Three Cuts: Braves fall to Nats despite Maholm's great start

Paul Maholm was great, but Jordan Zimmermann was even better as the Nationals beat the Braves 2-0.

ATLANTA -- Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann made quick work of the Braves, pitching two-hit ball over eight innings. The game was played in a brisk two hours and 15 minutes on a night when both Zimmermann and Atlanta starter Paul Maholm threw a lot of great pitches. Here are three takeaways from the pitchers' duel:

1. The strikeouts are going to come

Even with the best record in the National League, and one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball, the strikeouts are coming early and often. And while the number of whiffs is a concern to the average fan, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he is not concerned about the number of strikeouts.

“Everybody keeps asking me the same question, so I’ll keep giving the same answer,” Gonzalez said afterward. “At certain times in the game, sure (strikeouts are a concern). When you’ve got a man on third base and the infield is (playing) in or out and you need a productive out, a fly ball or a ground ball up the middle, sure a strikeout is a concern then.
“Other than that, this was what we were built as. Teams that don’t strike out are probably complaining that they don’t have any power in the lineups.”
Still, the numbers are jarring. The Braves are averaging 9.5 strikeouts a game, more than one an inning. But at least they broke a streak of sorts. Prior to Wednesday night they had whiffed at least 10 times in six straight games. Against Zimmerman and the Nationals they only had nine.

The worst struggles seem to be coming from Dan Uggla, who struck out twice in three at-bats. In a one-game snapshot, that doesn’t sound too bad, especially when you consider that B.J. Upton and Juan Francisco also went down on strikes twice. But when you look at the totality of Uggla’s numbers, the picture becomes more troubling.

In 86 plate appearances this season, Uggla has struck out 38 times, a 44 percent ratio to go with 14 hits and 15 walks. He has three times as many strikeouts as he has runs scored. On May 1 those numbers aren’t a monumental concern -- the sample size is still small and every player will go through a slump or two before the end of the year. But it isn’t something to ignore either.
“It’s a shame we couldn’t scrape something across for Paul,” Uggla said afterward. “He pitched a great game."

2. Andrelton Simmons continues to make it look easy

The greats make difficult plays look routine. At age 23, Simmons is far too young and green to be mentioned in the same breath with Derek, Ozzie, Cal or Concepcion, but if he remains healthy and agile -- big ifs given his style of play and the fact that he was on the DL last year and has already missed games this season -- he could become the best defensive shortstop in baseball in a very short time frame.
“Those are not easy plays he’s making,” said two-time MVP and now Fox Sports South analyst Dale Murphy after watching Simmons snag one hot shot after another and then fire this throws to first for what looked to the casual observer like easy outs. “He gobbles them up.”

Simmons had 62 assists, 34 putouts and 15 double plays in 199 innings of work. But he must be seen to be fully appreciated. Without Simmons, the Braves would have given up at least six hits and perhaps a couple of more runs Wednesday night. With him, they were in it until the last at-bat.

“He does so many things so instinctively well,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said just prior to Opening Day. “He's got sure hands. He has an uncanny ability to read hops and get hops. And if he doesn't get the hop, he still catches the ball. I think that's what I've marveled at.”
Wren isn’t alone. After Simmons snapped up one sharply hit ball Wednesday night, Murphy just turned away, shook his head and said, “Wow.”
3. Paul Maholm is very close to being very good

Maholm made one big mistake. It cost him another loss. Maholm surrendered a two-run homer to Ian Desmond on a hanging curveball for the only runs of the night. The rest of Maholm’s 98 pitches were very close to being right where he wanted them. 

“I thought Paulie did a great job,” Gonzalez said. “It was a great start, and one of the shortest starts he’s had since we got him from the Cubs. I was kicking around running him back out there (in the ninth inning), but we try to keep him at the 100-pitch mark. With our power and our offense, a two-run game, you’re a base-on-ball and somebody hitting it in the stands away and we’ve got a tie ball game.

“He gave up three hits, two of them in the infield and one of them to the pitcher and he loses the game 2-0 because Desmond got him. He was good. Both (of the starting pitchers) were good, but there weren’t a lot of good swings from either club.”
And while Maholm was unhappy with the outcome, he took a lot of positives away from the process.
“Obviously the one pitch wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t one that I wanted. I walked the leadoff guy and hung a curveball. Other than that it was a good night. I was keeping (the pitches) down and getting ahead (in the count), being aggressive and getting some ground balls and pop ups, so other than the one pitch it wasn’t bad.”