Three Cuts: Braves rip Nats 9-0, clinch sweep
Here are three things we learned from the Braves' 9-0 road rout of the Nationals on Sunday, clinching the series sweep for Atlanta.
The Braves racked up nine runs and 12 hits against Gio Gonzalez and the Nationals, but the offensive explosions were essentially reserved for the first and third innings.
B.J. Upton opened the game with a line-drive double to left field. After a Jason Heyward popout to shallow right field — prompting Upton to wisely tag from second base to third after the catch — B.J.'s brother, Justin Upton then walked, setting the stage for the first definitive at-bat of the day.
And guess who? Paul Bunyan himself, Evan Gattis.
Wasting little time in the box, Gattis laced a double to left field, scoring B.J. Upton. One batter later, Chris Johnson raked the first of his four hits to center field (barely evading Gonzalez's glove) for a two-run single, boosting the score to 3-0.
In 2012, Gio Gonzalez was only one of four MLB pitchers to accrue 17 or more wins, a sub-3.00 ERA and 200-plus strikeouts (along with Justin Verlander, R.A. Dickey and David Price). Within that rationale, it seemed likely Gonzalez would settle down and flex his muscles as one of baseball's best southpaws.
But the Braves got the best of Gonzo again in the third, highlighted by Justin Upton's leadoff homer, an Uggla walk (with one out), one more Chris Johnson hit and then the biggest blow of the afternoon — Andrelton Simmons launching an over-the-plate offering over the left field wall, a three-run blast.
After that, the Braves' series sweep of their chief rival became a mere formality.
It had been said many times, many ways in the previous three months: If Brandon Beachy (still recovering from elbow surgery) and Julio Teheran (one of baseball's best pitching prospects) could hold up the back end of the starting rotation in August and September, the Braves might have zero weaknesses heading into October.
Within that scenario, Maholm might be expendable as a starter, best serving Atlanta's championship hopes as a long reliever or situational ace out of the bullpen.
That strategy, however, will have to wait a few months to crystallize. For right now, Maholm (3-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 20/5 K-BB) has arguably been the most productive starter on a Braves rotation that has dominated hitters through 12 games (cumulative ERA: 2.06).
Against the Nationals, Maholm (7 2/3 innings of scoreless ball, seven strikeouts) didn't face more than five hitters in the first seven innings. And in his final stanza (eighth inning), reliever Luis Avilan — one of the unsung heroes of Atlanta's bullpen — quietly thwarted any last challenges on Maholm's record.
Of course, we shouldn't be too surprised by Maholm's latest flirtation with invincibility.
With the Cubs and Braves last year, Maholm (13-11, 3.67 ERA) yielded only zero or one run in 14 starts. And from June 29 to Aug. 15, spanning 10 outings and 68 innings, he surrendered a grand total of nine runs . . . with tallies of a 7-1 record, 1.32 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 52/14 K-BB rate.
On the surface, that seems like a funny statement to make about baseball's best team (11-1) and winners of nine straight — including back-to-back-to-back sweeps.
But on this day, the Braves had the look of a dominant offense, from top to bottom, unflappable starting pitching (Maholm) and a relief corps that reveals few cracks in the team's overall foundation.
Plus, the Nationals players, coaches and fans basically had 6 1/2 full innings to wallow in the short-term realization of an unavoidable sweep ... and the long-term sense the Braves won't be satisfied with collecting 92-94 wins and breezing into the playoffs — as a wild card.
They want the division crown.
For Atlanta, the convincing sweep also validated the club's status as a true championship contender.
Not just a good team that conveniently roughed up the hapless Cubs and Marlins during a seemingly harmless stretch in April.