Three Cuts: Braves blanked by Fister, Nationals

On Saturday night, The Braves lost to the Nationals for just the eighth time in the past 32 meetings.

Alex Brandon/AP

The Washington Nationals figured out the Atlanta Braves and their stranglehold over the National League East rivalry, at least for one night with one dominant pitcher on the mound. Nationals newcomer Doug Fister was dominant in an eight-inning effort on Saturday night, blanking the Braves 3-0 in his first start against the division’s reigning champs since joining the Washington staff. Here are three observations from the game:

The Braves have built up their recent stretch of dominance over their primary competitor in the NL East in some inexplicable ways. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has simply shrugged his shoulders when asked for his secret on downing the Nationals. Winning 24 of the past 31 games — well, 24 of 32 now — against a team that is by most accounts evenly matched (some would even say the Nats are more talented) is no small matter.

Part of the surprisingly one-sided results have come from Atlanta’s offensive success against a few of the Nationals’ top arms. All-Star quality pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez have been baffled by this typically so-so Braves lineup. Just Friday night, the storyline was how Strasburg was frustrated with pitch selection after giving up four runs through six innings of work. Overall, Strasburg is a career 3-5 with a 4.04 ERA against Atlanta — it’s the only team in baseball he’s faced five or more times and posted a losing record. Gonzalez is even worse, going 2-7 with a 5.31 ERA.

So Washington needed Doug Fister to be very, very good.

And he was.

The 30-year-old right-hander worked quickly and efficiently through the Braves’ still-struggling lineup, throwing eight shutout innings while allowing just five singles and one walk. He added three strikeouts in what was his best start of the campaign. He’s now 6-2 with a 2.65 ERA and 4.11 FIP through his first nine starts in Washington, once again working his way into the conversation as one the top No. 3 or 4 starters around, just like he was over in the American League. He’s been good for 3.5-plus wins above replacement per season since 2011, and he looked like it on Saturday night.

The Nationals acquired Fister in a trade with the Detroit Tigers over the offseason to round out an already impressive rotation, but if he’s going to post these types of numbers against the team they’ve struggled to figure out over the past two seasons they just might have sweetened the deal.

With the win, Washington moved back into first place in the division while the Braves further cemented their position as one of the lowest-scoring offenses in baseball.

Teheran shook off catcher Evan Gattis’ signs over and over again throughout the game, a repeated action that was framed as frustration on the part of the young Braves star and continually delayed the game for a restless Nationals Park crowd. The national audience tuning in saw mound visits from pitching coach Roger McDowell, pitcher-catcher conversations and even a crucial balk when an exasperated Teheran stepped off the mound, setting up the Nationas’ second run.

Much of that semi-drama unfolded during the sixth inning, but Gonzalez stuck with his pitcher — for better or for worse — through the seventh, protecting a fatigued bullpen and setting up for even more potential problems. Teheran batted in the top of the seventh and allowed Washington’s third and final run in the bottom of the frame, ending his night in a long conversation with his manager. He was visibly upset throughout the ordeal.

After the game, there were mixed reports coming out of the Braves clubhouse. Gonzalez blamed the communication issues on the use of multiple signs between Teheran and Gattis. Teheran, on the other hand, claimed that they have used multiple signs in the past and that it was simply a lack of concentration on his part. To round out the confusion, Gattis said the multiple signs were not an issue. As noted by MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, Teheran’s usual practice of shaking off pitching signs to confuse opposing hitters only served to occasionally confused his own catcher on this night.

It’s an issue the Braves will need to sort out, because this duo will need to be on the same page moving forward. Teheran is this team’s best pitcher and Gattis’ bat dictates he has to be in the lineup as much as possible.

But it’s also an issue that overshadowed something strange. Teheran’s confusion-filled outing just may have been hit best of the entire year in the box score.

Teheran’s final line was impressive: seven innings pitched allowing three runs on three hits while striking out a season-high 10 batters. Despite raising his ERA to 2.41, he upped his overall strikeout rate and posted his top single-game FIP score (1.09) of the campaign. It’s strange to think how such a scattered performance could be so effective, but Teheran showed plenty of determination to push through it — if he didn’t, the Braves bullpen could have been further depleted or that line could have looked much worse.

For the 54th time this season, B.J. Upton, who despite his marked improvement remains one of the least productive players in the Braves’ everyday lineup, hit in the No. 2 hole. In order, Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton hit behind him. For those counting at home, that’s the offensively superior Upton brother slotted four spots lower in the order.

The Braves’ center fielder logged a hit on Saturday night, but his lofty place in the lineup goes beyond production. It has to. B.J. Upton entered the third game of the Nationals series hitting .210/.287/.338 with five home runs, and his batting numbers have been steadily declining throughout the month of June.

With Gonzalez moving second baseman Tommy La Stella into the leadoff role over the past four games, it gave the team an easy out to move the highest-paid position player on the roster down in the order in favor of his brother or Heyward. But it hasn’t happened. Instead, Heyward has moved to the No. 5 hole and, now that he’s overcome spells of dizziness, Justin Upton at the 6-hole.

Advanced metrics point to the Nos. 2 and 4 hitters as the most important hitters in the entire lineup, and by that logic the Braves have left plenty of runs on the board this season with the current configuration. The Braves are not along in this, but entering Saturday’s games, only three other MLB teams received less production from the second spot in the lineup (Royals, Padres, Mariners).

After being shutout for the eighth time and ranking 29th in runs scored, that’s a significant move that has to be considered by Gonzalez and his staff.

So much of the conversation surround Upton’s status near the top of the lineup this season has centered around confidence — the team instilling confidence in a versatile but underperforming guy that they spent a lot of money on, one who is likely to be around for the better part of the next three-plus seasons — and maybe this goes over Gonzalez’s head. Maybe this comes from upstairs, a commitment to putting Upton in the best position possible to rediscover his Tampa Bay numbers. But without significant and prolonged improvement, there comes a time when the opportunity cost is too great.

This probably wouldn’t have solved Fister on Saturday night. After all, the potential replacements Heyward and Justin Upton combined to go 0 for 7 with a walk. In the long run, though, if the Braves are going to make a real attempt to get out of baseball’s scoring basement, the No. 2 spot is going to have to become a top priority.