Handicapping the Stretch Run in the NL East
Who will wilt under the pressure and strain of the long season, age and experience or youth and energy? That is the question facing the two contenders in the NL East, the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals. Atlanta has the edge in experiece, but will veterans like Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson wear down in the stretch. The Nationals have youth in their favor, but this is their first exposure to a pennant race. Can they bear up under the scrutiny?
Ben Sheets, 33, last pitched in the majors in 2008. Tim Hudson is 36 and Paul Maholm has a losing record and a career ERA of 4,30. Yet this threesome is the core of the Atlanta Braves pitching staff as we enter the dog days of August, and truthfully, they don’t look that bad.
This is the same team that by now should be fronted by Brandon Beachy, Julio Teheran, Arodys Viscaino and Tommy Hansen, generally considered the best young pitching prospects in the game. But a funny thing happened on the way to realizing their vast potential. It disappeared like money at a gaming table.
Baseball America had Julio Teheran rated 5th overall among 2012 prospects, just behind Yu Darvish and Matt Moore, both of whom have pitched all season in the majors. Viscaino was a tick below, but BA touted 2012 as the year he would come into his own as a major league starter. That may yet prove true, but his future lies in Chicago now as he was included as part of the deal that brought Maholm to Atlanta from the Cubs.
Ben Sheets has been more intriguing than any of the young stallions supposed to carry Atlanta back to the playoffs. Sheets made his first start in a Braves uniform on July 15, a 6-1 win over the Mets and Johan Santana. Since then he has made two more starts and won them both in impressive fashion. Hw has thrown 18 innings and allowed only a single run. Sheets is ostensibly filling in for potential All-Star Brandon Beachy who led the National League in ERA for much of the season, but had season-ending Tommy John surgery in late June.
Sheets has been a magic elixir for the Braves who are 11-5 since his first start and are surging on the crest of a seven-game winning streak. The question after the big July 31 trades has to be can such a veteran staff keep it together to sweep the Braves into first place once again in the NL East. Atlanta has made only one post-season appearance in the last six season.
Most of that time has been spent waiting on Mike Minor, Beachy, Jair Jurgens and Tommy Hansen to reach their full potential. But getting young pitchers to turn the corner has proven difficult for the Braves. Teheran is still pitching for Triple-A Gwinnett and his 5.16 ERA over twenty starts makes it unlikely he will contribute any time soon at the major league level.
On the other side of the equation are Jayson Heyward and Fredde Freeman, two of the youngest Braves who are clearly on the verge of stardom. Along with catcher Brian McCann they have been the power in the lineup, while Martin Prado and Michael Bourn have set the table. It is the 3rd best offense in the NL, scoring 4.65 runs per game. With Ben Sheets taking the lead, the Atlanta staff has improved to better than league average and the differential between average runs allowed and scored for the Braves is an impressive half a run per game, one of the best margins in the league.
The best run differential in the NL belongs to the Nationals at .78 average runs per game and as their offensive core of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse has gotten healthy, the gap has only widened. While the numbers may seem to favor the Nats, the trends raise questions.
Washington’s best two pitchers in the first half–and perhaps the best duo in baseball have been Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg. However, over the past month the dynamic duo have met their own dark night. Strasburgs’s ERA has been a pedestrian 4.11 and Gonzalez almost identical at 4.13. Jordan Zimmermann has taken over as ace of the staff and his ERA of 2.28 is just a few ticks off the league lead.
The questions facing both teams revolve around health and stamina. The young Nationals should have the stamina, but recent performances by Strasburg and Gonzalez raise questions about that assumption. Ryan Zimmerman carried Washinton during his hot streak in July, but he has proven remarkably fragile for a 27-year old player just coming into his prime. Still, Washington is due to get veteran Jayson Werth back in a matter of days, and break out shortstopIan Desmond in a matter of weeks. If the Nationals can get healthy, Strasburg’s innings limit may matter less than expected, especially if the other Zimmermann can naintain his current pace.
The Braves just inserted Kris Medlen into the rotation yesterday and he gave then five strong innings for a win. So Atlanta is pushing all the right buttons and closing on the Nationals. Can they make that work for two more months? It looks like it will be a race to the finish between two of the best clubs in the National League. And whichever way it turns out, Nationals fans who have never been there before, are in for the ride of their lives.