If Braves serious about East, they need to beat Nationals now

You can almost see Jason Heyward say, "Uh-oh," as he lost two fly balls in sun. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

You can almost hear Jason Heyward say, "Uh-oh," as he lost two fly balls in sun in Braves' loss. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

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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124 comments Add your comment

Van

August 19th, 2012
6:38 pm

"Chef" Tim Dix

August 19th, 2012
6:41 pm

Must get Freeman to quit leaning over and take a first pitch sometime.

He can carry this club.

@DanWeiner

August 19th, 2012
6:41 pm

This division was likely decided On July 21st. The night before, the Nationals imploded for the first time all season. Then early on the 21st Ben Sheets shut down the Nats in the first game of a double header. In the nightcap, the Braves jumped out to 2-0 lead in the first innings. They had the Nats on the ropes and couldn’t finish the job. When the history of this season is written, the second game of that double header will be the moment when the Nationals proved they had the character to win the division and the Braves proved they just weren’t as good.

JSS

August 19th, 2012
6:46 pm

The Nats are the 1991 Braves… They are ready, they are good, and they can put the Braves out of their division misery this week… And unlike the 91 Braves, they don’t have Bobby Cox mucking up the last two months…

bobby

August 19th, 2012
7:03 pm

Stop worrying people. THE BRAVES WILL SWEEP THE NATS AND ALL 6 GAMES BECAUSE I BELIEVE IN THEM. We have the better team because we have older guys on the mount who can pich long in to a season. THE NATS HAVE YOUNGER PICH WHO ARE GOING TO GET TIRER BECAUSE THEY HAVE NOT PICH THIS LONG IN A SEASON WATCH THE LAST MONTH OF THE SEASON.

bobby

August 19th, 2012
7:03 pm

Stop worrying people. THE BRAVES WILL SWEEP THE NATS AND ALL 6 GAMES BECAUSE I BELIEVE IN THEM. We have the better team because we have older guys on the mount who can pich long in to a season. THE NATS HAVE YOUNGER PICH WHO ARE GOING TO GET TIRER BECAUSE THEY HAVE NOT PICH THIS LONG IN A SEASON WATCH THE LAST MONTH OF THE SEASON.

Henry D.

August 19th, 2012
7:08 pm

Getting ready for the September swoon. The entire team didn’t look like they even wanted to be on the field today.

mark

August 19th, 2012
7:11 pm

And it,s time to play the big boys and Uggla ain’t it! No more wait and hope he hits,he’s not not tomorrow or next week,he’s broken a project for the off season, put the absolute best team on the field and ride’m sink or swim, nobody will fault you (Fredi) if you put the best players on the field. I would play this next 35 days like my life is on the line. It’s now!

Sell the Team back to Ted believe

August 19th, 2012
7:14 pm

bobby is on crack………this is a mid tier team of posers. One playoff series and they are DONE.

RBigFish

August 19th, 2012
7:27 pm

Has anybody figured out how the sun was in Heyward’s eyes but not the Dodger’s outfielders ?

RBigFish

August 19th, 2012
7:28 pm

Who’s more pitiful at the plate, StrUggla or McCann’t ?

"Chef" Tim Dix

August 19th, 2012
7:38 pm

I give J-Hey alot of credit for not playing the Yunel, “The wind blew it off course.” card.

benchwarmer

August 19th, 2012
7:42 pm

Did the Dogers outfielders have to play any flyballs to right late in the game? Somebady please talk to Freeman. He looks like he has been taking Uggla lessons!

Jfreak13713

August 19th, 2012
7:44 pm

This series with the Dodgers sums up the Braves season and really defines them as a team. They are good enough to beat sub .500 teams and their pitching will hold up to even good teams but they just simply don’t have the starting pitching to beat playoff teams. Minor pitched well today and Sheets did ok yesterday but playoff teams like the Dodgers have pitching that is a little better. The Dodgers pitching today was just better enough to win.

Braves are a good team with average pitching and that won’t win in the playoffs. They might beat the pirates or even the reds but they won’t beat the nationals, dodgers, or giants because their starting pitching is just slightly less.

Sorry but not World Series team here. Good enough for playoffs and I’ll take that but not quite good enough to beat playoff teams. Maybe next year?

