Three Cuts: Braves nip Nats in 13, reclaim 1st place in NL East

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman hit his 12th home run of the season in the Braves' 13-inning victory over the Nationals on Friday night.

The above comment comes in jest, of course. That aside, there is no explanation for Atlanta’s 20-7 edge over Washington since the start of the 2013 season.

None.

Both clubs are loaded with young stars, quality arms in the starting rotation and bullpen and overall rosters that are indeed pennant- and championship-worthy. And yet, the Braves have essentially dusted the Nationals at every turn — including the first two outings of this crucial four-game set.

On Thursday, Atlanta blanked Washington (37-35), thanks to a superb start from pitcher Gavin Floyd — who incurred an elbow fracture in the seventh inning.

On Friday, the Braves (38-35, 1st place in NL East) started fast (Freddie Freeman solo homer in the 1st), got resourceful in the middle innings (RBI hits from Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward) and ended reasonably strong, in the form of Evan Gattis’ go-ahead RBI single in the 13th (scoring Freeman), sparking a definitive two-run rally.

But for the Braves, that little bump in the road merely delayed the inevitable victory for a club that can seemingly do no wrong at Nationals Park.

All this begs the rhetorical question: Is it possible the Nationals — 1-7 against Atlanta this year, 36-28 against all other comers — simply have a mental block against the Braves?

Heading into this game, Minor had never logged multiple outings of double-digit strikeouts in the same calendar month. But that all changed on Friday, after Minor (105 total pitches, 74 strikes) mowed down a season-high 11 Nationals over seven strong innings.

(On June 4, Minor whiffed 10 batters in a shutout loss to the Mariners.)

For the night, Minor yielded only two walks and seven hits (mostly scattered) to the Nationals, a sterling effort that was also based in efficiency. As such, the Braves southpaw never encountered more than five batters in a single frame.

That’s enough to embrace Minor as a good pitcher with great upside for the season’s final three months, a time when the Braves — now without Floyd — will lean heavily on their retooled-on-the-fly rotation of Julio Teheran (6-4, 2.31 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 84/21 K-BB, .204 opponents’ batting average), Minor, Harang, Ervin Santana and Alex Wood, who’ll formally rejoin the Atlanta staff on Wednesday (against Houston).

As we wrote on Wednesday, it makes the most sense for Heyward (eight homers, 27 RBI, 34 runs, nine steals, .353 OBP at the top spot) to bat 1st in the Atlanta lineup, since he’s the club’s most productive asset in that slot.

However, we’re also wise to the potential benefits of a lineup that features Freeman (three hits, three runs vs. Washington), Gattis (one run, one RBI, two hits), Heyward (one run, two hits, two RBI), Chris Johnson (2 for 5) and Simmons (two hits, two RBI) in the 3-7 slots.

It’s a tough gauntlet for pitchers to negotiate, so much they might unwittingly relax after getting through the five-man set … allowing for speedsters like Jordan Schafer (two steals vs. the Nationals) to run wild on the basepaths.

Against the Nats, the quintet of Freeman, Gattis, Heyward, Johnson and Simmons accounted for 11 of the Braves’ 12 hits. Of equal importance, that group tallied three extra-base hits and all six RBI in Friday’s clutch victory.

That’s good production, considering Atlanta’s middling RISP batting average — .266 (4 for 15).

The Braves slugger (14 homers, 37 RBI, 36 runs, .350 on-base percentage) hasn’t been in the starting lineup since Tuesday, the result of experiencing dizziness and lightheadedness over the last few days.

If Upton had somehow come into contact with another player during live action — outfield collision or physical encounter with a catcher on a home-plate play — perhaps there would be tangible worries of a concussion.

But preliminary signs point to Upton just feeling temporarily out of whack, perhaps in the realm of a flu bug or inner-ear disturbance.

"He’s not feeling good, and he’s feeling terrible that he can’t get in the lineup," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez of Upton, who grounded out in a pinch-hit appearance on Thursday, according to The Atlanta-Journal Consitution.

"Now, I think it’s time to test everything. He’s getting frustrated with the way his body feels and the way he feels, so I think it’€™s time for him to go get a full evaluation, whatever that may be — whether that’s an ear, nose and throat doctor, an ENT, I don’t know."