(Sports Network) - The Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg with the hopes that he could one day headline a rotation that would make Washington a contender in the National League East.
The 21-year-old phenom gets his first crack at division play this evening when the Nats visit the first-placeAtlanta Braves for the opener of a three-game series at Turner Field.
Strasburg has gone 2-1 with a 1.78 earned run average over his first four starts, striking out 41 batters over 25 1/3 innings since making his debut on June 8 versus the Pirates. His last three starts have all come against American League opponents and the right-hander will be trying tonight to rebound from his first career loss.
Despite allowing just one earned run for a third straight outing, Strasburg suffered a 1-0 setback to the Royalson Wednesday. He allowed a career-high nine hits, but didn't walk a batter and struck out nine to pass former Cleveland hurler Herb Score for the most strikeouts through the first four starts of a big league career.
"For the most part, I went out there and threw strikes," said Strasburg, who threw 75 of his 95 pitches for strikes. "Couple mistakes by me. They really didn't hit the ball hard, except for a couple times they found holes, but that's baseball."
The Nationals hope that the San Diego State product can go deep into this contest after Washington blew leads in all three games of its weekend series with Baltimore. The Orioles recorded the winning run in Sunday's 4-3 contest on Miguel Tejada's two-out single in the eighth inning that handed Nats reliever Tyler Clippard his second loss in as many days.
"It feels devastating," Clippard said of the three losses. "We're battling our butts off, we're playing good but we're coming up short and it's not fun."
Washington, which got a two-run homer by Roger Bernadina, has lost four straight and 12 of its last 15 to fall 11 games back of the Braves in the NL East.
The Nats have also lost 20 of their last 24 road contests and tonight face a team with the best home record in baseball. The Braves are 26-8 at Turner Field this year despite Sunday's 10-4 loss to the Tigers that halted the club's seven-game home winning streak.
Troy Glaus and Brian McCann notched RBI doubles for the Braves, who have lost four of their last six and lead the Mets by just a half-game for the top spot in the NL East. Starter Tommy Hanson lasted just 3 2/3 innings, yielding six runs -- five earned -- on eight hits.
"I felt pretty good until that fourth inning," Hanson said. "The wheels just came off. Just a frustrating inning."
Atlanta rookie Jason Heyward did not play on Sunday due to a left thumb injury and he is slated to have an MRI today. He is batting .251 this year with 11 homers and 45 RBI, but his hitting just .172 over his last 25 games.
While the Nationals are turning to their young star, the Braves counter with a veteran in Tim Hudson, who is an outstanding 7-3 this year with a 2.54 ERA. The 34-year-old, though, allowed more than three earned runs for the first time this year in Wednesday's loss to the White Sox, getting charged with four runs on six hits and three walks over seven innings of a 4-2 setback.
Hudson, who has pitched at least seven innings in each of his last four starts, is 4-1 with a 1.87 ERA in five home starts this season and has won his last seven decisions versus the Nats franchise since his lone loss to them on June 5, 2006.
In 14 career starts against them, the right-hander is 8-1 with a 1.62 ERA and got a no-decision in a May 6 meeting that saw him allow two runs over seven frames of work.
Atlanta lost two of three in that set at Washington, and the Nationals have won six of the last seven matchups between the two clubs.