Braves-Nationals Preview

It remains to be seen if the Washington Nationals dug too deep a hole during an August swoon to catch the New York Mets in the NL East race.

At least they still have hope after a strong start to September.

The Nationals look to complete a four-game sweep of Atlanta while dealing the Braves their longest road losing streak in 92 years Sunday.

Washington (70-65) sat alone atop the East before the Mets forced a tie by sweeping a three-game series July 31-Aug. 2 in Queens. The Nationals went 12-17 in August and sit five games back of New York despite winning their last four.

They're looking to extend their longest streak since a season-best eight-game run June 19-28 after beating the Braves 8-2 on Saturday. Bryce Harper hit a two-run homer for his 500th career hit and also doubled twice, improving his average to .415 over his last 17.

Harper's .337 average leads the NL. He'll be 22 years, 353 days old when the season ends and could become the youngest to win the NL batting title since Hank Aaron did it at 22 years, 238 days in 1956.

"The guy is amazing. It's incredible to see him go out there and play the game he plays," winning pitcher Gio Gonzalez said. "It's almost like he's got the cheat codes."

The Nationals have averaged eight runs during their winning streak and hope to provide similar support for rookie Joe Ross (5-5, 3.50 ERA).

Ross won his previous two starts while allowing one earned run in 13 innings, but he walked six and gave up three runs in just 2 2-3 of Washington's 8-5 loss to St. Louis on Tuesday - the shortest of his 12 outings.

"I was just kind of sweaty and trying to wipe my hand off," Ross said after pitching in the 89-degree heat. "My pants were kind of sweaty and then I was just having a tough time finding the zone."

The right-hander could face the same problems with temperatures expected to be in the mid-80s by first pitch.

Manny Banuelos (1-3, 3.33) simply is happy to be back on a major league mound, and it appears he'll have more time to prove himself despite struggling in his last outing.

Banuelos spent more than a month on the disabled list with left elbow inflammation before being activated Tuesday and allowing three runs while throwing 52 pitches in just 2 2-3 innings of a 7-1 loss to Miami.

The rookie left-hander went 1-2 with a 2.49 ERA in four starts and one relief appearance before experiencing tightness and going on the DL on July 24. Manager Fredi Gonzalez said Banuelos should get regular opportunities to start down the stretch.

"I'm really happy to be here and I'm very excited to get experience," Banuelos told MLB's official website. "I just want to compete and help my team win."

Banuelos had an impressive major league debut July 2 against the Nationals, allowing two hits and striking out seven in 5 2-3 scoreless innings of Atlanta's 2-1 victory.

Wins have been few and far between for the Braves (54-82), who are 28 games under .500 for the first time since finishing 65-97 in 1990. They're on the verge of dropping 13 straight road games for the first time since 1923, and they haven't lost 12 in a row overall in a single season since 1942.

Atlanta has lost nine consecutive meetings in Washington.

"It's frustrating and it's tough," outfielder Nick Swisher said. "We've got (26) games left and we've got to make a run because you don't want this going into the offseason."

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