The Washington Nationals flew to Atlanta Thursday night, where they will play a three-game series with the Braves before returning home next week. They enter with an eight-game lead in the National League East. The Braves are closest to them, sitting unexpectedly in second place, but no other team in the division has a record better than .500.
Few players have annihilated the Nationals the way Freddie Freeman has. The Braves’ first baseman is hitting .330 against Washington pitching in his career, a sample large enough to mean something after 105 games and 373 plate appearances. Freeman has a .919 OPS against in those games. And this season, he’s hitting all pitching at a similar pace, with a .341 average and 1.209 OPS second only to Bryce Harper’s among qualified hitters.
But Freeman left Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jays after being hit by a pitch on his left wrist. Tests Thursday revealed a fracture, and he will miss significant time — perhaps 8 to 10 weeks. His absence is as big a help to Nationals pitchers as it is a blow to the Braves lineup.
BULLPEN BASICS AND CLOSING CLARITY
Dusty Baker and Mike Maddux will continue to wrestle with the late innings, which have been an adventure all season. The Nationals head to Atlanta with the second-worst bullpen FIP in the National League while pitching to the third-highest WHIP, meaning that their relievers are allowing a lot of runners to reach and too many to score.
Among the questions that might be temporarily answered this weekend is who will be the Nationals’ midterm closer. First, they tried Blake Treinen, who has settled back into a late-inning job but could not hold the closer job. Then, they tried Shawn Kelley, who suffered a back injury and landed on the disabled list, and has allowed home runs in three of his last four outings since returning. Koda Glover pitched a scoreless ninth inning Tuesday night, at which point Baker — when asked if Glover would get ninth-inning chances moving forward — said only “we’ll see.” The Nationals did not have a save situation Thursday, so the question of who is the first choice for the ninth inning remains an open one.
In the meantime, the Nationals face another challenge: a tired bullpen. Treinen has pitched in the last three games, meaning he will almost certainly be unavailable Friday night. Enny Romero, Matt Albers and Oliver Perez all pitched twice in three games, while Matt Grace threw 30 pitches in Syracuse Tuesday before throwing an inning Wednesday against the Pirates. In other words, Kelley and Glover will be the most rested members of the bullpen in Friday’s opener. Gio Gonzalez gets the start.
“We need a deep game, a couple deep games in Atlanta,” Baker said Thursday. “and then we can rest on Monday and go back at ’em on Tuesday.”
TAYLOR TURNING POINT?
When Adam Eaton went down with his gruesome and extensive knee injury, the Nationals found themselves in need of a center fielder. General Manager Mike Rizzo said he thought they had the answer in Michael A. Taylor. Given chances to seize the starting job in 2015 and 2016, Taylor had not been able to do so. This season, he is showing signs of sustainable success.
Taylor heads to Atlanta hitting .328 since Eaton’s injury. Though he has struck out 24 times in 63 plate appearances — more than one-third of the time — he has also found a way to chip in with big hits.
Statistics suggest Taylor will regress; he is hitting nearly .500 on balls he puts in play, well above league average. But for now, he is providing plenty for a lineup that did not need him to do a lot, and is doing enough to fend off any challengers in the short-term. He went 1 for 3 with a single and a walk Thursday. Should his strikeout rate stay high, the Nationals might need to reevaluate, particularly if his average drops as well. But for now, Taylor seems to be doing enough to stay.
Fri.: Gio Gonzalez vs. R.A. Dickey
Sat.: Max Scherzer vs. Bartolo Colon
Sun.: Stephen Strasburg vs. Jaime Garcia