The Braves currently have the second-best record in the National League and the seventh-best in MLB, and are nearly assured a playoff spot (the last playoff seed is under .500; the Braves would need to have worse than a .333 winning percentage going forward to fall below .500 on the year; only the Pirates have played worse than .333 ball to date), but their last couple of games have been bizarre enough to A) aptly fit into the 2020 ethos and B) make you question the basic tenets of existence.
After bringing in arguably the worst pitcher on the roster in the last inning of a one-run game in both of the last two contests, the Braves will hopefully avoid this kind of self-inflicted Lucy-and-the-football moment this time around. But, as the pitching matchup doesn’t exactly portend great auspices for the Braves, perhaps even getting to a one-run game in the ninth would be a positive sign in and of itself (and a chance for Brian Snitker to redeem himself).
The Braves will be giving the ball, initially, to Josh Tomlin. The 35-year-old started the season in lights-out fashion with eight dominant relief appearances, quite a surprise for someone who was far from a lock to make the roster until it expanded to 28 players. That performance granted him a starting nod (the first time he was given regular starts since early 2018), but those outings haven’t quite gone so well. As a reliever, Tomlin was striking out everybody (38.1 percent of all batters faced) and hadn’t allowed his main bugbear: the longball. As a starter, he’s pitched to more contact and his strikeout rate (15.1 percent) has fallen by more than half. He’s also given up four homers in 11 1⁄3 innings, which is both A) very bad and B) more in line with what was expected preseason.
The big key for the Braves and Tomlin, theoretically, as they have a well-rested bullpen backend (sigh), is to limit his exposure to opposing batters multiple times. While Tomlin hasn’t even retired a batter the third time through the order this season (in fairness, it’s only been two batters) and his splits between the first and and second times through are fairly similar but-for the fact that he allowed one homer in the former and two in the latter, this is something Snitker and the Braves have struggled with on end this season, and it would be good to see it stop here. Coming into this game, the only unavailable relievers (pending any injuries we are not aware of) should be Chad Sobotka, Tyler Matzek, Grant Dayton, and possibly Luke Jackson — meaning that the full backend complement and six total relievers should be good to go. That’s plenty to let Tomlin face nine batters and get out of there, unless leverage dictates that it really doesn’t matter. On the flip side, the Braves might be tempted to let Tomlin go a little further given the Nationals don’t have much pop — but they really shouldn’t, given that his xwOBA-against, even when excluding homers, goes from a horrific .382 to an even more horrific .423 between the first and second times through (only as a starter, of course).
The Nationals’ starting woes this season have been almost as pronounced as the Braves’, and they’ve gone 2-1 so far in this series despite having each of Austin Voth, Wil Crowe, and Erick Fedde get blasted by Atlanta’s bats. Today, though, they’ll be able to send Patrick Corbin to the hill, which will represent a substantial improvement in their win likelihood over that trio of arms.
Corbin’s first season in the nation’s capital was fantastic — not quite as good as his walk year in Phoenix (5.9 fWAR) but still essentially elite (4.8 fWAR). This season, his velocity is down around 2 mph, and he’s being merely “quite good” rather than “dominant” (on pace for 3.5 fWAR per 200 innings after seven starts). The strikeouts and walks are both down, as is the grounder rate, and he’s been a bit more homer-prone. In short, more contact and harder contact have led to the downturn, with his not-particularly-effective sinker being hit even harder in 2020 than in 2019.
Corbin had three good-to-great starts to begin the season (20/3 K/BB ratio, two dinger alloweds) but has since faltered in three out of his last four tries (16/8 K/BB ratio, a homer allowed in each start). The Nationals have lost each of those last four games. The Nationals will hope he’s a bit more like what he did against the Braves last season: three starts, two runs allowed in each, a combined 22/9 K/BB ratio, and one homer allowed — though the Braves won two of the three games anyway.
Washington Nationals @ Atlanta Braves
Sunday, September 6, 2020
1:10 pm EDT
Truist Park (heh), Atlanta, GA
TV: Fox Sports South, MLB Network, MLB.tv
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network, La Mejor 1600/1460/1130 AM
XM Radio: XM 183 (streaming 841)