The night is finally here. It has been written about, talked about, tweeted about, posted about, and speculated about over the past month. The past few days have thankfully given the Braves a little more room for error, but that should not change the excitement of this evening and weekend for the Braves and their fans. The players have earned the right to be in this position, and their fans deserve the chance to see it at home.
Let the Nationals and their fans brag about “since May 24th” all they want! The time has come for the Braves and their fans to remind our rivals that second place is hard to see in the shadow of a division crown for the second straight season.
As much fun as this season has been and with all the success the Braves and their fans have enjoyed, the importance of this weekend is no laughing matter. The Washington Nationals have arrived to play the Atlanta Braves for a four game series, a series that is critical to the NL East and National League playoff races. While it certainly is fun to poke jokes at the Nationals and their chosen reasons to brag, their play has been nothing to laugh at over the past three months. Even without Max Scherzer at his peak, the Nationals have been the best team in baseball, mainly due to their starting pitching and the bats of Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon.
Just three weeks ago, the discussion was that the National League MVP race had officially welcomed a third member in Ronald Acuna Jr. Now in the present, the race certainly does have three participants, but the new candidate is Anthony Rendon. Since June 1st, Rendon is fifth in OPS, sixth in wOBA and eighth in wRC+ for all qualified hitters in the majors over that time frame. With a .349/.416/.631 triple slash over this stretch, Rendon has more than verified his status as one of the best hitters in baseball. Soto has produced a .298/.409/.603 triple slash himself since the beginning of June, and ranks 11th in OPS, ninth in wOBA, and 12th in wRC+ over this stretch of time. Simply put, the Nationals have had two of the ten best hitters in baseball since the summer began.
Beyond Rendon and Soto, the Nationals starting pitching likely has been even more responsible for their incredible play. Since June 1st, the Nationals’ starters rank in the top 5 in the majors in ERA, FIP, and xFIP. They lead the majors with 18.5 WAR over that time frame. The fact that they have accomplished this without Scherzer for an extended period makes their run all the more impressive.
The underlying statistics certainly support the longevity of Washington’s incredible success, but yet there has consistently been a cloud of reality that has rained a bit of cold water on Washington’s parade. Whether you attribute the precipitation to Josh Donaldson or another source, the fact remains that the Braves have enjoyed their own torrid pace to keep up with Washington all this time.
Both teams have featured top ten offenses since June 1st, despite the Braves being without regulars at four positions for significant stretches. Again, the success of the Nationals starters has been amazing. However, since August 1st, the Braves pitching staff as a whole has actually been better than the Nationals, and arguably a top five staff in all of baseball. With both teams being amongst the best in the majors at scoring and preventing runs, it is logical that both teams appear to be locks for October baseball.
The amazing thing is the one area that has likely made the Braves a bit better and more consistent than the Nationals is the bullpen. Before June 1st, Atlanta’s bullpen produced a 4.45 ERA/4.88 FIP/4.84 xFIP line to begin the season. The Nationals produced a 6.85 ERA/5.17 FIP/ 5.25 xFIP line. Obviously, the bullpen has been the weak link for both teams all season, and both teams addressed the issue by bringing in three new relievers at the trade deadline. After their meltdown in Miami on August 10th, the Braves have produced a 3.58 ERA/ 3.46 FIP/ 3.50 xFIP line. They have been one of, if not the best, bullpens in baseball. The Nationals have improved to a 4.52 ERA/ 5.85 FIP/ 4.75 xFIP line since August 11th. Though both teams have made changes, the Braves possess a significantly better bullpen. While it may not reflect a difference in the records of both teams, that advantage could play a big role in securing a few wins over the weekend.
Max Fried (4,09 ERA/ 3.61 FIP/ 3.32 xFIP) enters the last month of the season validated as one of the breakout starters in all of baseball for 2019. He currently is in the top ten in the majors in both GB% and xFIP, and has continued to deliver in big games and putting the Braves in position to win. Fried will need to be at the top of his game tonight, as despite the aforementioned bullpen advantage, the Braves could use an extended start from Fried to keep their best arms fresh. If he can simply limit walks and keep the ball down to force grounders, he should keep the Braves in it.
The Nationals counter with the most vile head currently of their Hydra of aces, Stephen Strasburg (3.47 ERA, 3.14 FIP, 3.17 xFIP). No one needs a reminder for how talented Strasburg is nor how dominant he can be. He is fifth in xFIP, eighth in FIP, and third in wins amongst pitchers with more than 100 innings pitched. While he has been quite good against everyone, he has also been very good against the Braves. In three starts this season, Strasburg has produced a 3.93 ERA versus Atlanta, while striking out 23 batters. The Braves have scored a few runs off of him, but Strasburg is 3-0 against them on the season. Though Fried has been great, common sense suggests the Braves may be viewed as the underdog for tonight’s game (though final lines will likely be close to a push.)
Make no mistake, this is a big series for both teams. However, the Braves two game sweep of the Blue Jays and the Nationals series loss to the Mets to begin the week has significance. Over a three day span, Atlanta has increased its division lead by two games, from 5.5 games to seven games. In a series where each result carries a two game swing for both teams, a win tonight versus the Nationals and their best pitcher currently could have a monumental impact on the rest of the series.
That is why the seven game advantage in the division is so valuable. It is why being the more consistent and better team over the ENTIRE season is so valuable. All the pressure is squarely on the Nationals. The Braves know if they continue to play at the level they have over the past three weeks, there is a good chance they will win a least one or two games this weekend. The Nationals know anything worse than a series win for them likely is the deciding blow in the division race. As a result, the Braves should certainly have the desire and urgency to end this thing for good this weekend. They should also have the confidence in knowing that simply playing with the ability that created this chance for them will likely be the reason they will turn this chance into a division title.
One game at a time. However, with a win tonight, each game after will be played with a bit more certainty that the Braves will be back to back Kings of the NL East.
WPA-Ronald Acuna Jr.- Despite his recent struggles, a big personality and even bigger talent gets the chance to shine on a big stage. He has done it before, there should be plenty of confidence he will do it again.
Game Date/Time: Thursday, September 5th, 7:20 PM
Location: SunTrust Park, Atlanta, GA
TV: Fox Sports Southeast
Radio: 680 AM / 93.7 FM The Fan, Rock 100.5, Braves Radio Network