WORLD SERIES OF THE WEEK: Nationals at Braves

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

by Steven Goldman

It's safe to say that the season has not gone as the Washington Nationals might have anticipated coming off of a 98-64 season. They enter this showdown series with the division-leading Braves five days after momentarily slipping beneath .500.

They took three of four from the Reds to get back on the winning side of the break-even mark, but their season run differential is still buried in negative territory -- if you remove the 15-0 whipping they took from the Reds back on April 5, they get to positive territory, but only by four runs.

Pitching has been a big part of the problem. Last season the Nats led the NL in ERA by starting pitchers and were third in ERA for relievers. This season they're fourth and tenth, respectively.

Gio Gonzalez and Dan Haren have been slow to get going. The latter has already allowed six home runs in 24-1/3 innings (four came in his first start); he has his old command, but not his old stuff. Pitching is a rough business, and Haren and his old Diamondbacks teammate Brandon Webb may go down as approximately the 1000th and 1001st pitchers in major league history to have the front end of a Hall of Fame career only to be slowed (or in Webb's case, destroyed altogether) by physical issues.

Gonzalez seemed to have gotten back on track in his most recent start, and Haren pitched well his last time out as well, but the latter might represent one of the few times in recent years that general manager Mike Rizzo has gambled and lost -- the other time being his decision to keep Stephen Strasburg out of the playoffs last year.

Despite Bryce Harper's spectacular start, the offense has been slow off the mark. Shortstop Ian Desmond has chipped in at .295/.313/.516 , and the catchers have combined to hit .256/.359/.487. Everyone else has run the gamut from mediocre to outright depressing, and Ryan Zimmerman, presently rehabbing a bad hamstring, can't get back soon enough.

For the Braves, it has already been a story of two seasons -- the 12-1 start fueled by the 10-game winning streak earlier in April, followed by 3-8 since then. In retrospect, the schedule deserves part of the credit for that hot start -- although they swept a three-game series at Washington during the streak, they also played six games against the Marlins and Cubs, teams that shouldn't have been real obstacles for a quality club.

The Braves largely haven't hit, and almost all of those who have should be viewed with suspicion. Justin Upton won't remain on a pace for 80 home runs, but he'll be solid enough the rest of the way. The same can't be said of Chris Johnson, a painfully streaky player who is either an all-star or not worth playing, with little middle ground -- he will assuredly play back his current league-leading batting average. Dan Uggla is off to a poor start after hitting .233 and .220 the last two seasons. B.J. Upton hasn't had a batting average over .246 in five years and couldn't get his on-base percentage over .300 last season, though, he did play in pitcher-friendly Tropicana.

They've pitched very well so far, with the bullpen again shaping up to be a great asset, but the offense could be a drag all season long. Like the Nats, the Braves will be without a star this series. Jason Heyward is recovering from an appendectomy. He hadn't yet begun hitting. They need him healthy and productive with something approaching desperation.

Players to watch

by Steven Goldman

Bryce Harper

That's a sweet haircut bro

Given his age, it would have been forgivable if Harper had picked up where he had left off instead of going Babe Ruth on us. What’s truly astounding is that you can see where he still has work to do -- he’s only 4-for-23 against southpaws this season. That drags down his overall line enough that you don’t notice that he’s hitting .429/.507/.905 against righties. As he adjusts/finds some better luck against same-side pitchers, we can only hope that the results against right-handers remain stratospheric -- Harper’s teenage heroics have earned him Ted Williams comps, but Williams’ sophomore season was of about the same quality as his rookie year. The Splinter took his great leap forward in year three -- Harper might be a year ahead of his pace. If we’re all lucky, his career will continue to diverge from Teddy Ballgame’s thereafter -- the last thing we need is a major war to deflect the kid from ransacking the record book.

Stephen Strasburg

Still on pitch counts

Off to something of a rough start by his standards, which is to say he’s been merely excellent, not superhuman. Continuing the "Nats Have Lefty Issues" theme, left-handed hitters have hit Strasburg rather well -- .271/.326/.387 last year, .255/.345/.431 this year. Despite this, he boasts the same ERA as in 2012, and has struck out over a batter per inning since his surprising first appearance that featured all of three punch outs. Both figures are a reminder that it's still just April, even for young pitchers that appear to be more than mortal most days.

Denard Span

star of "Escaped from Minnesota"

One of the few things the Nats didn’t do well last season was take ball four. They finished 10th in the league in that category. Span won’t replace Mike Morse’s power, but as far as that narrow category goes, he’s already well on his way to exceeding his predecessor -- with 11 walks this year, Span is already closing in on the 16 Morse took in 102 games last year. He also gives the club a strong glove in center, which allows Harper and Jayson Werth to be overqualified corner men. Overall offensive productivity still waits in the wings, in part because of an uncharacteristic .200 average against left-handers (he’s 5-for-25 so far). It’s small-sample fluff to be sure, but it also suggests just how unbalanced the Nats are with Ryan Zimmerman out -- they’ve had the third-fewest plate appearances by right-handed hitters on the circuit.

