It’s often exaggerating to say that an early-August series in MLB could be season-defining; but in this case, it’s not.
The Atlanta Braves are currently in a free-fall, having gone 0-8 on a West Coast road trip in which Freddie Freeman and company saw some of the best pitching in all of baseball. But despite Atlanta’s losing skid, the Washington Nationals can’t seem to pull away in the NL East. The Nats currently hold a 4.5-game lead over the Braves, despite a mediocre 5-5 record in the team’s last 10 games. If Atlanta is going to turn the season around, it will start with a win Friday night in the series-opener against the Nats.
Stephen Strasburg‘s struggles at Turner Field are well-chronicled, but the Washington ace will take another crack at the Braves on Friday night. He will face Ervin Santana, Atlanta’s No. 2 starter who has pitched brilliantly in recent outings. But despite the fact that ESPN has all but declared the Nationals NL East champions in early-August, the remaining games still have to be played. And that’s good news for the Braves, who have owned the Nationals in 2014. Atlanta boasts a 7-3 record against its NL East rivals this year, a mark that could be improved by Sunday afternoon. The Nats have more momentum heading into the series, but despite a rainy forecast, the Turner Field crowd is certain to be electric Friday night and the Braves have a remarkable sense of urgency.
It cannot be emphasized enough, however, how extremely fortunate Atlanta is to still be in contention after the team’s winless road trip. Runs have been at a premium for the struggling Braves offense, a force that frequently lives and dies by the home run ball. But the team has hit the fewest homers in the majors since the All-Star break, and Atlanta fans are pleading for a change at the top of the order. Fredi Gonzalez has been shockingly stubborn in response to his team’s offensive struggles, refusing to put anyone who isn’t named BJ Upton at the top of the order. It likely won’t be determined in August, but that is a move that could ultimately cost the skipper his job in Atlanta.
The Braves acquired Emilio Bonifacio at the trade deadline for a reason, and he needs to be utilized in the leadoff spot way more often than Gonzalez would like. Not only does he have more speed than Upton, but he also strikes out less and he’s a better defensive outfielder. Yes, Upton has a massive contract that is turning out to be a historically bad decision by the Braves. But at some point contract amounts have to be thrown out the window, and the player who is producing the most needs to be in the everyday lineup.
While the Braves are limping into this crucial series with the Nats, the team’s offense absolutely has the potential to explode to life at any time. Chris Johnson has swung the bat well lately, and Freeman is starting to break out of his slump. And while runs have been hard to come by in recent weeks, Strasburg, despite the fact that he is an excellent pitcher, could be just what the doctor ordered for Atlanta. Some things in sports are simply unexplainable, and Strasburg’s struggles against the Braves are one of those things.
Yes, Atlanta is reeling. And yes, losing this series against Washington would be detrimental to the team’s playoff hopes. But the Braves like facing the Nationals, and a sweep could be forthcoming. Three wins in a row at Turner Field this weekend and Atlanta will be alive and well in the divisional race.