By NICOLINO DIBENEDETTO
(AP) -- Taking nearly two years off didn't seem to bother Ben Sheets.
Now, he'll try to build on his dazzling return and help the Atlanta Braves gain more ground on the NL East-leading Washington Nationals in the opener of a day-night doubleheader Saturday.
The Braves (51-41) signed Sheets to a minor league contract July 1 after he hadn't pitched in the majors since July 19, 2010, because of Tommy John surgery.
The right-hander looked fully recovered Sunday, yielding two hits and striking out five in six scoreless innings of a 6-1 win over the New York Mets. He threw 88 pitches - 57 for strikes.
"He mixed his pitches well, and his command was outstanding," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "A little better than I thought it would be the first time out. He gave us a hell of an opportunity to win the ball game."
Sheets will try to do that again as he faces Washington (53-38) for the first time since tossing a five-hit shutout against the Nationals for Milwaukee on Aug. 9, 2008.
Atlanta is seeking to move closer to Washington after pulling within 2 1/2 games with a stirring victory Friday. The Braves overcame a nine-run deficit to win 11-10 in 11 innings for their largest comeback since 1987.
The Nationals franchise had never blown such a big lead.
"It's a big series, and there's no way we were just going to go down without a fight," Gonzalez said.
Brian McCann, Michael Bourn, Martin Prado and Chipper Jones drove in two runs each in the opener of this four-game set. Freddie Freeman had three hits, continuing a surge that has been key to Atlanta's 9-2 stretch.
Freeman has a .429 average with three homers, six doubles and nine RBIs in those games, as his season average has jumped 24 points to .280. He's 7 for 15 while plating five runs in his last four meetings with the Nationals.
Washington will give the ball to the struggling Edwin Jackson (5-5, 3.89) opposite Sheets. The right-hander has posted a 10.54 ERA in his last three starts after compiling a 2.20 mark over his previous seven.
He was shaky again Monday, surrendering four runs and six hits - one homer - in five-plus innings of a 5-3 loss at Miami.
"I couldn't get into a rhythm - balls wide, balls up, balls down," Jackson said. "When I did throw strikes, it was pretty much across the middle and they were able to hit them."
For the nightcap, the Nationals are planning to recall veteran John Lannan for his 2012 debut. The left-hander is 6-9 with a 4.89 ERA in 18 starts for Triple-A Syracuse this year, losing his last three outings with a 7.27 ERA.
Lannan had spent most of the previous four years with the Nationals, going 10-13 with a 3.70 ERA in 2011. He failed to earn a spot in the rotation during spring training and was demoted, prompting him to ask for a trade.
He's 3-1 with a 1.87 ERA in his last five home starts versus Atlanta.
The Braves will give Randall Delgado (4-9, 4.52) another start in the nightcap. The right-hander, 0-4 with a 5.18 ERA in his last five outings, lost his spot in the rotation upon Sheets' return, but Atlanta needs an extra starter due to the twinbill.
Delgado made it through only four innings June 29 against the Nationals, allowing four runs - two earned - and eight hits in the Braves' 5-4 loss. Atlanta will certainly be hoping for a longer outing this time, with both teams' bullpens already taxed from Friday's wild affair.
Updated July 21, 2012