With three-fourths of the season over, the Braves trail the division-leading Nationals by five games and have only six head-to-head matchups left, starting with Monday night’s series opener at Washington.
Yes, you could say this series is B-I-G for the Bravos.
“This is the stage that we wanted to have,” left fielder Martin Prado said. “This is the stage that all my teammates want. We’re in second place, they’re in first, and every single game, every single at-bat, every single out is going to count from now on.”
The Braves and Nationals have two of majors’ three hottest teams since early July, and the Braves will have arguably their best three starters – Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm and Kris Medlen – going against three of the Nationals’ finest in Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Ross Detwiler, in that order.
“Definitely a big series,” Braves reliever Jonny Venters said. “Hopefully we can win a couple or win all three.”
Right fielder Jason Heyward said that just being in contention for the division title and a playoff berth of any kind in late August makes every series exciting. But facing the team atop the National League East standings, with the best record in the majors, raises the stakes and anticipation.
“We’re first and second [in the division],” Heyward said. “They’ve got a real good pitching staff, they’ve got some guys who get clutch hits, and they get runners on. They’re dangerous.”
The Nationals are similar in many ways to the Braves.
“That’s what’s fun about it,” Heyward said. “But like I said, it’s just huge to be able to say we’re in contention to still win the division and make the playoffs.”
Before the Braves lost Sunday, the majors’ best records since July 3 belonged to Atlanta (29-12), Cincinnati (29-13) and Washington (29-14).
The Nationals won their first four games against the Braves this season, but the teams split the past eight. When they last met, the Braves won two of four in a July 20-22 series at Nationals Park.
“They’ve been kind of a thorn in our side the last few years,” Venters said. “To go up there last time and win two out of four games was big. We feel like we can beat them.”
The Braves lead the wild-card standings by 3-1/2 games. There will be an additional wild card team in each league this season, so the two wild cards in each league will have a one-game playoff, with the winner advancing to a best-of-five division series and the loser going home.
At this same point in the 2011 season, the Braves were nine games behind division leader Philadelphia and led the wild-card race by four. They ended up dropping 20 of their final 30 games and losing the wild card on the last day of the season.
The Braves have a better chance to win the division that at this point a year ago, and more incentive. Winning a wild-card berth no longer earns a spot in an opening playoff series, it only gets you a one-game, winner-take-all matchup with the other wild-card team from your league.
“We can close the gap [this week at Washington],” Prado said. “Or go the wrong way. In our minds, we’re just going to go there and play the same game we’ve been playing all year. We all know what Washington can do. They can pitch, they can score runs, they can play defense. At the same time, we feel we can do the same thing. We split a four-game series there. And the way our rotation is, it’s looking pretty good.”
Uggla’s extreme season
Dan Uggla leads the NL in walks (75) and was tied for the league lead in strikeouts (137) before Sunday. He was on pace for a career-high 185 strikeouts, which would obliterate the franchise record of 156 he set last season. No other Brave has ever struck out 150 times.
Uggla was also on pace for 101 walks, nine more than his career high set in 2009 with Florida. But he’s hitting just .210 with 15 home runs, after hitting a career-low .233 with 36 homers in his first season with the Braves. He went 0-for-9 with three walks in the weekend Dodgers series.
He hit .263 over five seasons with the Marlins, including a career-best .287 with an .877 OPS in in 2010, before the Braves traded for him in November 2010 and signed him to a five-year, $62 million extension. Uggla had a career-low .764 OPS in 2011 and is at .719 this season.
He’s on pace for 20 home runs, after hitting at least 31 in each of the past five seasons. His career low was 27 as a rookie in 2006.
Lot of whiffs
Atlanta hitters ranked sixth in the NL with 946 strikeouts before Sunday, but had three of the highest eight individual totals in Uggla (137, tied with Washington’s Danny Espinosa for first), Heyward (122) and Michael Bourn (119).