The Atlanta Braves dropped their series opener against the NL East-leading Washington Nationals on Tuesday night, falling 3-1 thanks to a strong outing from opposing starter Stephen Strasburg and his bullpen. The Braves have now lost six straight games against the Nationals. Here are three observations from the game:
Stephen Strasburg’s 2015 season has been forgettable — at best.
The former No. 1 pick and Nationals standout, who entered the season as a presumed key cog in an overstocked rotation, found himself in the worst season of his career and on the disabled list prior to the Atlanta series. His 6.55 ERA was more than double the worst mark of his career, and while his peripherals suggested much better production (3.97 FIP, 8.9 strikeouts per nine) he was nowhere near his typical top-of-the-rotation status. After dealing with neck and back soreness, officially dubbed a strained left trapezius muscle, Strasburg made his first start of June on Tuesday night … against a surging division rival that he’s historically struggled against, no less.
All he did was throw five shutout innings.
Strasburg ended his evening early after running up 94 pitches, but he limited the shorthanded Braves to just four hits and one walk, striking out six, most on high fastballs, in the process. It wasn’t necessarily efficient, but it was exactly what the Nationals needed — and the Braves didn’t — in a series without Cy Young frontrunner Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez. With the win, Washington continued to build upon its growing NL East lead: They are now four games up on the faltering second-place Mets.
The fact that Strasburg’s comeback performance came against Atlanta, a team that has plagued him time and time again, was even more impressive. The 26-year-old owned a 4.25 career ERA against the Braves, the highest mark against any team he’s faced at least five times, including 11 home runs allowed in 87 innings. Those demons were nowhere to be found on Tuesday. The Nationals closed the door (just barely) with the relief combination of Tanner Roark, Matt Thornton, David Carpenter and Drew Storen.
"That check swing (by Cameron Maybin), I couldn’t tell, but maybe three or four feet from being fair and here we go. We’d still be playing," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of his close call with the bases loaded in the ninth inning. "We battled. We battled good like we always do."
The Braves’ biggest issue was an obvious one: Freddie Freeman is on the disabled list with a wrist injury. Though the ailment is not expected to keep the two-time All-Star out for long, the fact that Atlanta’s has sputtered over the past five games is not a coincidence. When Freeman sits out, the Braves are scoring just 2.2 runs per game this season. He provides a serious threat behind Jace Peterson and Cameron Maybin and the team’s lone true power threat.
The road was practically paved for Strasburg to take advantage — same goes for Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister in Games 2 and 3, both of whom have gone through their own recent issues.
If the Braves can not find production without Freeman’s help, there could be a difficult stretch ahead — even when they seem to have that pitcher’s number.
"They’re a good club," Gonzalez said of the Nationals’ recent win streak. "They’ve got a lot of good players on that club — a lot of veterans, got some young players, (Michael) Taylor had a nice game for them. They’ve got a good pitching staff. One through 12 or 13, whatever they’re throwing out there, they’re pretty darn good."
The Braves center fielder offered the preliminary glimmer of hope before serving as the final out, a foul pop-up with the bases loaded. Maybin was the only Atlanta player to cross the plate in Nationals Park, hitting an eighth-inning home run off Thornton to finally get his team on the board after Strasburg retired for the evening.
It was needed, but more than anything it was an abnormal scoring opportunity for this Atlanta team.
The Braves rank 30th among 30 major-league teams with 42 home runs this season, four behind the low-scoring Phillies. For further comparison, two players in Atlanta’s division, Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins) and Bryce Harper (Nationals), have already hit 50 long balls combined.
This comes with zero shock value after an offseason that eschewed power, and accompanying strikeouts, by trading Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and even Jason Heyward away from a team that finished with the franchise’s lowest single-season home run mark since 1990. In return, the team added some surprisingly productive pieces, but the most expensive offseason acquisition (Nick Markakis) is a cleanup hitter with zero homers. Looking back, the personnel moves and focus on small ball was bound to lead to the team’s current power-deficient state.
This has not necessarily held Atlanta’s lineup back — it ranked 17th in run scored entering the Nationals series, well ahead of last season’s mark — but power remains a valuable commodity. And it’s one the Braves simply have very little of in the coffers, especially when Freeman sits.
Gonzalez was quick to point out that the loss did not fall on his starter.
Alex Wood’s record fell to 4-5 after allowing three earned runs on 10 hits, but his defense came up short in multiple situations and the fact that he was able to save the bullpen despite a less-than-stellar outing was commendable. Wood’s ERA still sits at a respectable 3.44 (and even better FIP), but he can’t help that he’s once again receiving well below four runs of support per outing.
"I thought he pitched good. Gave us seven innings, gave us a chance to win," Gonzalez said. We got him behind the 8-ball on a couple of balls we could’ve turned (for double plays). What did we turn, three double plays? We could’ve turned probably a couple more. I thought he pitched good. You know what, he’s going to get the (loss) and Strasburg’s going to get the (win), but in the back of my mind I thought he pitched better than Strasburg.
"Obviously he got deeper into the game with his pitch count and Stephen didn’t, but that’s baseball. Give up three runs and lose."
There is one controllable area of Wood’s game that is raising some red flags, though. Wood struck out just two Nationals batters through seven inning, bringing his career-low strikeouts per nine innings ever lower:
While Wood remains the second-best starter in Atlanta’s rotation, his low strikeout rate is something to, at the very least, keep an eye on moving forward.