The last time the Braves faced the Nationals, the Braves had a .500 record that defied expectations and the Nationals were a game under .500 with a record that also defied expectations. About a month later, the Nats have finally found their spot at the top of the division and the Braves have somehow managed to maintain their mediocrity. Call it #grit or #clutch or #TheWillToWin or whatever else, the Braves have been playing Dylan Thomas style baseball as they rage, rage against the dying of the light. I call it good ole fashioned dumb luck, but the wheels ain’t falling off just yet, so I’m gonna continue to ride this sucker straight into the wall.
Since the last time we faced them, the Nationals have scored nearly 4.7 runs per game while allowing less than 4.2 per game. Danny Espinosa, Yunel Escobar, and Denard Span have certainly been doing their jobs, as each sport a wRC+ north of 120, but the real driver of the Nationals offense has been Braves-fan-favorite Bryce Harper. Bryce has been having one of the best offensive seasons since Barry Bonds in his prime and has shown no signs of slowing down. His 24 home runs trail only Giancarlo Stanton, his 19% walk rate sits at the top of the game, and his .345 AVG sits comfortably in the top 5 in the MLB. If you guys want to hate the dude, be my guest, but I’m gonna continue to enjoy watching history in the making.
The next-most impressive player in baseball happens to also be on Bryce’s team. Max Scherzer is giving the finger to all who say pitchers peak young and that big-name free agents never live up to their salaries. In Scherzer’s last 2 outings he’s pitched a full 18 innings and given up only one hit, one walk, and one hit-by-pitch while allowing zero earned runs and striking out 26 helpless batters. He has the lowest ERA and FIP in baseball, and his .242 on base percentage ranks 13th among starting pitchers, well ahead of the .210 OBP that hitters have managed against him. Unfortunately for them, the rest of the Nationals pitching staff has been bitten by some combination of the bad-luck bug, the Nats defense bug, or the lack-of-talent bug. When asked for his thoughts on the Nationals’ season thus far, number 1 Nats fan and noted blog historian Cooland Goodman offered the following insight:
@srbrown70 prob what most would say in that they've underperformed. BP & defense has been crap. Scherzer carrying the SP. Fans are n00bs
— Cooland Goodman (@DaveIsOnlineNow) June 22, 2015
In spite of my admittedly moribund outlook on the rest of this Braves season, there have actually been a number of bright spots lately. We’ve already discussed what a pleasant surprise Cameron Maybin has been, but it’s been another former Padre who’s truly lead the team in the last month. Over the last 30 days, Jace Peterson has hit .311/.393/.472 with four stolen bases and borderline gold glove caliber defense. K Yamada recently outlined some of the mechanical changes he’s made to start hitting for more power, and that has been coupled with impressive plate discipline to provide the foundation for his elite on base percentage. Completing the list of valuable Braves additions courtesy of the Padres is Matt Wisler, who last Friday threw 8 innings against the Mets, allowing only 6 hits, no walks, and one earned run. Wisler was filling in for Foltynewicz, who was recently sent back down to the minors to work on his command. Wisler take the mound again on Thursday against a struggling Doug Faster. The matchup should be a good test for both guys.
The other matchups consist of Alex Wood vs. Somebody in a Nationals Uniform on Tuesday, followed by Shelby Miller vs. Jordan Zimmermann on Wednesday. Wood has been fairly unpredictable this season, so it could be good that he’s facing a fill-in. If we get the struggling version of Alex, we may still be able to squeak out a victory. Miller and Zimmermann should be another close game. Despite what their ERAs may tell you, their peripheral stats suggest they’ve both been equally adept at throwing baseballs at moderate to high velocities this season.
Can the Braves keep this up and potentially contend for one of the two NL wild card spots? I doubt it. But damnit if these young guys aren’t fun to watch, and as Brad said in the privacy of group messaging, we’ve got “6 games against the Natties in the next 9. Might be the end of the line here. Or potential start of a nonsensically glorious playoff run.”