Jaded

August 19th, 2012
7:45 pm

The Nats are just better than the Braves. There’s no shame in that for the Braves, because the Nats are better than everybody.

Anything less than two out of three and I’m officially focusing exclusively on the wild card. Four games is surmountable if the Nats run into some bad luck with injuries down the stretch. Making up six or more games on these guys isn’t going to happen.

Larry

August 19th, 2012
7:47 pm

Fredi Gonzalez matching wits with Davey Johnson?

Gross mismatch in aptitude, basic instincts and situational, in-game management…time to focus on the wildcard! After nearly two seasons I’m still waiting to hear or read anything from Fredi that has even the remotest evidence of intelligence.

He will be like his daddy, the booger picker: outmanaged and outwitted in any playoff game. The only hope this team has is to pitch, hit and field so well that they overcome this manager who suffers from grave, irreversible fatuousness the White Sox did for a manager possibly more witless than even Fredi Gonzalez, Ozzie Guillen; thusly, I guess, anything is possible…even with Fredi!

Sonny Clusters

August 19th, 2012
7:49 pm

We’re not one to say we told you so but we saw this coming. Here they are like they were last season when they were going up to Philadelphia to show the Phillies a thing or two. How did that work out? We would like to have known if Chipper’s bat would have made a difference today. A team with no urgency can’t just turn it on when they decide they need it. They showed us that last year as game after game they could not produce the one win to earn the wild card. What is different this year? Well, lots of things. Keeping Uggla in the lineup waiting for him to hit seems foolish to us when game after game he has little league at bats and is so selfish at the plate. He adds nothing but the occasional HR and fails far too many times to advance or bring in runners or to keep a rally alive. McCann has not looked so bad since he fell at the swimming pool and suffered two black eyes, facial abrasions, and some bruised ribs and tender cauliflower ears like he’d lost a bar fight. We are pulling for the Braves but there are some strong similarities to last year when they suffered the EPIC Collapse. Again, they can’t just turn on the urgency. This game was not urgent enough to warrant the very best lineup apparently. Meanwhile, the Dodgers say, thankyouverymuch in their best Elvis.

Dawgdad (The Original)

August 19th, 2012
7:55 pm

They don’t manufacture runs or play small ball, and when you can’t hit good pitching either, you don’t last long in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter how much pitching you have, you have to have at least one run.

Jeff Schultz

August 19th, 2012
7:57 pm

JSS — How did Bobby Cox “muck up” the last 2 months in 1991?

Jeff Schultz

August 19th, 2012
7:58 pm

RBigFish — McCann has an excuse: He’s injured. Not the case with Uggla.

falconfan58

August 19th, 2012
8:00 pm

It is time to put Uggla on the bench. You can not continue to justify his playing because he just might, maybe could hit a homerun or even get a hit. A good 275 hitter at second and we have probably 5-6 more wins. The guy is stinking up the field now and anyone else would be an improvement.

Pj

August 19th, 2012
8:00 pm

If we get the same things we’ve been getting from minor medlen and maholm – we will make up the ground and win the east. Offensively, McCann and uggla hitting bombs is the key.

NorCal Brave

August 19th, 2012
8:05 pm

I’m not so concerned about losing today to a red-hot pitcher who hasn’t allowed a run on the road for 25 or 30 innings. AND I think we have the pitching to get into the playoffs. What’s troubling is we have two huge parts of the offense that continue to scuffle. Uggla may just be a lost cause, the way Smoltz talked about him during the game. And we now know McCann has a sore shoulder which he intends to play through, even though he’s stopped contributing offensively. Fredi needs to find a combination that maximizes our chance for scoring runs, even if it hurts some feelings.

Don Waddell

August 19th, 2012
8:15 pm

The Braves are DONE.

Fredo

August 19th, 2012
8:31 pm

until they can prove otherwise against the Nationals, I’m saying they’re going to win just 1 game at best

Langston

August 19th, 2012
8:32 pm

I swear, Atlanta Braves fans are some of the most negative, the sky is falling fans I’ve ever seen in my life. We only lost 2 games in a row to a good team. THIS TEAM IS GOOD ENOUGH TO WIN A WORLD SERIES.Start being positive for once.

