Back in spring training, it was hard to imagine that the starting rotation would be a strong suit for Atlanta. Tommy John surgery had robbed them of both Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy for the season. Mike Minor was sidelined thanks to shoulder soreness. It got so bad for the Braves that they went out and got Aaron Harang, last seen posting an ERA+ (a measure of a pitcher's ERA adjusted for ballpark factors in which 100 generally represents an average score) of 68 in 2013, to fill the fifth starter role. Atlanta still had Julio Teheran and Alex Wood atop the rotation, but little after them with both Minor and new addition Ervin Santana behind schedule.
That hasn't stopped the Braves from ripping off four wins in their first five games, however, including two of their first three against their biggest division competitor, the Nationals. What's most impressive is the pitching Atlanta's gotten through the first week of the season. The team's four starters have combined to allow just five earned runs in 31 2/3 innings, four of those coming against Teheran in his two starts. Saturday night, Teheran limited the Nationals to a pair of runs on three hits, four walks and six strikeouts as the Braves chalked up a 6-2 win.
From the first hitter of the game, it looked like it could be a quick night for Teheran. Leadoff hitter Denard Span walked on four pitches, then promptly swiped second base. Teheran managed to get Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth swinging, but a long home run into the right-field seats by Adam LaRoche put the Braves in a 2-0 hole. But Teheran held the Nationals to just two hits from the second inning onward, a single apiece by Ian Desmond and pinch-hitter Kevin Frandsen. He ran into trouble in the bottom of the fifth, walking Jose Lobaton to start the inning and then allowing a single to Frandsen. He managed to get out of it on a fielder's choice off Span's bat and then a double play off a flyball by Harper to center, with Lobaton being thrown out at home. Teheran again got into a jam in the sixth, hitting Werth with a pitch and walking LaRoche to put two on with none out, but escaped the inning without allowing a run, ending it with a strikeout of Anthony Rendon.
Teheran used a combination of four- and two-seam fastballs to stymie the Nationals, going to those pitches 76 times out of his 111 overall. He worked in 15 changeups and 15 sliders, using the former primarily against lefthanders. Though Teheran didn't get much in the way of swings-and-misses -- just 12 whiffs in his 111 pitches -- he was able to keep the Nationals from making hard contact, in particular on the four-seamer.
For the Nationals, they have to hope that this early series loss to Atlanta isn't a case of history repeating itself. Washington opened 2013 with seven wins in its first nine games, only to get swept by the Braves in their first matchup of the season. The Nationals finished last season with a 6-13 mark against Atlanta, essentially sinking the team's division chances. That 2013 Braves team also started the season on a hot streak, nabbing 15 wins in its first 20 games and leading the division nearly wire-to-wire.
Washington has gotten a good start from the middle of its order, in particular Werth (.389/.522/.444 in his first 18 at-bats), LaRoche (.294/.478/.706) and Ryan Zimmerman (.368/.350/.579). But it's the team's two superstars who haven't found their groove yet. Stephen Strasburg, who took the loss Saturday, has now given up seven earned runs in his first 10 1/3 innings. Against Atlanta, Strasburg was touched up for eight hits and three walks in 4 1/3 innings, and he didn't get much help from his defense. A throwing error by Zimmerman in the fourth allowed one run to score and set up a second, and a throwing error by Harper in the fifth on a two-run single by Dan Uggla allowed two runners to reach scoring position, both of whom came around to score.
Harper, meanwhile, has started his season with only three hits in his first 22 plate appearances, with 10 strikeouts and just one walk. Not helping matters is new manager Matt Williams' insistence on hitting Harper all over the lineup. In his first five games, Harper has now hit second, fifth and sixth; of his 118 games played in 2013, Harper hit third most often, getting 71 games in that spot. It makes sense for Williams to experiment with the lineup to try to find his ideal order. But he's not doing his young star any favors by bouncing him around the lineup.
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