Can the Nationals' offense continue its turnaround at a time they need it most?
After an inconsistent start to a season that has featured plenty of high expectations, Washington saw its bats start to heat up before Thursday's shutout loss. With that defeat wrapping up a Battle of the Beltways Interleague series with the Orioles, the Nats head south to face their division rivals, the Braves.
First-place Atlanta has dominated the season series thus far, taking five of the first seven meetings and outscoring Washington, 30-13. The Nationals won the final two games of their last four-game set, salvaging a split and snapping Atlanta's win streak.
After scoring just 22 runs in nine games (2.4 per game) from May 14-22, the Nats have averaged 4.43 runs in their past seven games. During that surge, they've hit a collective .268 with 11 doubles, two triples and nine home runs.
"I like the way [Ryan Zimmerman's] swinging the bat, and other guys in the lineup are looking a lot better," manager Davey Johnson said. "We've got nine of them in there. They've all got to pull their own weight. [Camden Yards] is the place to get it going, too. But I feel like the offense is making strides, and it'd be nice to get [Jayson Werth] and [Bryce Harper] back in the lineup."
Zimmerman has been a big key to the offense's resurgence. He's hitting .326 (30-for-92) with nine extra-base hits (five homers) and 17 RBIs in 25 May games.
Harper, still considered day to day with bursitis in his swollen left knee, hopes to be back in the lineup for Friday's series opener. If so, he'll be up against right-hander Julio Teheran, who's coming off a career-high 123-pitch effort against the Mets on Sunday.
Teheran logged 6 2/3 innings and issued three walks, but the only run he allowed came via one of the three home runs he's surrendered in his past six starts.
"I don't think he was as sharp as we have seen him," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But [catcher Gerald Laird] did a good job getting him through some of those innings. He scattered the ball around a little bit, but he left the game giving up just one run."
Fellow right-hander Stephen Strasburg will be on the mound for the Nationals, looking to build off a sharp performance in a 6-1 win against the Phillies his last time out. He struck out a season-high nine batters over eight innings.
Braves: Wood set to make splash
The Braves on Thursday selected the contract of left-hander Alex Wood from Double-A Mississippi. He went 4-2 with a 1.26 ERA in 10 starts at Mississippi this season, logging 57 strikeouts in 57 innings of work. He pitched the ninth inning of Atlanta's 11-3 win over the Blue Jays, allowing one hit.
With his Major League debut, Wood becomes the first player from Atlanta's 2012 MLB Draft class to reach the Majors.
Wood was rated the Braves' No. 5 prospect, according to MLB.com.
• Atlanta is 2-15 in games without a home run this year and 30-6 in games with a homer.
Nationals: Bullpen searching for a groove
For all the offensive woes the Nats have had this season, Johnson has repeatedly said his biggest concern is the bullpen. That concern only grew after a crushing loss Wednesday night in which his most reliable reliever against left-handed hitters, Tyler Clippard, gave up the decisive homer to -- you guessed it -- a left-handed hitter, Chris Davis.
Johnson said he's been struggling to solidify everyone's bullpen roles, but hopes they'll continue to become more clear as the season progresses.
"I'll be more comfortable when we get out of [Baltimore]," Johnson said. "This is a tough ballpark. It's a fun place to play, I love playing here, but you can't make mistakes here. Especially with their ball club."
• In Strasburg's past three starts, he has posted a .173 batting average against and allowed only two extra-base hits (both doubles).
• The Braves have only played 22 home games this year, but are 16-6 at Turner Field.
• This weekend's three-game series will conclude a rough 32-game stretch for the Nats that included just 10 home games. Washington is 14-15 so far during that span.