Boy, are things much better than they were the last time I previewed an upcoming Braves series. This past Tuesday, leading up to Atlanta’s most recent three-game series versus Washington, the Braves were coming off a horrible weekend series that featured a nasty sweep by the Blue Jays. The three-straight losses to Toronto had Braves Country on the brink of panic mode this past Monday as the Braves odds to make the postseason fell to just 30%, followed by 11.3% odds of winning the NL East division.
Fast-forward to today, and thanks to the team’s bounce-back performance in D.C. over the last three days, those odds at FanGraphs have improved to 37.6% and 16.4%, respectively.
But this weekend features a tough test. The red-hot Phillies — who’ve won four straight and six of their last ten — are in town, led by a stingy starting rotation that’s managed to post a 2.01 ERA to go with an MLB-high 1.2 fWAR during its current winning streak. Like Atlanta, Philadelphia’s starting staff has gotten out of its own way recently, which, along with a 17-15 overall record, has enabled the Phillies to take a one-game lead in what’s been a competitive division so far.
Here are the pitching matchups this weekend…
Game 1: Friday @ 7:20 PM / Bally Sports South
Zach Eflin vs. Charlie Morton
Zach Eflin is having a strong start to the 2021 campaign, currently allowing a career-best .304 wOBA that’s pairing nicely with some incredible control of his pitches… even for him. The 27-year-old has always done a great job of limiting free passes, but this season Eflin has reached another level as he leads the majors with just 0.47 walks per nine through his first 38 ⅔ innings. One thing going for the Braves in this matchup is that Atlanta has already faced Eflin twice in 2021, featuring one start in which the Phillies righty pitched well, allowing just four hits and striking out eight… and one that ended with the Braves scoring four runs from seven hits.
To me, it doesn’t feel like Charlie Morton should have a 5.00+ ERA right now, but unfortunately, he does. However, feeling more optimistic about Morton seems understandable, given, per Baseball Savant, his expected-ERA is a much more palatable 3.37. The problem for the veteran righty this season seems to primarily stem from Morton getting himself into bad counts as he’s currently throwing first-pitch strikes roughly 11% less than he did last year and around 4% less than his career average. Like Smyly managed to do on Thursday, Morton needs a bounce-back outing. His last two starts have featured nine earned runs in 10 ⅔ innings.
Game 2: Saturday @ 7:20 PM / Bally Sports Southeast, FS1
Vince Velasquez vs. Ian Anderson
Home runs have really held Vince Velasquez back this season as he’s allowed five homers in his first 18 ⅓ innings (a rate of 2.5 HR/9). Velasquez owns a 4.73 ERA for his career, so he’s not really underperforming his usual marks. However, the 28-year-old righty has one hell of a curveball, a pitch that opposing batters are just 1 for 12 against so far in 2021. Velasquez has won each of his last two starts, allowing four runs in 10 ⅓ combined innings.
I was sure the 2020 version of Ian Anderson had arrived after watching him absolutely dominate the Cubs back on April 27th, an outing in which the Braves righty struck out eight and allowed just one hit in eight innings. But as we witnessed in his next assignment against Toronto, Anderson obviously isn’t quite there yet. Still, the 23-year-old is pitching to a 3.27 ERA thus far in 2021, and sure his peripherals are a bit concerning (especially that 11.4 Barrel%), but it’s only a matter of time before he gets locked in similarly to the way he did last year. I’m predicting a big game for Anderson in Game 2 on Saturday.
Game 3: Sunday @ 7:08 PM / ESPN
Aaron Nola vs. Huascar Ynoa
It surprised me when I looked it up, but Aaron Nola has logged 17 fWAR since 2017, tying him with Justin Verlander for fifth-most in the majors in that span. The Phillies ace appears to be his usual self in 2021, and he already has a pair of 10-strikeout outings under his belt, which includes his most recent start against the Brewers. Nola faced the Braves back on Opening Day, earning a no-decision after working 6 ⅔ innings and striking out six with two runs allowed. If the Braves can score a pair of runs against the righty again on Sunday, it’ll be a success.
Huascar Ynoa has turned into must-see TV as he’s become a sensation both on the mound and at the plate. I’ll admit, entering this season, I really didn’t expect Ynoa to solidify a spot in the Braves’ starting rotation, at least not long-term. Man, was I wrong? After a few shaky outings, mixed in with some decent ones, the 22-year-old appears to be locked in right now, and he’s coming off his third consecutive win — an outing against the Nationals in which Ynoa pitched seven strong innings, allowing an unearned run from four hits with four strikeouts and two walks. In his last three starts, opposing batters have managed only a .459 OPS and one home run off Ynoa. I can’t wait to see what this kid does next on Sunday Night Baseball.