The Weekend Takeaway
Coming into this weekend’s meeting between Washington and Atlanta, the Nationals had won three in a row, extending their National League East division lead to 8 ½ games and paring their magic number down to 11. The Braves, conversely, had lost three straight, putting the East title effectively out of reach and feeding questions about whether a second straight collapse might be in store. Three games later, we have answers: In a statement sweep, Fredi Gonzalez’s squad allayed fans’ fears and reminded everyone that it is still one of the most formidable contenders in the senior circuit.
Statement one came on Friday night, courtesy of Kris “Maddux” Medlen. If there were any lingering doubts about the 26-year-old right-hander’s ability to dominate quality teams, Medlen erased them by striking out a career-high 13 Nationals over seven innings and giving up only one run (a Bryce Harper solo shot leading off the sixth). He showed pinpoint command of a sinker, curveball, and changeup, collecting eight looking strikeouts—the most by any major-league pitcher this season—several of which came on fastballs that, in Maddux-esque fashion, painted the inside corner to left-handed hitters. Ross Detwiler matched Medlen for six innings, thereby denying him a win, but Sean Burnett, felled by an Ian Desmond throwing error, coughed up the deciding run in the bottom of the ninth. And that was after Craig Kimbrel fanned the Nationals’ side on 10 pitches minutes earlier. Braves 2, Nationals 1.
Statement two came on Saturday afternoon, off the bat of Freddie Freeman. The big first baseman had not delivered an extra-base hit in September before this series, but after announcing his presence with a double on Friday, Freeman came within a two-bagger of his first career cycle on Saturday. Atlanta was just 6-for-30 against Edwin Jackson and co. in the middle match, but unfortunately for Jackson, all four of the knocks off him were of the extra-base variety. Freeman led off the bottom of the second with his second career triple (the first came on May 6 at Coors Field) and scored on Dan Uggla’s double. Two innings later, Freeman went yard. And, after Davey Johnson replaced Jackson with southpaw Tom Gorzelanny to mitigate the lefty’s bat, Freeman nixed those plans with a one-out single. Andrelton Simmons, who also hit the ground ball that resulted in Friday’s walk-off error, took one for the team with the bases loaded to push across the winning run in the bottom of the eighth, but Freeman did most of the work earlier in the game. Braves 5, Nationals 4.
Statement three came on Sunday Night Baseball, the result of a team effort from the offense and starting pitcher Mike Minor. After lasting just five innings and allowing four runs in both of his previous starts versus the Nationals this season, Minor limited Washington to only one run over six frames, lowering his ERA to 4.31, the best it has been since April 24. Meanwhile, Gio Gonzalez was forced to labor through five-plus innings, as the Braves worked deep counts early on before scoring twice in the bottom of the third. They denied Gonzalez’s bid to become the league’s first 20-game winner and left Washington’s new de facto ace with adjustments to make should the teams meet again in October. Those two runs were all the help Minor and three relievers needed to bring out the brooms at Turner Field. Braves 5, Nationals 1.
While September sweeps tempt overreaction, this weekend’s setback is by no means calamitous for the Nationals. Washington’s magic number remains 11, but that still puts the Nats on track for the organization’s first division crown since 1981 and is hardly a worrisome position with 16 games left to play. The Nationals’ docket is no cakewalk—including three games each against the Dodgers, Brewers, and Cardinals, as well as six versus the Phillies—but they still own the best record in the National League, and there are few reasons to believe they won’t be up to the challenge.
For the Braves, though, these three victories were critical. Merely on a superficial level, they boosted Atlanta’s September record to 10-5, which means Fredi Gonzalez’s team has already won more games than it did during last year’s 9-18 plunge. They also offered proof that the Braves—who were 9-18 against the senior circuit’s division leaders (3-4 vs. Giants; 1-5 vs. Reds; 5-10 vs. Nationals) coming in—are a legitimate pennant contender. And, perhaps most importantly, they gave Atlanta a virtually collapse-proof, eight-game buffer on the third-place Dodgers in the wild-card race.
What to Watch for on Monday
- Tim Hudson has put on a veritable Jekyll-and-Hyde act over his last eight starts. In the odd-numbered ones, beginning on Aug. 3, he has allowed no more than one earned run and issued no more than two walks each time out, all while preventing opponents from hitting a single home run. In each of the even-numbered ones, on the other hand, Hudson was charged with no fewer than four earned runs and served up a total of five homers in 22 frames. Well, tonight will mark the veteran sinkerballer’s ninth trip to the mound since the seesaw string began, so he’s due to stymie the Marlins, who will counter with Wade LeBlanc. Miami shortstop Jose Reyes, who may have committed the 500,000th error in baseball history this past weekend, has the second-most career plate appearances (82) versus Hudson—only Carlos Beltran (84) has more—and he’s 22-for-77 (.286 average) lifetime. Hudson has also held the speedy Reyes to just three stolen bases (7:10 p.m. ET).
- Sometimes all it takes to see why a team is struggling is one player’s stat line, and that’s the case with the freefalling Pirates. Clint Hurdle’s team has lost eight of its last nine games, and while Andrew McCutchen is still doing things few others can match, his fellow Buccos are letting him down. The 25-year-old center fielder has gone 10-for-32 (.313) with four home runs, four walks, and two stolen bases during the aforementioned skid, yet somehow, he has scored only seven times and driven in only five runs. All four big flies were solo shots, which might be pitiable if McCutchen’s six other hits had resulted in more than one total RBI, or if he had been plated in more than three of his other 10 times on base. And, despite snapping out of their rut to score 16 runs on Saturday and Sunday, the Pirates only managed to take one of those games from the Cubs, squandering a 6-1 lead in yesterday’s 13-9 defeat. All of that must change post haste if Pittsburgh, now at 73-72, is to finish above .500 for the first time since 1993. The Pirates have one more game at Wrigley to find their footing before they return home to host the Brewers (8:05 p.m. ET).
- The Orioles avoided a potentially troublesome sweep by downing the Athletics, 8-5, on Sunday, and—after clinching their first winning season since 1997—they will now travel to Seattle for a three-game date with the Mariners. Chris Tillman, a former Seattle farmhand who was picked in the second round of the 2006 draft and then sent to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard deal, will get the ball from Buck Showalter in game one and take on Hector Noesi. The 24-year-old righty survived only three innings in his most recent start, but the Orioles are 7-2 in his last nine outings, even though his ERA has steadily risen over that span, from 1.15 to 3.39. Tillman tossed seven innings of one-run ball to defeat the Mariners at Camden Yards on Aug. 6, so he’ll try to replicate that effort tonight (10:10 p.m. ET).