(Staff writer Carroll Rogers is filling in for David O’Brien.)
Remember when these Nationals-Braves series used to be the ones I just filled in for DOB in and ho hum, just a getcha through until the next interesting match-up? Them days are over.
The Braves welcome to town the 26-18 Washington Nationals, in first place in the NL East by one game and the team the Braves have chased and swapped the first-place lead with off and on for the past three weeks.
Yes, the Braves are ailing. They’re limping home from Cincinnati having lost four in a row and five out of six, while hitting only .167 and scoring two runs a game along the way, as DOB aptly pointed out.
They’re playing without Chipper Jones (nasty bruise), Brian McCann (flu) and Freddie Freeman (dry eye problems), but they’d best find a way to get things together somehow or they could find themselves with a bigger hole than they want to be digging out of this early in the division race.
Nothing like a late-night plane flight to help those ailing, and thanks to a night game last night in Cincinnati on getaway day, Fredi Gonzalez was planning to give the team an extra hour or two to report today to catch up on sleep. So we’ll see, perhaps at least one of those guys can get back in there. My guess is the most likely would be Freeman, if he has a pair of sport glasses waiting on him. I knew the ones he wore briefly May 17 vs. the Marlins weren’t what he was going for.
But let’s talk about the Nationals. And what’s going to make this holiday weekend interesting. I think the Braves knew better than anybody the potential this team has had the past few years – the Braves are 44-46 against the Nationals over the past five seasons.
Need I remind anyone about their last meeting either? Sept. 23-25 in Washington, the Braves beat Stephen Strasburg on Friday night in Game 1, only to drop the next two games to Chein-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler, scoring a combined one run. I remember one particular situation where the Braves had runners second and third nobody out – actually I just looked it up and the bases were loaded with nobody out – and they couldn’t score on that Sunday. It was the third inning. That to me was when the wildcard was lost. The Braves had three more games against the Phillies and you know what happened there, but that Sunday game in Washington, a winnable game, spelled doom.
And funny how things go, Detwiler would be your first Nationals pitcher this weekend. He pitched six shutout innings on four hits that day in Washington. And he’s 1-0 with a 3.26 ERA in six career games (three starts) against the Braves.
Of any of the Nationals starters he might be the one showing a little vulnerability of late – and that’s only relative because these guys have been tough. He gave up six runs in five innings in his last outing against Baltimore, and gave up five runs (four earned) in five innings against the Padres the start before that.
But if the Braves could handpick a guy to start the series and get them off on the right foot, this would be the one – Tim Hudson is 14-3 with a 2.05 ERA in 23 career starts against the Nationals, including 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA against them last season.
He’s had three dominant outings in a row, seven innings allowing one run against the Cubs, seven innings allowing two run in a win over the Reds, and beating the Rays his last time out with 7 2/3 shutout innings (remember Luke Scott’s groundball that hit the runner).
Then Saturday you have Mike Minor vs. Strasburg and on Sunday night for the ESPN game you get the glamour match-up of Brandon Beachy (1.77) vs. Gio Gonzalez (1.98), two of your top four ERA guys in baseball.
But I digressed a bit.
The point I meant to get to earlier was this: these Nationals are better than the Nationals that have already been a thorn in the Braves side for years, and it starts with their pitching. The Nats lead the majors with a 2.90 ERA. Their starting rotation leads the majors with a 2.71 ERA.
It breaks down like this: Detwiler (3-3, 3.65 ERA), Strasburg (4-1, 2.21 ERA), Gonzalez (6-1, 1.98 ERA), Jordan Zimmermann (3-4, 2.47 ERA) and Edwin Jackson (1-2, 3.38 ERA). They have 254 strikeouts, second in the majors to the Phillies’ 269.
And they have the most exciting young player in baseball with the call-up of outfielder Bryce Harper. (He’s hitting .267 with six doubles, three triples, two home runs and nine RBIs.)
Yes, the Nationals have a long list of players on the disabled list, including right fielder Jayson Werth (broken wrist) and catcher Wilson Ramos (torn ACL), but they’re still hanging in there. They’re coming off a series win against the Phillies, a team they’ve beat four out of six times this season. The Nats are 8-3 against the NL East this season, having won all four of their division series.
