Three Cuts: Braves beat Nats, extend win streak to 11

The Braves extended their winning streak to 11 games Monday night with a 3-2 win against the division rival Washington Nationals. Here are three observations from the game:

1. Justin Upton is partying like it’s … April

Could the Braves’ blockbuster offseason acquisition have picked a more unfair time to rediscover the groove that made him an early, early National League MVP candidate? The Braves’ lineup has almost unilaterally found an offensive sweet spot post-All-Star break, but if Upton is back in April form — the form that earned him Player of the Month honors to kick off the season — then opposing pitchers deserve your dearest, dearest condolences.

With another three-hit night, the 25-year-old left fielder is hitting .409 with four home runs, nine RBI and three walks in the month of August. He did it Monday night against a top-25-caliber starter and one of baseball’s better bullpens (fifth-best ERA).

After hitting just four home runs in 327 plate appearances from May 1 to July 31, Upton has now hit four homers in his last 25 plate appearances. Upton’s 20th home run of the season came in go-ahead fashion, too, capitalizing on the Nationals’ removal of starter Stephen Strasburg — Upton took reliever Tyler Clippard deep with a line drive over the left field fence on an eight-pitch at-bat. From a look at the results, he was sitting 79-mph changeup the whole way … and that’s exactly what he got.

“He was mixing it up, kinda around the zone trying to get me to chase a bit and I was able to stay patient and get a good pitch to hit,” Upton said of his home run ball.

Upton’s relative struggles from May to July (.243/.331/.345, 80 strikeouts) were well-documented, and it shouldn’t go without mention that manager Fredi Gonzalez’s shuffling of the lineup seems to have re-energized the ultra-talented outfielder.

Following the trade, Gonzalez stated that, with a player of Upton’s caliber, his No. 3 spot is taken care of day in and day out. But ever since Upton moved to the 2-hole, he’s batting .395 with four home runs. Maybe he’s your No. 2 guy, day in and day out.

“He’s swinging it pretty good right now,” Gonzalez said. “He just gives us a lift.”

2. Stephen Strasburg got the better of Mike Minor, and it still didn’t matter

In the 11 games manager Davey Johnson has sent Strasburg to the mound against the Braves, the Nationals are just 4-7. In case you have not been paying attention to Strasburg’s dynamic four-year start to his career (2.96 ERA, second-best FIP in MLB since 2010), he’s now a 4-and-7-type starter against many teams. Despite a respectable 3.43 career ERA against Atlanta, the 25-year-old rarely seems to find good fortune.

On Monday night, Strasburg was, at times, dominant. He pitched seven strong innings, allowing just two runs on five hits while striking out nine batters. He threw 112 pitches on the night, tied for his fifth-longest outing of the season.

Still, after being handed a 1-0 lead in the first inning (however helpful that might be with the Braves offense’s current hitting resurgence), the right-hander could not hold onto it, allowing two RBI singles to Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman. Though Minor returned the lead-relenting favor in the sixth inning, Strasburg left the game with another no-decision on his hands and a (normally) strong bullpen taking over.

It didn’t work out so well (See: Upton, Justin).

And though Minor’s control was off at times — he tied his season high with three walks — the lefty was able to limit the damage to two runs in seven innings of work as well. He was not nearly as overpowering as Strasburg, but he was able to give his team a good enough effort to allow it to walk away with yet another win.

After the game, Minor called it the worst stuff he’s had in any start this season.

“It wasn’t his best outing. It wasn’t his best stuff out there. And he knew it. He just battled through it and battled through it and kept us in the ballgame,” Gonzalez said. “That for me is a sign of a guy who is maturing and knows that when you pitch 30-plus starts every year, you’re not gonna have your ‘A’ game every single time. And today wasn’t his ‘A’ game, but he sure gave us a hell of an opportunity to win the ballgame.”

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Minor’s bullpen stepped in to blank the Nationals once again, notably with David Carpenter entering the game in a runner-on-second-with-no-outs situation to retire five-consecutive batters to bridge the gap to Luis Avilan and Jordan Walden. (Also relevant: Andrelton Simmons’ defensive wizardry.)

It’s been an interesting lineup of opposing pitchers during the Braves’ 11-game win streak — the franchise’s longest since its 15-game streak in 2000 — with a run of relatively young, developing guys through the middle but bookended by the likes of Adam Wainwright, Cliff Lee and Stephen Strasburg. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann are next.

3. With 50 games remaining on the Nationals schedule, the NL East’s second-place team can not afford to drop games many more games with Strasburg/Gonzalez/Zimmermann on the mound

With the win, the Braves built their divisional lead to a staggering 13 1/2 games.

That’s by far the largest divisional gap in baseball, with the next-closest race (NL West) separated by just six games. Mathematically impossible comeback? Not yet.

But the Nationals approaching the proverbial danger zone (intentional Archer reference).

“I thought the division was going to be a lot closer,” Gonzalez said. “There’s still a lot of games to be played, but coming out of spring training we felt that we had a pretty good club. We’ve had our share of injures, major injuries. But it seems that guys have rallied around that and picked up and done a pretty good job so far.”

Even if the Braves play .400 baseball down the stretch — yes, let’s try to imagine the hottest team in baseball, the same one that has taken down Lee and Strasburg on consecutive nights, the same one with one of the weakest remaining schedules in baseball, finishing the season playing .400 baseball — they’d finish the year 88-74. What would that mean for the Nats? Well, Johnson’s club would need to play near .700 baseball (finishing the season on a 34-16 run) just to tie for the N.L. East title. Their schedule includes eight more games against Atlanta, too. Yes, Bryce Harper, it’s still mathematically possible, but the Nationals will likely need to take five or six of their remaining games against Atlanta, a team that has dominated them this season.

Therein lies the problem with dropping Strasburg’s excellent outing on Monday.

Barring injury, the Nationals will only get 30 more starts from their Big Three. Anything short of Strasburg/Gonzalez/Zimmermann going 25-5 during the home stretch, and Washington can pretty much throw in the towel. The Nats can barely afford to lose any games to Atlanta from here on out, much less ones in which one of their aces quiets an explosive lineup.

And yes, asking a sub-.500 team to play at their peak while one of the five best teams in baseball falls off the map is all but implausible.

“We’re not gonna let up,” Minor said.

At this point, the early “magic number” conversation doesn’t seem so misguided. The Braves are winning at least 90 games. Sharpie that. That creates a major math problem for the Nationals.