Nationals getting hurt as Braves are getting better
Wednesday was a painful day for very good starting pitchers. The disabled list welcomed the Reds’ Johnny Cueto, who has an injured right lat and is out indefinitely; the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, whose right lat hurts, too, though the team is hopeful that he will be fit to return when first eligible, on June 16 (but who knows); and the White Sox’s Jake Peavy, who will miss four-to-six weeks as the nondisplaced rib fracture he sustained heals.
All three of them will be missed by their clubs. The Reds, though, have the depth to be without Cueto (3-0, 2.17 ERA) for a while, in the form of Tony Cingrani. Cingrani pitched well in six starts earlier this season (2-0, 3.27 ERA) and will likely soon be called upon again – especially after Cueto’s immediate replacement, Pedro Villarreal, was torched by the Rockies for six runs over 3 2/3 innings Wednesday night.
The White Sox, meanwhile, don’t seem to be going anywhere, with Peavy (6-4, 4.30) or without him. They are 25-32 after a bizarre game with the Mariners on Wednesday that was scoreless for 14 innings, then saw the Sox score five in the top of the 15th, then saw the Mariners score five of their own off closer Addison Reed in the bottom of the inning. Even though the Sox won 7-5 in 16 innings, it was still a win that felt like something else.
It is the loss of Strasburg that really hurts, for a few reasons. The Nationals, given their preseason expectations, have, at 29-30, been perhaps the league’s most disappointing club – though the Blue Jays and anyone who plays in the Los Angeles area might argue. Most of the blame can be placed on the offense, which is scoring just 3.4 runs per game, second-to-last in the league and above only the punchless Marlins, and which on Wednesday crossed the plate a single time against the Mets, of all teams. That puts an awful lot of stress on the starting rotation. While it has generally been up to the task – its ERA, 3.32, ranks third – it really can’t afford to crack, especially with the old Dan Haren looking like he might be gone for good (Haren allowed five earned runs to the Mets on Wednesday, lifting his ERA to 5.45), and Ross Detwiler already having missed a few starts with a strained oblique.
Detwiler, who should soon return, was replaced by Nate Karns, who has allowed six earned runs over his first nine big-league innings. Strasburg will be replaced by Ross Ohlendorf, whose major-league ERAs the past two seasons, as a Pirate, were 8.15 and 7.77. Karns, Ohlendorf: The Nats have cracked.
It comes at a particularly bad time because of what is currently going on with their main NL East rivals, the Atlanta Braves, who on Wednesday extended their divisional lead on them to eight games. (Washington is now in third place, as the Phillies trail the Braves by 7.5). Earlier today, Jay Jaffe wrote about Julio Teheran’s no-hit bid against the Pirates, and that the 22-year-old Braves rookie took a no-hitter into the eighth inning and departed, after the frame, having allowed just a single, to pinch hitter Brandon Inge. It was impressive, if not unusual this season. We are just more than two months in, but already nine other starters had gone as many innings and allowed one hit, though, weirdly, we are still awaiting 2013’s first no-no.
More significant, for Atlanta – and for the Nats, and for the rest of the league – is that the Braves have a starter with the talent to do such a thing (of Teheran’s 107 pitches, just 28 were balls), and yet in less than two weeks they will likely have no room in their rotation for him. Brandon Beachy, whose ERA of 2.00 led all qualified MLB starters before he partially tore his ulnar collateral ligament last June 16, is currently rehabbing in the minors and is expected to return to the Braves on June 18 against the Mets. That might well send Teheran – who was the No. 44 prospect on Baseball America’s Top 100 list this year, but who ranked No. 5 in both 2012 and 2011 – and his 4-2 record and 3.30 ERA to the bullpen.
The Braves are 37-22, but the disturbing part for the downward-trending Nationals is that Atlanta is only getting better as the team gets healthier. Catcher Brian McCann has been back from his offseason shoulder surgery for a month, and he has regained his perennial All-Star form, hitting .269/.370/.551 with seven home runs and 17 RBI in just 23 games. McCann’s return has turned the astonishing story that is Evan Gattis, whose 14 homers rank him fourth in the N.L., into a super utilityman – he has played in left field and at first base. (For more on Gattis, check out Joe Lemire’s feature in this week’s SI). Freddie Freeman’s strained oblique is now a distant memory; he’s at .306/.369/.472, with six homers and 40 RBI, ranking seventh in the NL in the last category despite having missed two weeks in April.
The Braves' lineup now, more or less, looks the way general manager Frank Wren had planned for it to look, and the club has won five games in a row and seven of its last nine. When Beachy returns, the rotation will be whole as well, even though that will likely involved the difficult decision to send Teheran – who is improving by the start (he struck out a career-high 11 Pirates on Wednesday, after having whiffed a career-high nine Nationals his last time out) – to the 'pen. But though it leads the majors in ERA – 2.67 – the bullpen could use him, particularly with top setup men Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters lost for the season to Tommy John surgeries. Teheran’s relief career, if it begins, likely won’t last long. Starting pitchers are fragile, as we saw on Wednesday, and there’s no doubt that he’ll be needed again. The Braves are now largely healthy and threatening to run away with the NL East, but they’ve already this season proven that they are built to win even when they are not, thanks to the presence of players like Teheran. If only the Nationals, especially their rotation, could say the same.