Three Cuts: Braves hold off Nationals in series opener

Braves catcher Evan Gattis took away a potential Nationals run in a play at the plate with Adam LaRoche on Friday. He also drove home Atlanta's first run with a solo home run in the fifth inning.

Brad Mills/Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The rivalry has been renewed, but it looked a lot like 2013 on Friday afternoon. The Atlanta Braves shut down the Washington Nationals’ lineup to the tune of a 2-1 final score at Nationals Park, jumping out to the early season series lead and up to the best record in the NL East through four games. Here are three observations from the game:

New Nationals manager Matt Williams got a front-row view of what last season’s headman, Davey Johnson, saw last season. The Atlanta Braves (3-1) finished the 2013 campaign with a 13-6 record against the Nationals — the preseason National League World Series favorite — to run away with the division lead from April on.

It’s strange how familiar the first four games of the ’14 campaign feel despite all the new faces manager Fredi Gonzalez is having to shuffle through: excellent starting pitching, a shutdown bullpen, a power-dominant lineup that strikes out too often and a knack for these close games. And with a 1-0 record versus their primary division rival to kick off the season series, the Braves only reinforced the similarities.

Washington is once again the preseason favorite to capture the NL East crown, but it was an injury-riddled Atlanta team that set the tone on Friday.

With the 2-1 win in the books, the Braves have allowed just five runs through their first four games this season, but they’ve scored just eight runs on five homers. That could be considered playing with fire — winning one-run games has been proven to be a dubious "skill" for teams to rely on — but it could also be a sign of good things to come if the Braves offense can get going as the season progresses.

This past weekend, following the Braves’ exhibition game against the franchise’s top prospects, Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox reaffirmed the Braves’ attention to pitching depth in the farm system, commenting on how premier position players come along every now and again but that an organization’s success is built on its arms. Given his career track record with the likes of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, Cox would know.

So it came as little surprise that on Friday afternoon, as the Braves trotted out rookie right-hander David Hale for the first time this season, that the franchise got another good start out of another young arm to help keep them at the top of the NL East standings. Hale pitched five scoreless innings against the Nationals, allowing five hits and sticking out four. This is what this franchise does, year after year. It gets more production out of rookie pitchers than just about any other organization in baseball. Since general manager Frank Wren took over prior to the 2008 season, that’s the M.O. — here’s a look at the top MLB teams in terms of wins above replacement for rookie pitchers over the past seven seasons entering Friday (per FanGraphs):

With the likes of Craig Kimbrel, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson, Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Mike Minor performing well in their first full seasons during that timeframe, Atlanta trails only the Oakland As — a small-market organization that relies more heavily on rookies and arbitration-level players for financial reasons — for rookie production. That’s not to say that the Braves have groomed as many future superstars as other organizations, but it certainly means that they are not shy about putting a first-year guy on the mound. It usually works out for them, too.

Hale has not disrupted that trend.

In his first three starts at the big league level, he boasts a 0.56 ERA and he’s striking out 10.7 batters per nine innings. He wasn’t flawless against the Nats, but he got himself out of trouble — thanks in part to some base-running errors; the Nationals gave up three outs on the basepaths through two pitch-out rundowns and Andrelton Simmons throwing out Adam LaRoche at home — and his stuff is good enough to keep hitters off-balance and get a few fielding-independent outs on the board. Shutting down this Nationals lineup and going toe-to-toe with opposing starter Jordan Zimmermann is not an easy task.

"It was good to get that one under my belt, first one of the year," Hale said. " … I just keep focused. As soon as you get on the mound it just all narrows in."

In a game littered with odd decisions concerning baserunners and the prevention of their advancement, the fifth inning episode of Braves outfielder Justin Upton throwing his hands in the air on a ball hit inside the left-field line, allowing Ian Desmond to turn a double into an apparent game-tying inside-the-park home run, was by far the strangest. And it required plenty of replay time (four minutes, eight seconds) to sort out.

Desmond’s hit off Hale inched inside the foul line and ricocheted into the outfield corner, where it created problems for all involved. The problem was the ball lodged underneath the outfield wall’s poorly-positioned padding, leading Upton, who was looking to play the ball off the wall, to throw his hands up — signaling a dead ball. The umpires didn’t see it that way. Instead, there was no sign that the ball was dead and Desmond, to his credit, continued to race around the bases. By the time Upton realized the umpires were not going to stop play, he hurriedly grabbed the ball (which, honestly, was not that difficult for him to retrieve) but the throw did not make it home before Desmond.

Upton, Gonzalez and the Braves immediately protested.

After the lengthy review, the umpires ruled that Upton was correct under MLB Rule 7.05F, which states a player is awarded two bases if the ball is lodged in padding. Credit Upton for brushing up on the rulebook, because for a long while it looked as though he had erred in anticipating the officiating crew would keep Desmond at second base for him.

"I think that they got it right," said Gonzalez, who is now 2-for-2 in manager challenges this season. "At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about, getting the play right. … That’s the No. 1 priority here."

Williams conducted a post-replay protest himself on behalf of the Nationals (they really could have used the run), but the Braves held onto their one-run lead and Hale held onto his five-inning shutout. However, the ruling did raise one important question: Why in the world are the pads lifted off the ground at the perfect height for a baseball to be lodged under them? Try to find a good answer for that. I’ll wait.

That strategy seemed to work out well for Justin Upton.