The Weekend Takeaway
It’s not all that hard to go from first to last in nine days this early in the season. To do so as resoundingly as the Braves have, though, takes a special kind of awfulness.

At the end of play on May 20, Fredi Gonzalez’s team was 26-16 and enjoyed a 1 ½-game lead in the National League East. At the close of shop last night, the Braves had slipped to 26-24 and sat in a last-place tie with the Phillies, four games behind the first-place Nationals.

That’s what eight straight losses, all of them against contenders, will do to you. Atlanta lost four straight in Cincinnati, three more at home to Washington, and the opener of a three-game date with St. Louis yesterday afternoon at Turner Field. The Braves may have the talent to compete with the elite teams in the senior circuit, but their play over the past nine days screams “pretender,” and the sweep at the hands of their division rivals was particularly ominous.

Atlanta has been outscored 46-20 during its eight-game skid, but its sputtering offense is only the tip of the iceberg. Bryce Harper put the cherry on top of the sweep for the Nationals with this mammoth blast off Livan Hernandez, but he also exposed a nonchalant Jason Heyward earlier in the nationally televised contest. Ultra-reliable reliever Jonny Venters, who allowed just four home runs in his first 182 career appearances, has served up a gopher ball in two of his past three. Rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky has notched only one extra-base hit and two walks since May 11; he and veteran Jack Wilson have combined to leave the Braves nearly a win below replacement level at the position. The Braves will send Randall Delgado to the mound to play stopper tonight (7:10 p.m. ET)—but they have lost six of the 22-year-old’s last seven starts.

And Atlanta had better figure things out soon, because its schedule remains brutal all the way through June. If you thought the last nine days were tough, consider this: The Braves won't face a currently sub-.500 team until the Diamondbacks come to Turner Field on June 26-28.

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • One key to Justin Masterson’s breakout 2011 campaign was a newfound ability to contain left-handed hitters, who get a long look at the ball because of the righty’s low arm angle. Masterson has not been able to sustain that success so far in 2012, though, as lefties have teed off to the tune of a .308/.419/.340 triple slash, bloating his ERA to 4.62. That should be a welcome sight to slumping Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, who is batting just .227/.324/.359 this season after busting out in 2011 himself. Their meetings may not only decide tonight’s (7:05 p.m. ET) contest, but also serve as a springboard for one of them to turn his season around.
  • The Orioles had been alone atop the American League East standings since May 17, until a 4-2 loss to the Royals on Sunday dropped them into a first-place tie with the Rays. You’d have to go back 12 more days, to May 5, to find the last time Buck Showalter’s team did not have at least a share of the division lead. A Rays win over the White Sox coupled with another O’s loss to the Jays would end that streak, and with the Yankees just 2 ½ games behind, Baltimore would be wise to savor its stay at the top. Jake Arrieta—who coughed up seven runs in 3 2/3 innings to Tampa Bay on May 13—will be on the mound tonight (7:07 p.m. ET) looking to prolong it.
  • A fly-ball pitcher with far more command than stuff, Jason Vargas was born to pitch at Safeco Field—not so much at Rangers Ballpark. He is 1-3 in six career starts at the latter venue, where he’ll take the ball tonight (8:05 p.m. ET) and attempt to slow down a revitalized Texas offense that is averaging 9.5 runs per game on this homestand. Nelson Cruz, who drove in eight runs on Friday and has smacked three home runs in his last four games, has taken Vargas deep thrice in 24 career encounters.
  • After going 1-for-3 with a walk on Monday afternoon, Melky Cabrera now has 47 hits in the month of May, leaving him just two shy of the Giants’ franchise record, which was set by Willie Mays in 1958. The Melk Man said he was “honored to be mentioned in the same sentence” as the Say Hey Kid, and he needs only two hits to tie or three to exceed Mays’ mark over the next two games. Cabrera is 3-for-13 lifetime against Tuesday’s Diamondbacks starter Joe Saunders.

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Even more ominous, the sweep at the hands of the Nationals was in Atlanta. The Braves have to go to Washington this weekend.
Thanks for catching that! Fixed.
I was looking forward to a curse. However, I will surely root for Jake or Jason this evening.