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ATL@WSH: Strasburg whiffs nine en route to the win

For all the inevitable hype around Stephen Strasburg and his first-place Nats, the man to watch Saturday may be Braves starter Mike Minor, whose performances could have profound implications for the future of an Atlanta rotation that figures to be an influential part of what is shaping up to be a hotly contested division race.

The Atlanta starting corps is reeling from the loss of Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery, while Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson are the only sure-fire starters remaining for manager Fredi Gonzalez's group. Jair Jurrjens has looked good since his return on June 22, going 1-0 with a 2.03 ERA in two starts.

That leaves youngsters Minor and Randall Delgado at the back end of the Braves' rotation, trying to solidify spots and convince the Atlanta brass that a Trade Deadline deal for a proven starter is unnecessary.

Minor enters Saturday's tilt 3-6 with a 6.14 ERA, and has struggled in his last two starts, giving up eight runs in just 10 1/3 innings pitched. Those troublesome two outings came following what might have been a turning point for Minor, a 7 1/3-inning, one-run showing against the powerful Yankees on June 12.

If the southpaw is to nail down a starting spot for the stretch run, he'll need to keep the ball in the ballpark: he's tied for the National League lead with 18 homers allowed so far this season.

Opposite the 24-year-old Atlanta hurler will be Strasburg, the National League's strikeout leader (118) who is averaging just under 12 K's per nine innings to go along with his 2.60 ERA.

And while it may seem somewhat early to be talking division races, Nationals manager Davey Johnson knows this series is a crucial one.

"We look at this series as big," Johnson said.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez agrees, especially because he sees in Washington's pitching staff the kind of stability his Braves are looking for down the stretch.

"That's got to be the best 12 guys in the National League," Gonzalez said. "I haven't seen the American League too much, but they're pretty good. They can match up out of the bullpen. If they get a lead, they're pretty good."

Nationals: Morse on a hot streak
Nationals outfielder Michael Morse missed the first two months of the season with a strained lat muscle, and struggled after his June 2 return to the lineup, failing to get a hit in his first eight at-bats.

But Morse, who battled right hamstring tightness during the Nats' midweek series with Colorado, busted out at Coors and didn't look back when he hit Atlanta. After a spectacular 9-for-19 series against the Rockies, Morse continued his hot hitting Friday night with a 4-for-4 showing, including the go-ahead RBI on a solo homer in the eighth inning. The 30-year-old is hitting .294 with three homers and 13 RBIs in his injury-shortened season.

Braves: Struggling Uggla takes a seat
Gonzalez opted to leave the struggling Dan Uggla out of the starting lineup Friday night, moving slugger Jason Heyward to third in the order in Uggla's absence. That marked the first time all season Uggla was not part of the Braves' starting nine.

Uggla had just seven hits in 65 at-bats (.108) since June 5 and has slugged just .169 in that span. In his absence, shortstop Andrelton Simmons moved up to second in the order with Heyward third.

Worth noting
• Martin Prado was out of the Braves' starting lineup for the series opener with the Nationals to nurse a strained right hamstring. According to Gonzalez, Prado has been dealing with the injury for a few weeks, and while it is not considered serious, the club wants to give Prado time to heal to maximize his effectiveness and durability in the second half of the season. Prado came off the bench in Friday night's game and turned in a pinch-hit single.

• As if opposing hitters don't have enough trouble with Strasburg when they're in the batter's box, he's causing opponents fits when he's in it, as well. Strasburg is hitting .348 in 23 plate appearances this season. He's got a home run and four doubles, numbers that have him alone with or tied for the league lead among hurlers in both categories. Comments