tuesday) and the Houston Astros (57-32 since then).

The Braves and Nationals have seven games remaining against each other, all of which will be played over the next 11 days: four here Thursday through Sunday and three in Washington on Sept. 13-15.

Sandwiched between those series, the Braves will play four games next week at Philadelphia, a popular preseason pick to win the NL East, but now third in the division, a distant 12-1/2 games behind the Braves. The Phillies then visit SunTrust Park for three games Sept. 17-19. The Braves have the same record this season against the Phillies (6-6) as they do against the Nationals.

“There’s no easy games from here on out,” Braves catcher Tyler Flowers said. “There’s no easy games the whole season, but especially at this point.”

“We still have to remember that every game is important. It’s not just the Nationals. It’s not just the Phillies. It’s every game,” relief pitcher Mark Melancon said. “We still have (22) games left. We need to keep that in check, too. It’s a fun time of year, I guess that’s the way I would say it.”

Of the eight games the Braves have remaining against teams other than the Nationals and Phillies, three are at home against San Francisco, two at Kansas City and three in New York against the Mets. Those are the final eight games of the Braves’ regular season.

But first things first: Braves vs. Nationals at SunTrust Park. The Nationals’ top three starting pitchers — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — are lined up to start games in the series. Strasburg (16-5, 3.47) will start Thursday’s opener, followed by Corbin (11-6, 3.19) on Friday, Joe Ross (3-4, 6.17) on Saturday and Scherzer (9-5, 2.60) on Sunday. Strasburg, Corbin and Scherzer have struck out more than 200 batters apiece this season, making the Nationals the first NL team since 1969 to have three pitchers record 200 strikeouts.

“It’s going to be a tough weekend,” Snitker said. “We know that going in.”

The Braves’ starting pitchers will be Max Fried (15-4, 4.05) on Thursday, Dallas Keuchel (6-5, 3.72) on Friday, Julio Teheran (9-8, 3.38 on Saturday) and Mike Soroka (11-3, 2.53 on Sunday).

They’ll face a Washington lineup that includes Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, third baseman Anthony Rendon and outfielder Juan Soto, who rank in the NL’s top four in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).

The Braves enter the series having won six games in a row, 14 of their past 16 and 17 of their past 21 to reach a season-high 32 games over .500 at 86-54. They have won 10 in a row at home, dating to Aug. 17 -- their longest home winning streak within a single season since 2000, when they won a franchise modern-era record 12 in a row at Turner Field.

The Nationals, meanwhile, have won 10 of their past 13 and 17 of their past 22. On Tuesday, they scored seven runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to turn a 10-4 deficit into an 11-10 win over the Mets, capped by former Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki’s game-ending three-run homer.  On Wednesday, the Nats lost 8-4 to the Mets.

The standings dictate that the Nationals need to make up some ground this weekend if they are to cling to hope of winning the division, while the Braves will remain in a commanding position if they simply split the series. The Nationals lead the race for the first NL wild card, and with their stellar starting pitching they loom as a serious postseason threat even if they don’t win the division.