MLB Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves Must Sweep San Diego Padres In Crucial Road Series

Ervin Santana Atlanta Braves

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The Atlanta Braves have under-performed for a large part of the 2014 season, but the NL East contenders are still within striking distance of the first place Washington Nationals. A series with the Nats looms just a week away, but the time for Atlanta to start heating up is now.

The Braves begin a crucial three-game stretch with the lowly San Diego Padres tonight at Petco Park in San Diego, a series that presents Atlanta with a golden opportunity for a sweep. Tonight’s opposing pitcher is especially inviting for Atlanta, as the Padres will send Eric Stults to the bump, a lefty with a 5.22 ERA over the course of the 2014 season. And if that weren’t enough motivation for Atlanta to go out and earn a win, new Brave Emilio Bonifacio will bat eighth and play right field in his team debut. Bonifacio was acquired as a bench player, but a lower back injury to Jason Heyward has forced the former Chicago Cubs‘ speedster into tonight’s lineup.

Another Friday night storyline to watch is the performance of Mike Minor, Atlanta’s starting pitcher who has performed extremely poorly this season. The Braves weren’t able to boost the starting rotation at the trade deadline, so the club really needs Minor to step his game up in order to make a run at the top of the NL East. Minor has the potential, but his 5.23 ERA has been massively disappointing for an Atlanta team that was hoping for a strong season out of the lefty.

Atlanta will send Ervin Santana to the hill Saturday in what will be his second consecutive start against San Diego. Santana had his way on July 28 against the Padres at Turner Field, an outing that saw the Atlanta ace strike out eleven while scattering five hits over eight innings. The Braves won the game 2-0. His counterpart will be Ian Kennedy, a veteran righty who is surprisingly still in San Diego after the trade deadline. Kennedy is undoubtedly a better pitcher than Friday’s starter Stults, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t present a prime opportunity for Atlanta bats to heat up.

Sunday’s series finale will feature Aaron Harang and Tyson Ross in the only part of the three-game stretch in which the Padres will have the pitching advantage. Harang has been solid for Atlanta, but Ross is experiencing his breakout big league season this year. He currently boasts 10 wins to go along with a 2.60 ERA, and he has undoubtedly become the ace of the San Diego staff in 2014. Sunday’s match-up will be tough for Atlanta, but the team really needs to find a way to pull out a win before heading to Seattle.

ESPN.com perennially writes of the Atlanta Braves early, claiming that the Nationals have the advantage in the division year-in and year-out. This seems to have become a common opinion around baseball, but it isn’t necessarily true.  The NL East still belongs to the Atlanta Braves, and the next week of baseball is the perfect opportunity for Freddie Freeman and company to showcase just that.

Jacob Dennis is a writer at RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter, “Like” him on Facebook, and add him to your network on Google.