The Atlanta Braves (11-1) swept the Washington Nationals (7-5) in impressive fashion over the weekend. We can now say the Braves will run away with the division while the Nationals will be forced to fight for a wild card berth.
Such declarations are way too early to make, but to say this series means nothing is also naive. The Braves traveled to Washington and took down the perceived favorites in the National League East and many experts’ World Series pick. This all came with star first baseman Freddie Freeman on the 15-day disabled list.
So what can we take away from this series? The biggest edge the Braves will hold over the Nationals this season lies in the bullpen.
Sure, the lineup features more power than the Nationals, and the rotation has been outstanding thus far. But the Braves can rely on their bullpen all season, whereas the Nationals don’t have that luxury.
In this series, the Braves’ bullpen pitched 7.1 innings of scoreless baseball and allowed just two hits and one walk. Closer Craig Kimbrel worked two perfect innings to record two saves. Setup man Eric O’Flaherty also worked two perfect innings in the series.
Meanwhile, the Nationals bullpen allowed six runs, walked 10 batters and allowed 13 hits in 11 innings of work. Nationals’ closer Drew Storen blew a save in his only appearance on Friday after setup man Tyler Clippard couldn’t get out of the eighth inning.
That Friday meltdown from the Nationals set the tone for the entire series. They couldn’t hold a four-run lead while the Braves’ bullpen allowed the team to hang around and battle back. Once the game went into extra innings, it just felt like the Braves had a huge advantage.
The back of the bullpen with Kimbrel and O’Flaherty is impressive, but the strong depth has proven to be vital. Manager Fredi Gonzalez can turn to Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin and expect strong outings. Jordan Walden features great stuff that can be unhittable at times, and newly-acquired Luis Ayala just adds right-handed depth to an already strong bullpen.
If Jonny Venters can return this season to his former self, it will just be unfair.
Currently, the Braves lead the MLB in bullpen ERA at 1.30 while the Nationals rank 29th at 5.90 — a huge discrepancy between two very good teams. The discrepancy was apparent in this series and could prove to be the difference in their two seasons if those rankings hold throughout 2013.