Justin Upton

All Upton your face

Decades ago, Bill James observed that teams get taken in trades when they focus on what they want to get rid of instead of what they’re going to get. The Diamondbacks were always going to get taken in an Upton trade for the simple reason that very few players develop into Justin Upton. Now, everyone has worked with someone who makes you want to go to the boss and say, "Because of this guy I don’t want to come to work in the morning" (sometimes it is the boss). Perhaps Upton was like that for the D’backs. The problem is that when your office lets someone go, he goes to work in some other, equally anonymous office (or Wal-Mart). In baseball, your ex-coworker stays on stage, getting 650 opportunities a year to embarrass you. As such, it pays to count to ten and reconsider whether the situation is really so unlivable at that. The D’backs didn’t, and with Upton only 25, they will get to repent at leisure.

Evan Gattis

Dark horse beard championship runner-up

The catcher of the future is here today, but he’s already 26 -- or is he? Gattis was drafted in the 23rd round out of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, which seems to suggest that Gattis is a 250 million-year-old immortal who honed his impressive power by whacking gorgonopsids over the head with his club. Old for a rookie because he was drafted late, Gattis spent years away from the game, instead experiencing "bouts with depression and drugs, a series of menial jobs ranging from valet to janitor to cart boy at a golf course. He traveled throughout the West, seeking out wandering souls such as himself and spiritual advisers who could help make sense of it all." On-base percentage and surviving the imminent return of Brian McCann await further spins of the karmic wheel, but this is a player you can root for regardless of team loyalty.

Tim Hudson

Still kickin'

Trivia challenge: Name the three players the A’s received from the Braves in return for Hudson back in 2004. If you find yourself straining to do so, it’s due to the same reality that the D’backs are up against with the Upton trade: Trading a star for [stuff] almost never results in anything like equal value because 99 percent of [stuff] almost never develops into anything like what you’re giving up. Hudson’s next win will be number 200. Combine that with a career 3.43 ERA and someday we might be have to endure Hudson-for-the-Hall campaigns. He’s on the next tier down, among the very good rather than the immortal. That’s no insult especially considering the great handicaps he’s had to overcome, such as being a ground-ball guy pitching in front of Dan Uggla.

About the park

by Steven Goldman

Turner Field: Turner Field is the National League’s equivalent of US Cellular Field in Chicago in that it can be viewed as part of baseball’s great building boom but somehow missed a chance to make a statement (the Cell has more of an excuse, having predated Camden Yards).

Ranked next to the imaginative (or at least retro) designs of recent years, Turner Field is just a dish. Appropriately, it’s a neutral ballpark in most regards. It holds right-handed power back a bit, which makes the recent absences of Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward so painful -- the Braves are overbalanced to the right side to the point that they’ve had the second-fewest plate appearances by left-handed hitters of any team in the league.

Turner Field is the standard solid-but-not-spectacular ballpark that most fans can expect to find all over the country. There’s not too much that’s exquisite about The Ted, but all the pieces and parts are pulled off with solid execution and a great deal of refinement. Good food, good views from just about everywhere, good ambiance, Turner Field is a solid fan experience.

The park’s dimensions are also average, with no odd angles or awkward short porches or long alleys. The field tends to play small, though the infield plays long, especially in the playoffs. On humid nights the park can turn into a bandbox and a pitcher’s nightmare, reminiscent of the old Launching Pad across the street, when Atlanta Fulton County Stadium was the ballpark at the highest altitude in baseball.

Sit on the third base side for shade, the first base side for sun. Pull up to the railing in the outfield bar and enjoy no alcohol sales cutoff time; drink the entire game, even into extra innings. Seek out the unique food stands from local chefs like the steak sandwich at Rathbun’s. If you don’t want to sit, The Ted has the best standing room in baseball, ringing the entire lower concourse with a bar to set your drink on. Never pay full price from a scalper.
- Martin Gandy, Talking Chop

Just Ask the locals!

from Talking Chop and Federal Baseball

Nationals 'fans' are cute

"The Nationals made life miserable for the Braves long before DC became a playoff town. It was two key losses in 2011 that setup the Braves to miss the playoffs. Atlanta has had just one winning season against the Nats in the past five years, and that has helped brew a new rivalry.

Is the Nats rivalry with the Braves more intense that the Braves rivalries with the Phillies and the Mets? Probably not. Do Braves fans take Nationals fans seriously? Not really.

The question I always ask a Nats fan is, "so which team were you a fan of in 2004? Which team were you a fan of in 2008 or 2009 or 2010 when the Nats were averaging 99 losses a year?"

