If anything, Thursday’s day off gave the club some time to get back two key players for its upcoming series versus the Diamondbacks. Outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (abdomen) and lefty pitcher Drew Smyly (forearm) have returned to Atlanta’s active lineup and will both be crucial pieces in the coming days. Getting back to some National League baseball, Arizona — winners of four-straight — are in town for a big weekend series at Truist Park.
The D-Backs currently pace the Braves by one win (9-10), and Arizona’s strong play of late puts momentum on their side. However, they’ll have to win at a ridiculous pace to keep up in a difficult NL West division that features the Dodgers and Padres; despite winning six of their last ten, the D’Backs still reside in fourth-place.
On paper, this is an Arizona club that, perhaps save for its bullpen, is producing very similarly to Atlanta. The starting pitching has been disappointing relative to pre-season expectations and its lineup — in a much more collective way, given they haven’t had a player hitting like Acuna this season — has shown flashes at times but remains closer to average.
The D’Backs offense has been held back a bit thanks to a hamstring injury earlier this month to center fielder Ketel Marte, who, through his first six games, was sporting a 257 wRC+. Marte just started participating in live batting practice so it’s likely he misses this series.
Other contributors in the lineup that have done well so far in 2021 are infielders Eduardo Escobar and Josh VanMeter, as well as catcher Carson Kelly. Escobar already has six home runs and is up to a 132 wRC+, while VanMeter (112 wRC+) and Kelly (230 wRC+) — two top-tier prospects — have also been above-average hitters. As a team, Arizona ranks 14th in wRC+ (93), though its 24 homers is the fifth most in baseball.
D’Backs starting rotation
Arizona’s rotation hasn’t featured much consistency, and one of its top arms this season — 26-year-old Taylor Widener — was roughed up a bit on Thursday against the Reds, allowing four runs. Zac Gallen has been a strikeout master averaging over 13 punchouts per nine, but he’s also walked too many batters (5.59 BB/9). Of the other regular starters on the staff, only Luke Weaver has managed an ERA below 4.00 as he currently sports a 3.78 ERA through three starts. But Weaver has also benefited from some luck so far, given his FIP sits at 4.89. Rotation-wise, the D’Backs are sort of a mess. Collectively, they don’t strike out many guys, currently posting 7.63 K/9, which ranks fourth from the bottom in the majors, and both the staff’s 5.38 ERA and 4.72 FIP also rank in the bottom five.
Like for most teams at this point in the season, Arizona’s relief core has been volatile. Righty Kevin Ginkel and lefty Caleb Smith have been solid, though, as both have struck out over ten batters per nine in 2021, to go along with a pair of sub-3.00 ERAs. And closer Stefan Crichton has been pretty stable as well, posting a 3.52 ERA. But as a whole, the D’Backs bullpen has some regression to deal with in its future. The group has a top-ten 3.63 ERA but a bottom-ten 4.46 FIP.
*all times ET
Game 1: Friday @ 7:20 PM / Bally Sports South
Luke Weaver vs. Huascar Ynoa
Game 1 on Friday is an interesting matchup. Weaver and Huascar Ynoa both started the season hot and are coming off their worst outings last time out. The D’Backs starter was knocked around a bit by the Nationals recently, allowing four runs from eight hits in four innings. And Ynoa got clobbered by the Cubs last week when he gave up six runs from seven hits — including three homers — also in four innings of work. Hopefully, Acuna and Ozzie Albies can help the home pitcher get back on the good side as both young Braves stars have hit Weaver well in their careers, with the former 4 for 8 with a homer and two doubles so far, and the latter 3 for 9 (.333 AVG) with a pair of doubles.
Game 2: Saturday @ 7:20 PM / Bally Sports Southeast
Madison Bumgarner vs. Drew Smyly
Man has Madison Bumgarner been bad this season. The former Giants great currently sports an 8.68 ERA through his first four starts of 2021, thanks to an MLB-high 18 earned runs. Hell, MadBum allowed five or more runs in three of his first four outings to start the year, suggesting perhaps his career was on the quick decline. However, the lefty bounced back in his last start when he tossed a two-hitter versus the Nationals, so who knows… maybe he’s figuring it out. Regardless, this is a good comeback start for Smyly as his most-recent outing wasn’t great; he allowed five runs (two homers) in five innings against the Phillies. Smyly showed he can dominate, and his eight-strikeout performance against the Nationals to start his 2021 season is exactly why the Braves signed him this past offseason. If Atlanta can give him some run support, Smyly should get himself a win on Saturday. The pitcher-versus-batter in this one is enough for both starters to keep on eye out for their rival batters. Arizona’s Escobar has four hits in ten at-bats versus Smyly, to go along with two homers; and the trio of Ender Inciarte (.273 AVG), Freddie Freeman (two homers) and Marcell Ozuna (.278 AVG / one homer) have had their share of success against Bumgarner.
Game 3: Sunday @ 1:20 PM / Bally Sports South
Zac Gallen vs. Bryse Wilson
This should be the toughest matchup of the series for the Braves, given, as mentioned above, Gallen has been one of the highlights of the D’Backs rotation. Gallen is coming off a good-but-not-great outing against the Reds, in which he walked four and struck out six in 5 ⅔ innings. Atlanta is certainly hoping — especially with Mike Soroka and Max Fried injured — that Bryse Wilson can keep up his performance from last time out. Against the Cubs — in that 13-4 win for the Braves — last week, Wilson only struck out one batter but his one walk and two earned-runs is exactly the kind of solid pitching this team needs from its fifth-starter. Sunday’s series finale features two starters that haven’t been in the majors long enough for opposing batters to gain any familiarity, which oftentimes, makes for a low-scoring affair. Look for a battle of the bullpens in this one.
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