As we turn the corner into June, baseball starts to feel like it matters more.
The Nationals are headed to Atlanta to finish May and open June to face the division leader. The 32-21 Braves are 5.5 games ahead of Washington and this series could be the pivot point of the first half. A sweep in either direction would certainly set the tone, for at least the immediate future.
The Braves’ grip on first place isn’t iron clad. It’s barely June, after all. They have five pitchers on the 15-day DL at the moment, including two of their key relievers (Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty).
What was a daunting relief core has been whittled down. Closer Craig Kimbrel is one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, but his primary set-up guys are injured. At least the rotation has been stable.
The Braves haven’t needed an extra starter yet in 2013. Kris Medlen left his last start early after a line drive hit his calf. He is expected to make his next start, but it’s after the Nats have left town. The Nats will also miss Mike Minor, who threw Thursday night.
One of the relievers who backed up Minor was Alex Wood, making his Major League debut. Wood is compiling impressive numbers in the minors as a starter and is expected to return to that role in Double-A before long. He should be around this weekend, as he just came up in place of the recently demoted Cory Rasmus.
Game 1 will feature Stephen Strasburg and Julio Teheran. No longer a prospect, Teheran has generally disapointed Brave fans. He’s added two new pitches (a slider and a sinker) this season and, despite limited use of his once hyped change-up, is having some success. He doesn’t strike a lot of batters out, but he’s not walking many either.
Saturday matches up veteran Tim Hudson with Gio Gonzalez. Hudson has struggled in quite a few of his starts and hasn’t logged more than 6 innings in a start since May 5. It’s fair to call Hudson and Teheran the back-end of the Atlanta rotation, for whatever that’s worth.
The series finale will be the second start for rookie Nate Karns. I’ll have more on Karns next week. He’ll face Paul Maholm, the former Pirate and Cub who has been solid but certainly not spectactular as a member of the Braves.
So, what do all these guys throw?
Let’s start with the bullpen and the rookie, Wilson. He’s thrown just a few pitches so this is a working list. But so far it looks like a two-seam sinker (95 MPH) and changueup (85) that has some decent looking depth to it. His breaking pitch came in at just under 82 MPH. It’s either soft slider or a short curveball.
Anthony Varvaro is underwhelming for modern reliever. His velocity is middling (93) and his curveball (80) is just average. He has a changeup (87) that is used more as a sinker to get ground balls than an off-speed pitch to miss bats.
David Carpenter will come out and throw mostly 95 mph fastballs and the occasional power slider (85). He has also thrown some change-ups (87) but they are rare (10% of pitches) and, by my measure, he’s yet to throw one in the strike zone this season.
Luis Avilan is a sinker baller (93) with a sweeping curveall (76) and change-up (82). The latter is only thrown to right-handed batters. He’ll mix in some four-seam fastballs (94) but iot’s basically sinker-curve for Avilan. He’ll get his ground balls but he won’t be missing bats.
Cory Gearrin exceeds Avilan in worm killing tendencies, throwing from a sidearm position that gives righties trouble. He is far from over-powering (90 MPH fastball is his hardest pitch) but his sinker (89) slider (80) combo will come in handy when the Braves need a double play. He mostly faces righties, but he’ll show his change-up (82) to lefties to get a ground ball. His slider misses plenty of bats, righties be warned.
On to the big guns. Jordan Walden throws a bit harder than Carpenter but delivers a devastating change-up (86) to lefties and a nasty slider (86) to all. Even though he’s got swing and miss stuff that’s only topped by the closer, this Braves reliver happens to be the one who is the least likely to find the strike zone, especially with the fastball.
The start of the bullpen is still Kimbrel, with his devastating fastball (97) and curveball (86) combination. His curveball is often called a slider, but it has curveball spin (top-spin) and he throws it very hard. 86 is the average speed, he’ll push 90 with it. Simply wicked stuff and one of the best in the game.
To the starters, or the three the Nats will see:
Teheran is a new guy in 2013. His slider and sinker are brand new. He was a fastball (93), curveball (74) and change-up (82) guy but now he’s a full five-pitch pitcher. The sinker (90) takes off a good amount of speed and gets about 10 inches of movement off the fastball. It’s his secondary pitch to lefties, but they get both of his breaking pitches, too. Lefties also get his change-up, a pitch that mainly results in a called ball or a fly ball. The slider is his secondary pitch for righties. The results have been solid but not spectacular. He will get his whiffs with it, but his new found hobby is getting grounders off his sinker.
Hudson is the same guy as always, sinkers (90) and cutters (85) along with a quality splitter (81) and curveball (77) pairing. He’ll throw four-seam fastballs (90), too. But he’s got nothing that will blow anyone away. It’s about pitching to contact and getting ground balls — a bit of a theme with this staff.
Maholm came into 2013 with six pitches in his arsenal, and now he’s added a seventh. He’s got a slow curveball (63) that is noticeable different from his regular curve (73). He’ll try and drop it in early in counts to surprise hitters or later to finish them off. It’s a rarity, more likely to be scene by a lefty. Maybe one or two a game. Maholm is primarily a sinker baller (87) but also throws four-seam fastballs (88), cuttters (83), sliders (80) and change-ups (80). His cutter->slider->curveball->slow curve spectrum is pretty neat and can be fairly troubling. That’s a lot of speeds with some varying movement.
The theme is complete with Maholm, ground ball pitchers. Walden and Carpenter are power arms who don’t get the grounders, Kimbrel is a relief ace, and the rest of the bullpen seems to go hunting for worms as much as anything else. The funky Gearrin adds an interesting look and Avilan is the only lefty in the ‘pen.