Three months ago, when the Braves were swept in their first season series against Washington (by a combined score: 22-10), the thought occurred (by me, anyway) that the Nationals were a nice little story that ultimately would spontaneously combust or do a slow fade into wild-card race oblivion.
That hasn’t happened. In fact, Washington has been in first place for all but 10 of 137 days since playing its season opener, and has been looking down on everybody in the National League East since May 22. (This for a franchise that hadn’t spent even one breakfast in first in five of the previous six years.)
First place used to be an afterthought for the Braves. They wiped their feet on the rest of the division. But they haven’t won a division title since 2005, and their chance to hang another flag — ignoring the misplaced wild-card banner at Turner Field – probably hinges on the next few days.
They open a three-game series at Washington on Monday night. Losing consecutive games to Los Angeles to close a homestand, including Sunday’s 5-0 defeat, wasn’t the jumpstart going to D.C. they were seeking. But the division lifeline likely is going to come down to the six remaining games against the Nationals, anyway, and in particular these three.
When asked if he feels his team needs to win this series, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “Yes, absolutely. We need to go in there and win two out of three. That wild card stuff is fine and dandy, but it’s a crapshoot. We don’t want to get into a situation with a crapshoot.”
Yes. We all know how that ended a year ago. The Braves found themselves in a crapshoot and were left with only the first syllable.
They’ll still have 38 games remaining after the Washington series. But they were 4½ games out of first before the Nationals had concluded its game against New York Sunday, and that’s all Chipper Jones needed to know.
“Let’s say they win — we’ll be five back,” Jones said. “Lose two out of three, we’ll be six back. Six games is a large margin when you’re talking about a team as good as Washington. They don’t lose a lot of games in a row. They don’t make that many mistakes. If we dig that big of a hole, we’re going to be focusing more on the wild card than the division, and the last thing I want as a player is to starting looking in the rearview mirror at teams chasing us for the wild card. We did that last year.”
We have seen how good the Braves can be. They went 18-5 in a recent stretch. Their starting pitching stabilized. Their offense began producing 6, 7, 9 runs a game with regularity.
But we’ve seen in the last two games how quickly they can look anemic. The Dodgers won games 6-2 and 5-0 over the weekend.
Jones again: “We’re seeing some guys with that look on their face at the plate – they’re scuffling.”
The problem Sunday wasn’t just offense. Jason Heyward lost two fly balls in the sun in the eighth and ninth innings, both opening the door to runs, when L.A. blew open a 1-0 lead.
Gonzalez also may have contributed to the unraveling. He pulled starter Mike Minor before the eighth inning, even though Minor had allowed just one run and five hits, and he later said he felt fine. Gonzalez said he was looking for a certain “match-up” (reliever Chad Durbin vs. pinch hitter Juan Uribe, who was hitting for starter Chad Billingsley).
It’s called overthinking. Why pull a starter unless he feels gassed?
Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. The Braves didn’t score a run.
That will need to change against a team the Braves not only are chasing, but one they’ve had problems with. They’re 4-8 against the Nationals. They had won seven straight series before this weekend, dating back to a four-game split with Washington.
Despite the Nationals’ general miserable existence before 2012 (..435 winning percentage in seven years), the Braves were 64-63 against them. At least now Washington is good, so the Braves have an excuse. But that will be of little consolation if they find themselves in a wild card race again.
By Jeff Schultz
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