Nationals provide challenge for slumping Braves
The Braves can take solace in the fact that the most turbulent storm they have experienced thus far has not yet proven destructive. Despite losing five of their past six games, they still enter this weekend’s series against the first-place Nationals sitting just one game out of first place in the congested National League East race.
We know that either the Braves or Nationals (or both) will be sitting in first place by the end of this weekend. But that means a whole lot of nothing within a division in which each of the five members has a .500 record or better at this point of the season. Given where they stand — four games out of first place — despite all that has gone wrong this year, would you really be surprised if the last-place Phillies end up winning a sixth consecutive division title.
Still the Braves have plenty to prove this weekend. Along with attempting to win the first series of the year against the upstart Nationals, they are challenged with the task of distancing themselves from the four-game series sweep experienced in Cincinnati this past weekend. The last time they were on the wrong end of a four-game sweep was April 26-29, 2010 in St. Louis.
The Braves responded by returning home to complete a three-game sweep of the Astros.
But these Nationals are not those Astros or any of the other Nationals/Expos teams that you have seen over the past couple decades. Armed with a strong starting rotation, this team is a legitimate playoff threat.
The buzz surrounding this year’s Nationals club has only intensified since phenom Bryce Harper arrived on the Major League scene. The 19-year-old outfielder with the powerful bat, rocket arm and impressive speed has provided Washington’s offense a boost as he has batted .265 with two home runs, a .350 on-base percentage and .467 slugging percentage in the first 24 games of his career.
But the rock solid pitching staff that is most responsible for the team’s first-place status has not been as formidable since the young outfielder arrived on the scene.
While going 14-6 before Harper’s arrival, the Nationals posted a 2.25 ERA and scored 3.55 runs per game.
While going 12-12 since Harper arrived, the Nationals have posted a 3.45 ERA and scored 3.83 runs per game.
The Nationals’ top offensive contributor this year has been Adam LaRoche, who obviously forgot he usually does not hitting until June or July. LaRoche enters this weekend’s series having batted .297 with eight home runs and a .937 OPS. But he enters this weekend with two hits, a home run and a triple, in his past 24 at-bats.
LaRoche is one of the most genuine and likable guys you could ever meet in any walk of life. One of the primary reasons he was such a popular clubhouse figure in Atlanta was displayed on the evening of Aug. 13, 2009, when he spent a portion of his offday sitting in the front row at Coolray Field watching Tim Hudson complete a Minor League rehab start for Triple-A Gwinnett.
The Braves had just re-acquired LaRoche from the Red Sox two weeks earlier and he was living at least 45 traffic-free minutes away from Coolray Field. But he and Gwinnett County resident Brian McCann were there that evening showing their support for Hudson.
Tonight, LaRoche will be reminded of what it is like to face Hudson while wearing a Nationals’ uniform.
Hudson has gone 14-3 with a 2.05 ERA in 23 career starts against the Nationals/Expos. He has allowed one run or fewer in 14 of those outings. In four starts against this club last year, he went 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA.
While the Braves seemingly have the right guy on the mound for this series opener, they are going to have to find a way to score some runs. With Chipper Jones, Freddie Freeman and McCann all dealing with different ailments, the club has totaled 12 runs in its past six games.
Jones’ badly bruised left leg has not healed as quickly as hoped and Freeman now hoping to cure his recent vision problems with prescription glasses he will wear instead of contacts during games. McCann has missed three straight games with the flu.
Check back later this afternoon for updates on each of these three players. Follow me on Twitter @mlbbowman
Heyward’s struggles: During the first round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, the Nationals took Ross Detwiler with the sixth overall selection and the Braves nabbed Jason Heyward with the 14th overall selection. Both of these players will be looking to halt their recent woes during Friday night’s series opener.
Entering Friday night’s matchup against Hudson, Detwiler has gone 0-2 with a 7.31 ERA in his past three starts. He has gone 1-0 with a 3.14 ERA in three starts against the Braves. But it might be more telling to point out that he has not allowed a run in the 11 innings he has totaled in his past two starts against Atlanta.
Heyward’s troubles have lasted significantly longer than Detwiler’s. He has batted .189 with three home runs, a .295 on-base percentage and a .330 slugging percentage.
Since hitting his game-winning home run in the 12th inning of a May 11 game in St. Louis, Heyward’s slash line looks like this .174/.240/.239. He has struck out 15 times and drawn three walks in the 50 plate appearances that have been included in this span.
Bourn’s surprising Great American power: Michael Bourn hit three home runs in his final 12 at-bats during this week’s series at Cincinnati’s Great Home Run Ball Park. He had totaled three home runs in his previous 925 at-bats before this span.
Bourn has actually hit each of his four homers this year within his past 56 at-bats. This leaves him one home run shy of the career-high total of five that he produced in 2008. It’s hard to project when he might match this total. The Braves will not be making another regular season visit to Cincinnati this year.