Braves attempt to slice into Nationals' NL East lead

The Atlanta Braves need Tim Hudson to pitch like he did last week if they hope to put a dent in the Washington Nationals' lead atop the NL East.

Hudson, though, has struggled against the Nats this season and takes the hill this evening for the opener of a key three-game series.

The right-handed Hudson is 6-0 over his last eight starts since a loss to the Nationals on July 1 in Washington. Atlanta has won all eight of those outings, including one on Aug. 8 when Hudson was drilled for six runs and two homers over 4 1/3 innings of a no-decision at Philadelphia.

However, he bounced back on Tuesday with 6 1/3 scoreless frames of two-hit ball at home to beat the Padres, walking one and striking out four in a 6-0 decision. Hudson improved to 12-4 with a 3.59 earned run average in 20 starts this season.

Though the 37-year-old is a solid 14-5 with a 2.53 ERA over his career against the Nationals franchise, he has lost both starts versus them in 2012 while yielding 12 earned runs over 12 2/3 innings.

Hudson has especially struggled against Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who is 4-for-7 with three doubles, a homer and six RBI in this year's season series.

The Atlanta starter isn't alone in his struggles versus the Nationals, who have won eight of 12 versus the Braves this season. The clubs have split six meetings so far in Washington, however.

The Braves could be seeing double tonight in the form of the third baseman as well as Nats starter Jordan Zimmermann, who faces the Braves for the first time this season.

The right-hander leads the majors with a 2.38 ERA over 24 starts, producing a 9-7 record. However, Zimmermann had a nine-start unbeaten streak (6-0) halted on Tuesday with a loss at the San Francisco Giants.

Zimmermann allowed just two runs in the 6-1 defeat, but wanted to last more than the 5 2/3 frames he logged.

"I'd like to at least go six or into the seventh, but they're a good hitting team," Zimmermann told his club's official website. "They battled pretty well tonight. I just didn't have the best stuff."

The 26-year-old is 2-1 with a 3.09 ERA in four lifetime meetings with the Braves.

Washington extended its lead over second-place Atlanta to five games with a 5-2 win over the New York Mets on Sunday. The Braves, meanwhile, were shut out 5-0 by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Danny Espinosa hit a two-run homer for the Nats and Bryce Harper added a homer and a run-scoring triple. Zimmerman added two hits and an RBI for Washington, which has won three of four and 12 of its past 15 games.

Gio Gonzalez won his 16th game of the season, the most for the franchise in a single season since relocating from Montreal in 2005. He allowed a run over 5 2/3 innings.

"This is definitely a team accomplishment," Gonzalez said. "I couldn't have done this without them. The bullpen has been our biggest key, and I said it since the beginning: These guys come and clean up our mess. They are constantly working hard for us.

"But the offense was unbelievable, and the defense has been incredible. We are playing Nationals baseball, and it has been fun watching."

The Braves were held to just three hits in Sunday's loss as Dodgers' starter Chad Billingsley hurled seven shutout innings.

"(Billingsley) did a good job, we didn't even score," said Braves center fielder Michael Bourn, who had one of the three hits. "He shut us down, there is nothing you can do about that. You have to tip your cap to him, he pitched a great game. He had us off balance and we couldn't get anything going against him."

Atlanta lost its second in a row following a four-game win streak despite starter Mike Minor only giving up a run over seven frames.

The Braves will head out west following this series, continuing a 10-game swing through San Francisco and San Diego.