It’s strange to say with the Washington Nationals coming to Turner Field – the team the Braves have been chasing in the NL East all season – but who they’re playing this weekend doesn’t really matter that much to the Braves.
The way they look at it, they just need wins.
“I don’t really see any importance whatsoever other than just trying to win the series,” said Chipper Jones, when asked about the magnitude of playing the Nationals for the last time in the regular season. “Just trying to get some wins.”
The Nationals come to town holding an 8 ½ game lead in the division, their largest of the season. They’re one win shy of reaching 90 for the season and they’re a season-high 35 games over .500. They’re thinking magic number – now 11 to clinch the division with 19 games to play – while the Braves still have plenty of work to do.
The Braves hold a 5 ½ game lead in the top wild card spot with 18 games to play, but another five teams in the Nationals League are within four games of that second wild card spot. And the Braves have picked September to play some of their most anemic offense of the season.
The Braves are coming off a three-game sweep in Milwaukee in which they scored three runs in three games. Of their 20 hits in the series, 19 were singles. Jason Heyward’s solo home run Wednesday night was their only extra-base hit and their only RBI.
The Braves have scored two or fewer runs 14 times in their past 25 games. The Nationals pitching staff isn’t exactly fodder for slump-busting either, even without ace Stephen Strasburg, who was shut down last week in the widely-publicized move to protect his surgically-repaired arm. The Nationals are second in the majors with a 3.28 ERA behind Tampa’s 3.25.
“They’ve got, I would say, 3 ½ aces – four if you want to combine (Ross) Detwiler and (Edwin) Jackson,” said Heyward, alluding also to Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. “That’s a great luxury that they’ve had all year, and that’s been a huge part of their success.”
The Braves face Detwiler to open the series Friday and look to Kris Medlen to do what he’s done since he re-joined the rotation on July 31. The Braves have won each of Medlen’s eight starts since then and 19 overall dating back to 2010, which is a franchise record. Medlen pitched seven shutout innings to beat the Nationals on Aug. 22 In Washington, helping the Braves salvage a win in the series finale.
He’s the pitcher the Braves would probably hand pick to try to get them off to a good start against the Nationals.
Heyward believes the Braves have played better against the Nationals as the season has gone on. But overall, the Braves are only 5-10 against the Nationals this season.
The Braves came within 1 ½ games of the Nationals after a win July 21 in Washington and trailed by two games on Aug. 3. But since then the Braves have gone 21-18 while averaging 3.8 runs per game, while the Nationals have gone 27-12 while averaging 5.3 runs per game.
“We’ve been a little bit up and down at times, and I think they’ve stayed pretty steady,” Medlen said. “When you have talent like that and that youthful exuberance they have, it’s like they still have that like ‘Oh I’m just happy to be here, I’m just going to keep playing hard’ kind of feel, even though they’re getting older and they’re growing. When they put it together, it’s obvious that they’re one of the best teams in baseball.”
The pressure is on the Braves, who now have their old nemesis the Phillies in the back of their minds too. The Phillies have won seven in a row to pull within three games of St. Louis for the second wild card spot.
Should the Braves remain in the wild card lead and win a one-game playoff, they could play the Nationals in the first round of the Division Series. A competitive series this weekend might go a ways in building confidence toward that end.
But at the moment, the Braves are keeping it simple. The Nationals are just another tough opponent they’ve got to find a way to beat.
“They’ve played awfully consistently all year,” Jones said. “And with only a couple of weeks left, it’s going to be tough to catch them. Not to say that we’re going to stop trying, but right now I’ll just take a win on Friday and go from there.”