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Nationals Strive To Ruin Braves' Playoff Hopes

(Sports Network) - With his club fighting for its playoff lives, Tim Hudson will be vying to continue his career-long track record of success against the Washington Nationals when the Atlanta Braves ace takes the mound for tonight's opener of a critical three-game set between National League East foes.

The Braves' hopes of capturing the division title were just about dashed in their most recent series, after Bobby Cox's squad lost all three meetings with first-place Philadelphia at Citizens Bank Park. The red-hot Phillies completed the sweep with Wednesday's 1-0 verdict, which moved the two-time defending NL champs six games ahead of Atlanta with just nine to play.

Atlanta remains in the thick of the NL Wild Card race, owning a half-game edge on San Diego for the lead in that battle.

The Braves hope for a good start to this series, a strong bet if Hudson is able to pitch to his usual standards when he faces the Nationals. The veteran right-hander sports a stellar 10-1 record and 1.55 earned run average over 17 career starts against Washington, which includes a 2-0 ledger and 1.52 ERA in four previous visits to Nationals Park.

Hudson has produced similar numbers in his four matchups with Washington this season, having gone 2-0 with an excellent 1.57 ERA over those games. The Braves have prevailed in three of the contests.

The 2010 All-Star has struggled in September, however, having lost his first three outings this month and allowing four runs or more each time. He was able to bounce back in Saturday's start against the New York Mets, though, working seven innings and yielding just two runs while fanning seven to help the Braves to a 4-2 win.

Atlanta will try to provide Hudson with a little support in tonight's opener, something the team had trouble doing for its pitchers in the Philadelphia series. The Braves mustered only four runs in the three defeats and only a single hit -- a Martin Prado double in the fourth inning -- during Wednesday's narrow loss.

The Phillies scored the game's only run in the bottom of the eighth, when Jayson Werth drew a walk against Braves reliever Jonny Venters (4-3) and came around on Raul Ibanez's two-out double that landed just inside the left-field line.

Atlanta starter Tommy Hanson threw the first six innings and gave up only two hits while walking three and striking out four.

"The fans aren't going to see a better ball game than the one they saw [Wednesday] with two outstanding starters," said Cox. "The Phillies caught a break -- they got a ball just inside the line down in left field, and it was the ball game."

The Nationals sit at the bottom of the NL East standings at 65-88, but have played the Braves tough this year. Washington has won eight of the 15 bouts between the clubs so far in 2010, including four of six tests held in Nationals Park, and took two of three on the road from Atlanta earlier this month.

Washington is also riding a three-game win streak that was extended with Thursday's 7-2 decision over visiting Houston. The Nats scored four times in the bottom of the sixth inning to overcome an early 2-1 deficit, with Mike Morse's two-run double putting the team ahead for good.

Roger Bernadina followed Morse's big hit with a two-run homer for a 5-2 Washington lead, and Danny Espinosa tacked on a two-run blast of his own the following inning to put the game out of reach.

Morse had a solo homer in the bottom of the second and finished 2-for-3 on the afternoon, which raised the utilityman's season average to .300. He's now gone deep 13 times in 240 at-bats for the year.

"You get opportunities, like Mike has been getting, and you take advantage of it," manager Jim Riggleman told the Nationals' official site. "That's why he is out there. He has a lot of tools. The ball jumps off his bat, and he is driving in runs."

Ross Detwiler (1-2) made the most of his chance yesterday as well, with the young Washington lefty holding Houston to two runs over six innings to collect his second career win in the majors.

Jordan Zimmermann shoots for his first win following his return from elbow surgery when he toes the rubber for the Nationals tonight. The promising righty has made five starts since coming back but has mostly struggled, having gone 0-2 with a subpar 6.75 ERA and serving up six homers in only 20 innings pitched.

Zimmermann has lasted only three innings in each of his last two times outs, both resulting in losses. He surrendered five runs (four earned) and walked three in a home date against Florida on September 12, then was pounded for five runs on nine hits -- three of which were homers -- in Saturday's road setback to the Phillies.

The 24-year-old, a second-round draft choice of Washington in 2007, did win his only career start against Atlanta. That came in his major league debut on April 20, 2009, with Zimmermann permitting two runs over six innings that night.