Three Cuts: Nats shut down Braves, split series

With yet another lackluster night from their offense, the Atlanta Braves lost 3-1 to the Nationals Thursday night at Turner Field. Here are three observations from the series finale:

1. The Nationals may need to re-evaluate the distinction of “ace” when facing the Braves

Washington starters Dan Haren and Jordan Zimmermann were merciless to Braves hitters over the past two games. As in lights out. The two combined to hold Atlanta’s offense to just six hits and one run in the past two Nationals’ wins, including a brutal 0-for-36 stretch that spanned two nights.

With their combined effort, the Nationals snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Braves dating back to last season and split the series in Atlanta 2-2.

Haren and Zimmermann helped to restore Washington’s confidence going forward. For a two-game span, the Nats’ pitching staff looked as deep as previously predicted — all of which came at the expense of strong outings from Paul Maholm and Kris Medlen.

“We’ve pitched good enough to win the series and they’ve just pitched better,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said after Medlen went seven innings, allowing three runs. “You gotta give them a little credit.”

The talk in the Braves’ clubhouse primarily focused on Haren’s use of the cutter against them, a pitch they swung on early and often, never seeming to make good contact. Weak pop outs were frequent. Haren, who signed with Washington as a free agent in December, went eight innings, allowing just one run on four hits. He struck out four.

And Haren didn’t run up his pitch count in his efficient performance.

“He commanded (his cutter) a lot better than when we’ve seen him,” Gonzalez said. “We know he’s got it, but today he was commanding it and we jumped on it early and we made quick outs. There was one point I thought I looked up in the seventh inning and I don’t think he had 60 pitches, 65 pitches. He had it going.”

Haren averaged just 3.75 pitches per out on the night.

In odd news, the Braves have thrived against Nationals aces Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez this season, winning all four outings. The two young starters have combined to allow 16 runs and 25 hits against Atlanta — mostly stemming from two rough Gonzalez starts.

Zimmermann and Haren found no such difficulty this week.

2. Dan Uggla might be finding his swing (again)

With his struggles in Atlanta, Uggla has become a quick target for Braves fans over the past two-plus seasons. It’s understandable. After hitting .227/.329/.421 in his first two seasons — this coming on the heels of four-consecutive 30-home run campaigns in Miami, where his average never fell below .243 — patience starts to wear thin.

In fairness to Uggla, he’s not alone on Atlanta’s roster in terms of big names who have struggled. Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton are right there with him as everyday players who posted a negative wins above replacement (WAR) score in April. The difference is that Heyward is just coming off an elite season — boasting a top-10 WAR in 2012 — and Upton has not been around long enough for fans to formulate a definitive opinion on him. So, often times, that leaves Uggla, regardless of the circumstances.

On Thursday night, both Uggla’s problems and redeeming qualities as a hitter were on display.

Following a meager groundout to third in the third inning, Uggla came up to the plate with two runners on in the fifth, a rare situation for the Braves this season. Atlanta ranked sixth-worst in the majors in plate appearances with men on base (410) entering the Nationals finale. He grounded into a fielder’s choice, falling to 0-for-15 this season with runners in scoring position.

“It better even out, because it hasn’t been good so far,” Uggla said of his hitting with runners on. “Time will tell.”

Then came the power, as his solo homer off Haren became the only time the team touched the Washington starter. Therein lies the stark contrast: isolated displays of power compared to extended strings of fruitless at-bats. For what it’s worth, Uggla also made the final out of the game with catcher Evan Gattis on first base.

In his defense, Uggla was a historically slow starter even in his Marlins days — April is by far his least productive month — and May is when he typically “turns it around.” But he’s on a career-worst pace for strikeout rate, batting splits and WAR. It doesn’t help that his fielding and base-running metrics have graded out below average, too, a key to his value last season when he was named an All-Star.

“April, for whatever reason, has always been a battle. I’ve had a couple seasons where I’ve gotten off to decent starts, but it’s just battle,” he said. “You gotta make the adjustment. I’ve been working all month to make the adjustments. It’s a new month so hopefully I can make sure history repeats itself.”

Either way, the up-and-down Braves lineup needs better production from him moving forward, not only because of his salary situation (it’s tough to bench or trade your highest-paid player) but also because of nights like Thursday — even occasional power is tough to ignore.

“I’m confident in my ability, confident in myself,” he said. “Hard work is going to pay off. I believe that.”

3. The Braves need more from the top of the order

In Atlanta’s past six losses, each coming in the past eight days to the Rockies, Tigers and Nationals, the Nos. 1 and 2 hitters have hit a combined 4-for-51 (.078) at the plate. In the team’s four wins in those series, those spots are 9-for-31 (.290).

The Braves scored 25 runs in the four wins; they scored 13 runs in the six losses.

That’s a big difference.

With their traditional No. 2 hitter Heyward out of the lineup following an appendectomy, it’s been Gonzalez’s task to try and find the right combination at the top. At times, it works out. But when it hasn’t, the results have been underwhelming. It’s tough to come up with a solution when sitting in the big chair. On Thursday, Gonzalez tried Jordan Schafer at leadoff with Chris Johnson batting second. Zero hits. On Wednesday it was Schafer and Andrelton Simmons who could not muster a hit. Gonzalez has tried to feature Ramiro Pena and B.J. Upton there, too.

Round and round they go.

As it stands, Atlanta has received the sixth-worst and second-worst production league-wide from the Nos. 1 and 2 holes (in terms of OPS+), respectively, with no quick fix in sight.

Until Heyward gets back — and, for that matter, he’s off to a typically slow start as well — expect the revolving door in front of Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis to just keep on revolving.