The Atlanta Braves are closing in on the first-place New York Mets in the National League East, and rookie Michael Harris II is playing a key role.

Harris has emerged as one of the majors’ top rookies and settled in as the starting center fielder for the Braves, who aim for a sweep of their three-game series against the visiting Washington Nationals on Sunday.

The 21-year-old has hit .303 with seven homers, 24 RBIs, 28 runs and six steals in his first 40 major league games, and the Braves are 29-11 over that stretch.

“He’s really impressive,” Atlanta first baseman Matt Olson said. “Probably one of the best young players I’ve played with. His ability to hit, he’s got natural instincts in the outfield. Obviously able to cover a lot of ground. Steals bases. Hits for average, power. … He’s a special player.”

Harris made a one-hop throw to the plate to prevent a run from scoring on Saturday, when Atlanta held on for a 4-3 victory.

The Braves are a season-high 16 games over .500, while Washington has lost nine of its last 10.

One bright spot for the Nationals has been the recent play of right fielder Juan Soto, who has homered in back-to-back games.

After hitting .195 in June, Soto has reached base in 18 straight games and is batting .358 (19-for-53) with four homers and nine RBIs during that span.

“Juan’s starting to swing the bat,” Washington manager Dave Martinez said. “Hopefully, he continues to keep it going and some of his teammates could join him and we start scoring some runs.”

The Nationals are aiming for a rare divisional win after losing 21 of their last 23 games against NL East opponents.

Washington will send veteran Paolo Espino (0-2, 3.33 ERA) to the mound in the series finale. The right-hander is 0-2 with a 4.91 ERA in five starts since joining the starting rotation on June 12.

Espino, 35, allowed four runs on six hits over 3 2/3 innings in an 11-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies last Tuesday. He has given up a total of eight runs over his last two starts covering eight innings.

“It’s just the way pitching goes sometimes,” Espino said. “Two back-to-back outings where it hasn’t been going my way, but I feel OK. I feel fine. I’m still executing some good pitches, but I’m also making some mistakes.”

Austin Riley is 4-for-9 with a home run against Espino, who is 0-1 with a 6.16 ERA in eight career games (two starts) vs. Washington.

Right-hander Ian Anderson (7-5, 5.09) takes the mound for Atlanta after beginning the month of July with an encouraging outing.

Anderson, 24, allowed one run over five innings in a 7-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals last Tuesday.

Anderson had struggled in his previous two starts, yielding a combined 11 runs across six innings in consecutive losses. He walked one and struck out three against St. Louis.

“I’m just really happy for what he did,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “His stuff was really good. He needed that one. We needed to get him back to being Ian, and that was really a great step forward.”

Anderson is making his third career start against Washington. He received a no-decision after allowing four runs over four frames at Nationals Park on June 13.

–Field Level Media