Three Cuts: Early offense keys Braves win over Nationals
ATLANTA — The Nationals can not figure out the Braves. Atlanta continued its recent stretch of dominance over its primary division rival on Saturday night, coasting off a high-scoring first inning and another solid outing from Alex Wood to a 6-3 win. Here are three observations off the game.
Freddie Freeman’s eyes opened a little wider when asked about Justin Upton’s hot streak. The right fielder has steadied the Braves’ offense over the past week, and if any player in the organization knows a thing or two about carrying an offense, it’s Freeman. He hasn’t slowed down since Day One. Now it looks like his teammates are picking up some of the slack — starting with Upton.
"Justin’s on fire. It’s just fun to watch. The first at-bat he had was a changeup, right-on-right changeup, and you don’t get those very often and he’s able to just stay back on it and hit it into left-center. You can just totally tell. I think the one out he made tonight was a line drive to center field. It’s definitely something special to watch. He’s definitely put us on his back the last few days and carried us.
After opening the season much slower than he did a season ago, the younger of the two Upton brothers is torching the competition right now, hitting .538 with three home runs and six RBI in his last seven games. Over that time, he’s raised his hitting splits from .158/.238/.158 to .366/.435/.634. Now it’s easy to make drastic changes to averages at this point in the season, but there is little questioning the fact that Upton is, once again, producing at a high level. His weighted runs created, a measure of offensive production where the league average equals, is now up to 197, which would have been the 12th-best rate in baseball before Saturday’s games.
"When he gets like that, he’s pretty tough to get out," B.J. Upton said.
But the older brother put together a solid game against the Nationals, belting his first home run of the season and hitting the ball hard in practically every plate appearance, and though his well-publicized personal hitting instruction with Chipper Jones was deemed a work in progress by the coach himself, there have been some immediate results, enough to get the boo-birds off the center fielder’s back at least.
Small a feat as it may be, B.J. Upton has now hit safely in three of the four games since Jones’ instruction, striking out just four times in 18 plate appearances. If that doesn’t sound like an improvement, then recall that he was fanning nearly half the time he came to the plate before that. The Braves are now 18-3 in games where B.J. Upton gets two or more hits. He seemed quietly determined to keep it going in the clubhouse, though he wasn’t giving away much else in terms of trade secrets.
"Finally got something elevated," the 29-year-old said. "Trying to keep it simple. Trying to keep things as simple as possible."
The two brothers were a part of a greater whole in the Braves’ latest victory over the Nationals, as all but one Braves starter (excluding pitcher Alex Wood) reached base safely against Taylor Jordan and his bullpen. Freeman, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis each logged three-hit games, while B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla both reached twice and combined to drive in three runs. The offense put up four runs in the first frame and scattered hits the rest of the way, including Freeman’s insurance homer in the bottom of the eighth.
"It was definitely a collective win," Freeman said.
The Braves haven’t had too many of those early on this season. They’ll take as many as they’re allowed. And Justin Upton hitting with this type of consistency the rest of the way, if possible — but that might just be a little too greedy.
In so many different ways, the Nationals were a victim of laughable misfortune in their latest loss to this Braves team. They are very nearly inventing ways to put themselves behind the 8-ball — inside-the-park ground-rule doubles, post-strikeout rundowns, pitcher pickoff to moves to second base and, worst and most controversial of all, on the new-fangled interpretation of the catch-to-transfer rule. Even Craig Kimbrel’s final strikeout was strange, with Nats second baseman Ian Desmond standing still in the batter’s box as Evan Gattis tagged him to complete the game-ending strikeout.
To add injury to insult, Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals starting third baseman and No. 3 hitter who was already dealing with shoulder problems, fractured his thumb on the pickoff play at second. He is expected to be out four to six weeks. This coming a day after starting center fielder Denard Span viciously collided with Braves second baseman Dan Uggla, resulting in him being sidelined for approximately a week; the team’s biggest offseason acquisition, pitcher Doug Fister, is already expected to miss about a month.
Nothing is going right for manager Matt Williams’ club.
Davey Johnson knows the feeling.
Such is the cost of admission to this series, one in which the Braves have won 17 of the 24 games since the Nationals were the named the 2013 preseason favorites to win the World Series — not to mention the NL East frontrunners this season. The Nationals are 6-1 versus all other opponents this season and entered the game holding onto the division’s top spot. The Braves just keep winning. They are 4-1 against the Nats this season and have a chance to take sole possession of first place for the first time this season with a win on Sunday.
"It’s never easy against a good club like that. I think today we just persevered, really. Woody wasn’t as sharp as he has been — 109, 111 pitches or something in five innings — but we swung the bats, swung the bats early, first inning gave us a nice cushion, and Freeman’s able to add on. That was a nice three-run lead in the ninth inning," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "You respect that club. You’re a couple base on balls and then put one in the seats and you’re sitting there having a good time but we’re on the losing end of it."
That hasn’t happened often, though.
Last weekend, following Jordan’s excellent 2014 debut start against the Braves, Nationals manager Matt Williams acknowledged that he was most impressed by how his young pitcher worked out of jams with his effective sinker, stranding all but one of the nine baserunners he faced in the 2-1 win. Jordan worked his way out of some jams at Turner Field, too. He just got himself into too many jams.
Jordan gave up 10 hits and two walks in arguably the worst outing of his young career, allowing four first-inning runs to cross (five total) in just five innings of work. It was a different look for the 6-foot-5 right-hander who held a career 111 ERA+ in 10 starts entering Saturday night’s game, although the opposing lineup’s familiarity with his stuff certainly did him no favors.
"It helped a little bit. The more you face someone, the more comfortable you’re going to get — I don’t know about comfortable, more you’ll be able to know what his pitches do," Freeman said. "You go up there with maybe a little more confidence that you’ve seen him a few times and go out there and try to make better at-bats against him every time out."
At that rate of improvement, Jordan will not want to see this Braves roster again for a while.