Apr 13, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) celebrates with left fielder Justin Upton (8) after a two run home run in the second inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Welcome back to week two of our ‘What Have We Learned?’ series on our beloved Atlanta Braves. It was a bi-polar week on the field; losing two of three to the New York Mets is never easy, but sweeping the Washington Nationals, no matter at what point in the season we find ourselves in, is always a good time (especially when the organizational higher ups are, once again, claiming superiority on a sub-par team). While there was plenty of good and a bit of bad, here are the most prominent things that stood out to me over this past week.
1.) The Braves own the Nationals: All jokes aside, the Braves are, for a lack of a better term, the Nationals’ daddy. We’ve all seen the numbers: Atlanta is 18-7 against the Nationals since last year, and the first two series between the squads of 2014—particularly this past weekends’—explains fairly well why that is. Make no qualms about it, the Nationals are a very good team, but they certainly don’t look like it when the Braves are their opponent. This past series, the Nats were a muck on the base paths, made some questionable defensive plays and poor Tyler Clippard can’t seem to best the Bravos when it counts the most.
The Nationals and Braves are becoming a very fun (and, in many aspects, a very childish) rivalry, and there is no better feeling than to completely own your rival. However, the Braves dominance is a new thing; the seven game disparity in last year’s 13-6 record between the two teams was the most since the Nationals won the 2008 season series 12-6. Every season series since then has been decided by two games or less, with 2011 ending in a 9-9 tie. Even in the recent dominance, the games are still incredibly close, and say what you will about the MASN broadcast team, they made a good point in the first series this year – a baseball series in April had a playoff atmosphere. (Fun fact: since moving from Montreal, the Nats are 80-90 against Atlanta as of this moment.)
2.) Woes against lesser teams continue: While the Mets claim to be destined for 90 wins, they are still far lesser in comparison to the Braves. This is a trend we have seen over the past half decade – the Braves struggle against lesser competition. Atlanta was a rare Craig Kimbrel mistake away from being swept in the opening home series of the year to the Mets. The remaining month of the Braves schedule is against perceived lesser competition; a series starting tonight against Philadelphia, to Flushing for another match-up with the Metropolitans, and a home series with the Reds sandwiched between a home-and-home with Miami. You can pick and choose portions of each team that is strong, but the Braves should win each of these series (although I fully expect Miami to give the Braves all they can handle. That is a good team), and if they start to nose dive at the end of the year, big trouble is ahead.
3.) The bullpen needs work: The book on the Braves in the Fredi Gonzalez era has been this – have the lead after 6 innings. If not, the bullpen is going to completely shut you down. Well, the first couple of weeks of 2014 haven’t been as dominant as we’d like to see. 33.2 bullpen innings into the year, the bullpen has given up 31 hits, issued 13 free passes and allowed 14 runs. While the numbers aren’t that bad, at times it seems worse than it truly is. Jordan Walden almost lost the second game of that Mets series, and poor Gus Schlosser (who I was a big fan of after the first week), who is the outlier of most of those numbers (he has pitched the most innings – six – but given up the second most hits (seven) and has equaled the number of runs allowed as Walden, Luis Avilan, Ian Thomas and Anthony Varvaro combined. (Unrelated, but how good has Thomas been?) It was a great sight seeing Schlosser come in and slam the door on the Nats after a home run to Adam LaRoche, and see Gerald Laird tell him to shake it off and keep working after the game ended.
I fully understand the MLB season is a marathon, and not a sprint. However, that middle thing – the lesser competition struggles – that could prove to be a big problem. I know it’s early, but the remainder of the month could prove pivotal as to how the Braves square off against teams they should beat. It’ll also be good bullpen practice, especially if the bats continue to be hot (here’s to looking at you, Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton).