Tim Hudson hasn't lost since the Washington Nationals beat him to begin July. Another defeat against them to open a crucial three-game series Monday would make winning the NL East tougher for the Atlanta Braves.
Hudson (12-4, 3.59 ERA) has been a key figure in helping the Braves (70-51) build a three-game lead for the top wild-card spot and remain within striking distance of Washington, which sports the majors' best record at 75-46. Since getting tagged for six runs by the Nationals in an 8-4 home loss July 1, he is 6-0 with a 3.12 ERA with Atlanta winning all eight of his starts.
The veteran right-hander had his way with San Diego on Tuesday, allowing two hits and one walk in 6 1-3 innings of a 6-0 win. Hudson is eager to take the ball knowing he can set the tone for the Braves as they bid to cut into their five-game division deficit.
"The first game of any series is a big game," he told his team's official website. "If you can win that game then you're sitting in the driver's seat for the next couple. ... Hopefully if I go out there and I'm on top of my game and I'm doing my job, then we should win."
Hudson, though, has lost both his starts against the Nationals this year, yielding 13 runs in 12 2-3 innings. Ryan Zimmerman in particular has tormented Hudson in 2012, going 4 for 7 with three doubles and a homer. Jayson Werth, hitting .389 in 16 games since returning from a broken wrist, is 12 for 33 (.364) with three homers and two doubles lifetime versus Hudson.
Hudson will be trying to pick up a Braves team that completed a 4-3 homestand by dropping the final two games against the Los Angeles Dodgers, including a 5-0 loss Sunday in which it had only three hits.
The Nationals, in their first pennant race since relocating from Montreal in 2005, are showing the kind of poise the Braves had during their staggering run of success in the 1990s and early 2000s. They've taken eight of 12 in the season series, and they appear primed to extend their lead atop the division.
"We have played important series all year long," shortstop Ian Desmond said to the team's website after a 5-2 win over the Mets on Sunday, the team's 12th victory in 15 games. "We just understand we have to go out and play our type of baseball.
"If we play good, clean baseball, we should be able to take care of business, whether it's the most important series of the year or the least important series of the year."
Bryce Harper backed Gio Gonzalez's 16th win with a home run and a triple Sunday, and the 19-year-old rookie went 4 for 8 with four RBIs over the weekend against New York following a 3-for-32 slump.
"It's going to be a lot of fun going into this series," Harper said. "Good for baseball, good for us and good for this town."
Major league ERA leader Jordan Zimmermann (9-7, 2.38) will try to bounce back from his first loss since June 22. He allowed two runs in 5 2-3 innings Tuesday at San Francisco in a 6-1 defeat after going 6-0 with a 1.47 ERA in his previous nine starts.
The right-hander is 2-1 in four starts versus the Braves, although he hasn't faced them yet this year.