Getting the idea?
And in case I’m too straight-forward and jaded after all these years as a baseball writer, let me share a snippet of writing from Charles
Krauthammer, of Fox News fame, who also writes opinions for the Washington Post. This is from a column sent to me this morning by my better half and it’s fun to see some old-fashioned romanticism (no and I don’t get that a ton on the blog. Ha ha ha).
They’ve got an electric 19-year-old, the aforementioned Harper, who runs the bases like Pete Rose on steroids (so to speak) — with joy and abandon. After being deliberately drilled in the back by an opposing pitcher, how does the kid retaliate? By stealing home. Nobody does that anymore. Not since Jackie Robinson, anyway. This kid does it on national TV in the first inning of Game Eight of his career against a former World Series MVP.
The Nats also have the best starting pitching in the game. They not only throw harder and faster than any rotation on record; they throw with purpose and precision. They lead the world in ERA and strikeouts. Better still, four of the five are 26 or younger. The grizzled veteran is 28….
Young, brash and dangerous — how can you not like these guys? True, they could very well go south tomorrow. But what a ride. Even the omens are good. When the wizened [Davey] Johnson, asked about a recent epidemic of injuries to key players, suggested that perhaps a chicken be sacrificed, a bunch of fans promptly showed up at the park for the exorcism.
As charmingly reported by The Post’s Dan Steinberg, the beheading was clean; the chicken, rubber; and the results, pleasing: no major Nats injuries in a week! No entrails were read, but I’d say: The outlook is quite brilliant for the Mudville Nine this day.
OK perhaps a little cliché in the last line but you get what I’m saying, right?
One more thing I wanted to share, from a conversation I had earlier this week with Tom Glavine for a story on Mike Minor and the struggles young pitchers face. One of the things I asked him about that didn’t make the story was the approach he had with the bases loaded.
One thing about Glavine that stood apart from almost any other pitcher I’ve ever seen is his refusal to let even a bases-loaded jam goad him into grooving somebody a fastball.
And I’m bringing this up because it’s been an issue for the Braves of late – Randall Delgado has given up two grand slams already this season, including one last Saturday in Tampa. Then Kris Medlen gives up another one last night in Cincinnati.
Granted the three runners were Delgado’s, and the walks to load the bases are a big part of the problem, but for those three games, as soon as the ball was hit out of the yard, the game was over. It just was.
If a pitcher gives up one run and still gets the next guy, how awful is it? Adam Wainwright walked two Braves with the bases loaded in St. Louis on May 12 but gave up only two runs in the inning and kept his team in the game. Remember how deflating that felt to Braves fans to only get two runs out of that bases loaded, nobody out situation?
Glavine always had the mindset that he’s rather walk in one run than give up four, and while it may be counterintuitive, he made it work. He was confident enough to get the next guy, if need be. Glavine gave up only two grand slams in his entire career, and he walked 22 batters with the bases loaded. It was gutsy, but smart, to me, and listen to this thinking he gave when asked about it this week.
“It takes a while to trust yourself to be able to do that,” Glavine said. “We’re told all our life as pitchers ‘Hey you can’t walk guys,’ and particularly ‘You can’t walk a guy with the bases loaded. You have to throw a strike.’ Well, at that level, you’ve still got to be careful. I know the odds are probably still in the pitcher’s favor that even if he did groove one down the middle, it’s still tough for that hitter to get a hit but at the same time, it’s the kind of thing where if you don’t have to take that chance, why take it?”
“But it’s tougher for a kid to have that mentality because if you do end up walking a guy with the bases loaded, that’s all you hear about. We all tend to do what the ‘book’ says we’re supposed to do and in that situation it’s… ‘Well I gave up a grand slam but I didn’t walk him.’ And that’s almost the thought process.”
I could hear that last night in Medlen’s comments after the game. “I fell behind and had to go at him,” he said, after falling behind Devin Mesoraco 2-0 and leaving him a fastball over the plate. It made me think of Glavine.
1. Michael Bourn CF
2. Martin Prado 3B
3. Freddie Freeman 1B
4. Dan Uggla 2B
5. Matt Diaz LF
6. Jason Heyward RF
7. David Ross C
8. Jack Wilson SS
9. Tim Hudson P