Braves could benefit from early momentum in season series against the Nationals
Nationals manager Davey Johnson spent time during Spring Training discussing the lineup balance the Braves gained with the offseason additions of two right-handed power threats — B.J. Upton and Justin Upton. He touched on this topic again yesterday, hours before his club improved to 7-2 by completing a three-game sweep of the White Sox.
“I thought the Braves were a little too left-handed,” Johnson told MLB.com’s Bill Ladson. “They added the Upton boys. I thought Chris Johnson was a great addition, too. They have three really good right-handed bats. Of course, the younger players are playing awfully well — Andrelton Simmons, Evan Gattis and Juan Francisco. They are a balanced ballclub now.”
When the Braves missed wining the National League’s Wild Card entry by one game in 2011, their offense was abysmal against left-handed pitchers. They ranked last in the Majors with a .228 batting average and second-to-last with a .642 OPS.
On the way to winning 94 games last year, the Braves were slightly more effective. Still they ranked 11th in the National League in both batting average (.244) and OPS (.689) against left-handed pitchers.
This year, the Braves have gained a MLB-best 8-1 record without yet showing great improvement against southpaws. They enter the start of this weekend’s series against the Nationals having hit .198 with a .644 OPS against left-handed pitchers.
So, why the early success?
Well Justin Upton has hit six home runs and the offense has batted .284 with a .830 OPS against right-handed pitchers. More importantly, the pitching staff has compiled a Major League best 1.89 ERA. Their starters have posted a 2.01 mark. The relievers have produced a 1.65 mark while not allowing any of the 12 baserunners they have inherited to score.
On the other end of this spectrum is the Phillies, who have seen their relievers allow 12 of 15 inherited runners to score.
Enough about the Phillies. It is foolish to put too much stock in the statistics and results garnered through the first nine games of a 162-game season. But it seems we’ve seen enough from Philadelphia’s once-proud club to assume the battle for this year’s National League East crown will be staged by the two teams that will meet this weekend at Nationals Park.
Having covered Bobby Cox for 10 seasons, I know what he would said when asked about this weekend’s series between the Braves and Nationals. It would have been something like “Every game counts the same. No one game is more important than the other. You play the schedule.”
All of this is true. Each of the 162 games played during a season count the same. But even in early April, there is some added importance to games played between division contenders.
The Braves and Nationals will play 19 games against each other this year. That accounts for approximately 12 percent of the schedule. During the other 88 percent of the games played this year, the Braves will not have a chance to directly impact what the Nationals do.
This certainly does not mean a sweep would prove devastating for either team this weekend. It would simply add to the challenge that awaits both of these teams, regardless of this weekend’s results.
The Nationals won six of the first eight games played against the Braves last year and then lost six of the last 10 during the season series. Even after getting swept in Atlanta on Sept. 16, they still entered the season’s final 16 games with a 5 1/2 game lead in the NL East race.
Sure, the Braves had damaged their division title hopes by getting swept by the Brewers earlier that same week. But things definitely could have been different if they had not lost 10 of the first 14 games played against the Nationals last year.
Now after spending a comfortable six-game stretch against the Cubs and Marlins, the Braves will be challenged by the Nationals, who have hit .269 with a NL-best .848 OPS through their first nine games of the season. The 41 runs they have scored is just four fewer than the combined totals of the Cubs (29) and Marlins (16).
The Braves will send Julio Teheran to the mound tonight with the hope that the rookie pitcher finds more consistency with his offspeed stuff than he did while allowing the Cubs five earned runs in five innings on Sunday. Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm, who has not allowed an earned run since February, will serve as Atlanta’s starting pitchers in the final two games of this weekend’s series.
In order, the Nationals will counter with Ross Detwiler, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. Detwiler (3.38) actually produced a better ERA against the Braves last year than Strasburg (4.10) or Gonzalez (4.57). In the process, he proved to be one of those left-handed pitchers that frustrated Atlanta’s formerly left-handed heavy lineup.
While facing a pair of left-handers in Detwiler and Gonzalez this weekend, the Braves will have a chance to benefit from this more-balanced lineup. The Upton brothers have made the lineup look more formidable. But so far, B.J. Upton has gone hitless in 11 at-bats against southpaws and Justin is 2-for-10 with one home run.
With veteran catcher Gerald Laird set to be behind the plate for Teheran’s start tonight, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he would think about keeping Gattis’ right-handed bat in the cleanup spot by playing him at first base, a position he played in just seven games during his Minor League career.
“I’ve done crazier things,” Gonzalez said after proposing this idea after Wednesday night’s win in Miami.
Given the way Gattis has swung the bat through the first two weeks of his career, I would not consider this move to be crazy.