Lou Piniella's cap

August 19th, 2012
8:34 pm

The Braves need to be focusing on securing that #1 WC position instead of trying to chase down a MUCH better Nationals team. Barring a September meltdown like the Braves had last year, Washington is going to win the East. The Braves are pretty good his year, but the Nationals are just better in every aspect of the game.

They’ll almost certainly make the playoffs, they’re too talented not to. But I think that’s where the line will be drawn. I agree with an earlier post above, they play great against below .500 teams, but this weekend against the Dodgers was case in point on how they play against legit playoff teams. The only reason LA didn’t sweep the Braves was because their bullpen imploded Friday night.

Buzzards Luck

August 19th, 2012
8:37 pm

Hey kids It’s baseball and there will be more ebb and alow in the offense the rest of the way (hopefully more flow than ebb), it’s just the nature of the beast. From where I sit I see Huddie and Maholm as the only two certain survivors of this two week “tryout” at this point. Hanson didn’t look too bad the other night but probably not as good as the others, but he was just coming off the IL so should get the benefit of the doubt. In spite of the crappy results last night, Sheets pitched pretty well, 4 hits and 2 walks in 6 innings. Minor and Medlen have been pretty spectacular but being the most inexperienced I gotta believe Fredi will err on the side of guys that have been there the longest so, assuming no injuries and none of them fall flat in the next week and a half, I see Meds being the odd man out just due to his good work in the pen. It certainly wouldn’t be a popular decision but I just don’t see it playing out any other way, again assuming they all stay healthy and on course. Thoughts?

Buzzards Luck

August 19th, 2012
8:38 pm

“ebb and FLOW”

Cowboy

August 19th, 2012
9:14 pm

I’d like to know how commenting on facts is perceived to be negative. This team has folded the tent so many times in crucial situations it boggles the mind. This team is already playing tight in August for crying out loud. Playing scared. Taking the gas already. Memories are long for this scared outfit and they seem to be having flashbacks from last September here in August. You can’t play the game scared. Tight. Sucking on air. Can’t be done. Being observant here, and not negative, I see a tee total collapse on the door step and a sweep by the Nationals in tomorrow’s series. Wild cards are for losers. Can you imagine this bunch trying to win a one game play-off with last year’s collapse hanging over their heads? It is time to put up or shut up. Start tomorrow by doing the undoable — sweeping the Nationals at their home. By any and every means necessary. All hands on deck. Do it for “The Chipper”. He’d probably do it for himself if Fruiti would put him on the gold dang baseball field. Hoping for the best. Expecting the worst…

RBigFIsh

August 19th, 2012
9:19 pm

Langston, I wish you correct….but you have got to be kidding ????? Good enough to win a world series…with a catcher hitting below .230 and 2nd baseman hitting below .215 ? Hanson is good for 5 innings. Sheets was a fluke his first couple of starts. You never know what you’re going to get with Huddy now. The bullpen has been great in August, but the starting pitching is iffy at best.

RBigFIsh

August 19th, 2012
9:20 pm

Hey Schultz, if McCann is injured…..put him on DL. Ross is a much bigger threat now anyway.

The Answer

August 19th, 2012
9:37 pm

Making decisions based on ‘matchups’ was Bobby Cox’s achilles heel as well. Cost him at least 1-3 more WS rings.

Cowboy

August 19th, 2012
9:54 pm

Cox managed scared. Hated the spot light. Did it straight by the book so as to avoid critisism. I agree with The Answer. 1-3 more rings with a fiery, “go for it” when you’ve got the chance, creative manager in the dug-out.

povox

August 19th, 2012
9:58 pm

Yeah Schultz- put McCann on the DL! What were you thinking, starting an injured catcher?

Sundrop Kid

August 19th, 2012
10:15 pm

The SUNDROP KID thinks maybe Mr. Uggla does indeed have a problem. Those huge $$$$$$$ marks are over his eyeballs and keep impairing his vision. $ $
*
(—)

TuffShhhtuff

August 19th, 2012
10:23 pm

So, if I understand it correctly today is the first day Heyward has played right field, with the sun out, in his Braves career? I guess now somebody will say it was the first day the sun has been in that exact position at that exact time when the ball was hit in that same trajectory. Go ahead, say it.

