Rolling Braves get early chance to test Nationals

Atlanta went into the season considered by most to be the best team in the majors not favored to win its division.

But the Braves lost the National League wild-card game to St. Louis last season and they don't want to have to play a do-or-die game again this year. Their mission is to win the NL East title.

Off to their best start since 1994, Atlanta will have to beat out defending champion Washington to do that and the Braves take the majors' best record into an early-season showdown series with the Nationals this weekend.

The Braves, 8-1 and on a six-game winning streak, play the Nationals three times in Washington. Then the teams have four games in Atlanta beginning at the end of the month, giving everyone an early read on how they match up.

"It's good momentum," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said after the Braves completed their sweep of the Marlins in Miami on Wednesday. "Now we've got a big series ahead of us in Washington."

Atlanta won the final four meetings between the teams last year, but the Nationals took the season series 10-8 en route to capturing the NL East by four games.

"It's early, but yeah, you'd rather be the guy in front all the time," Gonzalez said of getting a shot at the Nationals before the season is two weeks old. "It'll be a nice test for us. ... We'll see where we're at."

General manager Frank Wren remade the Braves outfield and offense in the offseason by signing B.J. Upton and trading for his younger brother, Justin. But it really hasn't been the bats that have carried the Braves to their best start since the 1994 team began 13-1.

The Braves lead the majors with a 1.89 team ERA and the 18 overall runs they have allowed are the fewest in the majors through nine games since the Marlins gave up 15 in 2005.

Paul Maholm, who will face the Nationals on Sunday in the series finale, hasn't allowed a run while winning his first two starts and fellow lefty Mike Minor is 2-0 with a 0.69 ERA.

The only Braves starter without a solid ERA is rookie Julio Teheran, who will pitch the series opener against the Nationals on Friday. After an impressive spring, he allowed five runs over five innings against the Chicago Cubs in a no-decision last Saturday.

The Braves rallied to win that game as B.J. Upton hit a tying homer in the ninth inning and Justin Upton delivered a game-winning blast two batters later.

But B.J. is off to a slow start and so is Jason Heyward. With first baseman and cleanup hitter Freddie Freeman on the disabled list, that has left the Braves offense centered on Justin Upton and surprising rookie Evan Gattis, who have combined for nine of the team's 15 home runs.

That the Braves have gotten off to such a good start with Freeman, catcher Brian McCann and reliever Jonny Venters on the disabled list is testament to the team's strength. But the six-game winning streak has come at the expense of the lowly Cubs and Marlins.

This weekend, the new-look Braves will get their first major test.

Notes: McCann, who had surgery on his right shoulder in October, is serving as a DH in extended spring training games and is playing long toss from a distance of 180 feet. He won't be cleared to see action as a catcher until at least Tuesday and will begin a minor league rehab after that. He is not expected back until late April or early May. ... RHP Tim Hudson, 1-0 with a 3.37 ERA, will start Saturday's game for the Braves. ... LHP Ross Detwiler (0-0, 0.00 ERA) will pitch the series opener for the Nationals, followed by RHP Stephen Strasburg (1-1, 4.38) and LHP Gio Gonzalez (1-0, 0.82).