Just one series into the season and the two top teams in the division will square off in a three game series. The Nationals are fresh off a sweep of the Mets while the Braves took two of three from the Brewers. Offense was not a strength for the Braves in the first series, and they will have a tough task to produce more this series as they face both Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg.
Zimmermann was supposed to pitch yesterday in New York but was scratched due to flu like symptoms. Some analysts have Zimmermann as a Cy Young candidate after a dazzling 2013 season. In the series opener Zimmermann will take on rookie David Hale. Thankfully for Hale, manager Matt Williams is continuing to bat Bryce Harper sixth and Ian Desmond seventh. Hale will have to continue to pound the zone and allow his defense, highlighted by Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward, produce as they are capable.
The marquee matchup of the series is Stephen Strasburg against Julio Teheran. Both former top prospects, with Strasburg obviously being the more highly regarded prospect, will battle on Saturday afternoon. As you may recall, Teheran had quite an issue with hit batsmen last season against the Nationals. I don’t expect that to continue into this season, but it is certainly something to monitor. Neither Strasburg nor Teheran had their best performances on opening day, and both will be geared up to get their first win of the season against their division rival. For his career against the Braves, Strasburg is just 3-4 with a 3.68 ERA. Those are far from poor numbers, but the Braves have had good game plans against Strasburg and have been able to get the better of him a number of times in the past. Expect Strasburg to rack up a ton of strikeouts, as he has 71 in his 58.2 innings against Atlanta – and also the Braves strikeout a ton as is (we all know that.)
The third outing will be the only matchup in which the Braves have a distinct advantage. Alex Wood will start against Taylor Jordan in a matchup of youngsters. Wood was stellar in his first outing against a stacked right-handed lineup, and as I have said a number of times this offseason I expect Wood to be the best starter in Atlanta on a per start basis. If he is able to stay healthy and the Braves keep him in the rotation, there are no days I am more confident than the days in which Wood is starting. Jordan is a control heavy righty who has 51.2 innings of major league experience. He pounds the zone, much like Kyle Lohse in the last series, so the Braves will know they will be getting a lot of strikes. In the past, the Braves have done quite well against right handers who pound the zone such as Jordan, but they are much less lefty heavy in the lineup this year so we will see if that trend continues.
The bullpens are much similar to what they have been in the past, with Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard manning the Nats backend. The Nats are a bit more solid on the left side this season, with Jerry Blevins and Ross Detwiler, the former starter, expected to get a majority of the work against quality left-handed bats late in games like Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman. Blevins against the both of them and B.J. Upton will be a matchup to watch throughout the series and every series the two teams play against each other this season.
On the bench, the Nationals made a concerted effort to get more depth. Wilson Ramos got injured in the first series and is out for close to two months, so they are a bit thin at catcher with Jose Lobaton starting and Sandy Leon backing him up. Danny Espinosa, old friend Nate McLouth, and Scott Hairston make for a quality bench with power and speed. The improved bench will have more of an impact when injuries arise later in the season, but in pinch hit situations expect these three to come up in big spots.
This series, as all will be over the next number of years, will be one filled with young talent and dynamic young pitching. The team gets the best work out of their bullpen, in my opinion, will be the team that comes away winning the series. All eyes will be on Hale to see if the Braves can steal game one against Zimermann.