Reality

August 19th, 2012
10:26 pm

How much longer are we hung with Uggla? He is a drag on the team and will never hit without a major swing overhaul.
Bat him #8

nobobfan

August 19th, 2012
10:53 pm

stop picking on Uggla, or FW’s secretaries will blog you to hell.
He’s not arrogant…even though he drags the team down , he’s nice enuff to tell Fredi he’ll kick his as- if taken out of lineup.
He is our next hall of famer, after Chipper/
(ok Mr. Wren? worth the $20?)

Pj

August 19th, 2012
10:53 pm

McCann and uggla will decide the teams fate in these last weeks.

Mister Frisky

August 19th, 2012
10:53 pm

Once again it’s the offense that is the problem.Uggla,McCann,Janish.and the pitcher.Throw out Chipper every 4th or 5th day along with the streaky bats of Heyward and FF.Will get embarrassed on this roadie.No playoffs!

the truth...

August 19th, 2012
10:58 pm

Prado to 2 base
Reed Johnson to Left

Keith

August 19th, 2012
11:14 pm

I hate to say this because I know it sounds a little extreme. But I personally don’t think winning 2/3 is enough even though everyone (myself included) would be happy with it.

If they want to make a move, a sweep needs to happen. Move from 5 games back to 2.

Thoughts, Jeff? :)

extremus

August 20th, 2012
12:18 am

While the Braves have done better in games without Chipper playing in recent weeks/months than they did at the start of the season (they were AWFUL), I still see a stark correlation between having his bat in the lineup and winning ballgames. Chipper takes a lot of flak here on these boards due to his inability to play every day, but there’s no question the Braves are a much better team with a much more potent offense when he is on the field.

Pitching inconsistencies aside, the Braves need to find a way to win games and score runs when Chipper isn’t in the lineup. There are nine players on the field in a given game; somebody needs to step up in a big way.

Besides, they’re no longer going to have the luxury of having him at all after this season. The window for “put up or shut up” is rapidly closing…and the Nationals are built for perhaps an even longer run of division dominance than the Phillies had.

Largo

August 20th, 2012
12:24 am

Considering all aspects of the game, common sense dictates that the braves team does not possess the wherewithal necessary to win the East. Sorry.

Columbus

August 20th, 2012
1:21 am

This series is huge. Braves MUST win 2 of 3 or they will be hoping for the Nats to have a losing streak which isnt likely. One thing in the Braves favor is they have an easier schedule I believe but that alone will be enough if the Braves dont pick up ground, at least ONE game in each of these last 2 series against the Nats. IMO. Can the Braves catch the Nats? ABSOLUTELY! Sheets needs a rest. Skipping his next start might be a wise move. The only thing the Braves are missing is McCann and Uggla hitting better. If they pick it up and hit close to what they are capable, the Braves can win it all this year and the division but if they dont, it will be very difficult. Strange things happen in September….Nats have NEVER been in the position and the pressure might take a toll….but man those guys can hit….Braves better match em starting Monday!!! Go Braves!

Columbus

August 20th, 2012
1:26 am

Good point Bobby. Young arms do tend to tire late in the season. Braves also have an easier schedule SO….just got to score some runs because the Nats usually do. Nats have had the Braves number the last couple years. It is time to offically put an end to that.. Nats will be looking to lock up the division and these will be like playoff games. Cant wait! Going to be AWESOME! Damn its a Monday game though…..well 2 monkeys off the back then! Braves better get more than 3 or hits. They need to come out rocking at the plate!

P B Orr

August 20th, 2012
3:11 am

Gonzales is mentally out of his league. He’ll find a way to screw things up. I’m secretly hoping for another collapse so we can be rid of him, but I don’t have a lot of time left here and can’t quite do that. But man, what a depressing sight to see him there in the dugout looking stupid and befuddled.

clay

August 20th, 2012
3:56 am

Don’t look at it as being down 5 games. Look at it as being down 2. As long as we can get within three games by september, then the braves will be just fine. They can make up three games in four weeks.

Eric C.

August 20th, 2012
6:17 am

A nationals sweep would just about close the deal, but anything else gives the Braves a shot. The schedule for Sept looks pretty favorable if you haven’t noticed.