There are a lot of Jonny-come-lately fair-weather fans in DC. I guess that sort of burns Braves fans, mainly because that’s what a lot of fans from northern teams called us during the 90’s. But I suppose that this is a form of new-fan-hazing, and now it’s the Natinals fans’ turn to get ridiculed. " - Martin Gandy, Talking Chop

Watch it buddy!

"No other NL East teams would even deign to consider the Nationals a rival before Washington took the division last season. Since the Braves trailed the Nats all summer and made it interesting along the way a little bit of a rivalry started to flare up, at least in the eyes of fans in the nation's capital.

I'm willing to bet most Braves fans will make some snide comment about all their division crowns and NL pennants if anyone from D.C. tries to talk about there being an actual rivalry. The Braves' PR department appears to be trying to drum something up with their recent #Gattitude take on the Nats' #natitude marketing push from last season but both sides should be ashamed of themselves for those campaigns.

Though maybe not as ashamed as the Braves should be for the "chop" and the Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-O... Since most preseason prognosticators are counting the Phils, Fish and Mets out of the race and have the Braves and Nats 1-2 in the NL East this season it's starting to build into something. Up, Up and Hey vs Harp, Span and Werth? Strasburg vs Teheran? Could be fun the next few years. There's something to it." - Patrick Reddington, Federal Baseball

One Key Stat: 12

by Marc Normandin

Of Justin Upton's 27 April hits, 12 have gone yard. While the eye-popping ridiculousness of that is obvious sans context, it sticks out even more when seen next to last year's home run total of 17. Upton didn't miss much time in 2012, as he played in 150 contests and amassed 554 plate appearances -- this is part of the reason he was available to trade to begin with. He'll invariably slow down, as every non-Barry Bonds home run leader tends to, but the Braves have to already be satisfied with April's early returns, especially at a time when the rest of their lineup has been about average.

Bottom Line: a DISAPPOINTING sERIES SPLIT, 2-2

by Marc NormandinThe Braves have dropped four in a row, but the Nationals remain 2-1/2 back -- the series will end the same way it began, with all the conflicted feelings a split brings with it. The Braves will be pleased they held off the Nationals, but glad their lead remains intact, while the Nationals will be simultaneously glad they kept things even and disappointed they couldn't chip away at an early deficit.
Please post your predictions below.

Game 1: Braves 3, Nationals 2

The Braves bullpen makes the difference; Stephen Strasburg may be on his way to the DL after experiencing forearm tightness.

Federal Baseball Recap: Washington Nationals' right-hander Stephen Strasburg took a long time finding control of his fastball tonight and a few leadoff walks came back to haunt him as the Atlanta Braves beat the Nats for the fourth time in four games to start the 2013 campaign.

Talking Chop Recap: Atlanta managed to hang in against Stephen Strasburg for six innings before breaking a 2-2 tie against the Nationals' bullpen in the seventh inning.

Game 2: Braves 8, Nationals 1

The Braves begin the season 5-0 against the Nats. Tim Hudson was on his game, but Gio Gonzalez, who was great against the Reds last time out, logged another turkey. Hudson helped cement his 200th career win with a home run. P.S.: Strasburg seems to be okay.

Federal Baseball Recap: Atlanta Braves' right-hander Tim Hudson dominated the Washington Nationals from the mound and connected for a double and a home run at the plate on the way to an 8-1 win over the visiting Nats. The Braves took their ninth-straight game over their divisional rivals and their fifth straight to start the current campaign. Career win no. 200 for Hudson. Congrats.

Talking Chop Recap: It was a banner day for Tim Hudson, who hit his first home run of the year and notched win #200 as the Braves mauled the Nationals.

Game 3: Nationals 2, Braves 0

Jordan Zimmerman pitched eight innings of two-hit shutout baseball, and Ian Desmond hit a two-run shot off of Paul Maholm to give the Nats the only runs they would need -- but ruh-roh! Is Bryce Harper hurt?

Federal Baseball recap: Washington Nationals' right-hander Jordan Zimmermann retired the last 17 batters he faced and tossed eight scoreless in a dominant outing against the Atlanta Braves. Ian Desmond's two-run home run provided all the offense the Nats needed to beat the Braves for the first time this year. 2-0 final.

Talking Chop recap: Paul Maholm pitched excellently tonight, but Jordan Zimmermann was even better, twirling eight innings of two-hit ball as the Braves fell to Washington 2-0.

Game 4: Nationals 3, Braves 1

Our prediction of a split comes true as Dan Haren rises from what seemed like his career's deathbed to hold Atlanta to four hits and one run.

Federal Baseball recap: Danny Aitch goes game-for-game with J-Z on 10 fewer pitches (although one more ER). The Nats keep hitting doubles, and overall it's a nice end to a tough series.

Talking Chop recap: Atlanta's offense continued its putrid work from yesterday, managing only five hits all night as they fell to Washington 3-1.

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