What should have been a chance for the Braves to, at the very least, keep the divisional race technically alive for at least another week or so and maybe even stay in the realistic conversation for the final Wild Card spot has now turned into an attempt to salvage what little pride the team has left after the Last Place-In-All-Of-Baseball Texas Rangers nearly took all of it this past weekend. The Washington Nationals will be coming into town this weekend with a chance to possibly clinch the 2014 NL East Championship at Turner Field. The Braves have to take 2 out of 3 against the Nats to make sure that doesn't happen. Judging by how they played last week against a team that was eliminated from playoff contention back in mid-August, that doesn't seem too probable right now.
Despite already dropping the season series against our Braves, the Nationals have to be feeling pretty good heading into this series. They'll have the starting pitching advantage for the series (at least on paper. I think you know who might struggle against the Braves this week like he seemingly always does), their offense is actually alive as evidenced by their team wRC+ of 104 so far in September (for reference, the Braves team wRC+ is 60, which is barely better than the Diamondbacks, who have a wRC+ of 59 this month. Those two teams are 14th and 15th in the NL in September, respectively), and apparently Bryce Harper cured cancer when he hit a homer off of Craig Kimbrel's curveball last week. On top of all that, they took the series from Atlanta in D.C. last week, so it's all going right for Washington right now.
One of the big reasons for Washington's finishing kick into October is the fact that the rest of the batters are actually starting to follow Anthony Rendon's lead this season, the main guy being Denard Span. In the 2nd half of the season, Span has hit .347/.403/.458 with 144 wRC+. His power numbers are underwhelming, but when your K% in the second half is a measly 8.0% (and 9.5% for the entire season), then you don't need to be crushing balls. There's a lot of debate as to whether strikeouts matter all that much, but it can't hurt to have your K% that low. In addition, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond have been productive for the team down the stretch, 12 homers from Adam LaRoche in the 2nd half of the season is nothing to sneeze at, and Harper also seems to be finally figuring things out at the plate this season. Putting it bluntly, the key players for the Nats got it together down the stretch on offense, while the Braves offense has utterly cratered.
On the pitching side, there are actually some positives for the Braves, like this one: They get to see their good buddy, Stephen Strasburg! For some reason, Strasburg has never had much success against Atlanta, and it has always seemed like he absolutely hates pitching at the Ted. As a team, the Braves have hit .323/.363/.573 against Strasburg, and they roughed up Strasburg at Nationals Park last week. If that trend continues, then Monday may actually be the Braves' best chance to pick up one of the two wins that they need to ensure that Washington isn't celebrating a divisional title here in Atlanta. Another pitcher who hasn't had the best of times against Atlanta is Gio Gonzalez. He's also gotten roughed up a bit in his two starts against Atlanta; He gave up 6 runs in 6 innings way back in April, and only lasted 4.2 innings last month. He doesn't share the same Braves phobia that Strasburg has, but he also hasn't been mowing through the Braves, either.
The only starter this week who has had consistent success against the Braves this season is Tanner Roark. Despite being victimized back in that lovely April series here in Atlanta ([sigh] which feels like a million years ago), the Nats have beaten the Braves 4-1 in the past two starts that Roark made against Atlanta. However, the Nationals haven't won a game that he's started for them since mid-August, so that might be a concern. If there was ever a time for the Braves offense to have an offensive revival, it's now.
Simply put, this series is going to be all about pride for the Braves. As of right now, according to MLB.com/Baseball Prospectus the Braves have a 5% chance of making the Postseason. Unless Atlanta runs the table for these last couple of weeks, that means that the season is basically over for the Braves. The only thing this team is playing for at this point is to make sure that Washington isn't popping champagne all over the walls of their own dojo. At the very least, the Braves should make it seem like they actually care about that, instead of giving us a listless performance like they did in Dallas over the weekend.
Once again, there isn't much to play for, but it'd be nice to actually see them put out a decent effort for what's left of the season.
Monday, September 15th
Stephen Strasburg (WAS): 11-11, 3.46 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 2.59 xFIP, 3.6 fWAR
Ervin Santana (ATL): 14-8, 3.76 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 8.23 K/9, 2.7 fWAR
Tuesday, September 16th
Tanner Roark (WAS): 13-10, 2.96 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 1.89 BB/9, 2.7 fWAR
Aaron Harang (ATL): 11-10, 3.72 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 0.59 HR/9, 2.5 fWAR
Wednesday, September 17th (on ESPN)
Gio Gonzalez (WAS): 8-10, 3.79 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 7.2% HR/FB%, 2.5 fWAR
Mike Minor (ATL): 6-11, 4.74 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 13.1% HR/FB%, 0.3 fWAR
All Games Scheduled To Start At 7:10 PM EST