Game 1 Preview: Braves vs. Washington Nationals

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The Braves seem to have found themselves in 2018 form once again.

We’re a few days to the end of May and Atlanta has won six of the eight series played this month, including five in a row. After the tough losing streak to Los Angeles, Snit came to his senses and put Acuna back in the leadoff spot. Since then, the Braves are 12-5 and look to secure their final series win in May.

Now, Acuna shifting back into his regular lineup spot is a given. But what else is working? I know there’s the phenomenon of teams just suddenly performing, but winning six of eight series played in a month isn’t something that comes naturally. So what’s working and what do we need to fix? Let’s see before we get into the matchups.

What’s Working:

The Riley Factor:

The homers are flying farther, the pitches are covering more of the corners, and the defense is up to Anthopulos’s standards. The Braves are performing to their elite standards after starting the first 50 games on a slower note than expected. Then, something happened. Some kid came from Gwinnett and threw some gasoline on the already-heating-up offense. This kid came up on May 15th. That’s 13 day’s he’s been in the majors. His slash line over that span stacks up against one of the game’s most elite.

I don’t know if you know this, but 48 at-bats are fewer than 79 at-bats. It’s taken newcomer Austin Riley almost half the at-bats to get a better slash line than MLB.com’s “projected MVP”. The New Kid is just warming up, too. Barring any God-forbidden setbacks or injuries, expect Riley to be in the awards talks as the next third of the season comes and goes.

Young Aces:

Now, I don’t know exactly what they do to those kids in the farm systems, but I’d trust the directors to raise my children after seeing how strong and confident these kids are coming out.

The Braves have a bundle of arms with talent and potential outmatched only by the staff of the historic ’90s. Mike Soroka leads baseball in ERA, Max Fried is sitting on only two losses this season, and the farm system is bursting at the seams with top-rated prospects that have more than once proven their abilities on the big stage.

Let’s talk about Soroka for a second after just kind of offhandedly mentioning his MLB-leading stat. Simply put, this kid is GOOD. Looking at it a little deeper, you see something that hasn’t been seen since the young arms of Kershaw, Verlander and deGrom took the mound for the first time. Dave O’Brien spells it out for us.

Soroka’s command of the corners and ability to limit contact to the infield is astounding, and surely the cause of his elite-level ERA. He and Fried are working in tandem to become the next pair of elite Atlanta arms. While the season is still young and their tenure in the majors is limited, the potential and confidence seen from these young hurlers is something to keep an eye on.

What We Need to Fix

Problems from the ‘Pen

Yes, I know it sounds immediately contradictory after praising the young arms in the starting five to talk about how we need pitching improvements. But it’s worth noting. While the rotation sits at 10th overall in pitching league-wide, the bullpen is sitting at an abysmal 20th. We’ve seen more games lost in the later innings than early on this season, and saves have not come as easily as they have in the past.

It’s also worth noting that we’re a short few days away from the MLB Draft. Once that goes, we’re able to sign players without losing the dreaded pick that comes with it. If you haven’t been following too closely, Jim Bowden placed us in the running for a couple of available arms. One of these arms is a familiar face to Atlanta. What was his name again? Kimberly something?

Now, I agree that signing Kimbrel would patch up a big hole in the Braves bullpen. But, there are more positions in the ‘pen than just the closer. We need substantial depth with proven control, durability, and consistency. We’ve got a quick minute until the trade deadline, so we’ve got the time to fix the pen. However, if we want to see that desired repeat of last season, we need to make some moves now.

Tonight’s Matchups

Rumors are all well and good, and looking at our recent success is very fun. But we have a whole new game to win tonight. We have one last series to win this month. Let’s take a look at the matchups in tonight’s grudge match.

Max Fried: 7-2, 2.88 ERA

What more needs to be said about this kid, anyway? He’s good. It’s very obvious. He’s been good enough to take down elite teams like the Cubs, Brewers and Indians. He’s won his last three straight since taking a comebacker to the hand against Los Angeles earlier this month. Fried is finding his stride and cementing himself as one of the Braves’ next elite arms.

Tonight proves a challenge, though.

Division rivalry games aren’t the same as regular games. There’s more to prove than a game against the likes of Colorado or Pittsburgh. You’re playing for your spot at the top. You’re playing for legitimacy in the top of the entire league. There’s always more on the line in this game. Ma(ddu)x Fried hasn’t seen this starting 9 for the Nats yet. Command of his off-speed and tapping in to his astounding pitch-to-contact ability will be the key to earning his 8th win this evening.

Stephen Strasburg: 4-3, 3.25 ERA

Strasburg has made his mark as one of the most dangerous arms over the last few years. He’s got exceptional command of the zone and excellent off-speed control. The rivalry concept hasn’t proven too weighted in his favor, though. Strasburg is posting a 4.55 ERA with 62 hits and a .253 opponent average against the Braves over the last three seasons. The Braves clearly know how to hit around his scary stuff.

One thing we haven’t figured out? The long ball.

In the same span, Strasburg has allowed only 6 home runs. We haven’t seen the same elite stuff that Strasburg is capable of as of late, however, Stras has been plagued with injury and fleeting command of his pitches over the last few seasons. We’re seeing his strikeout number spike higher and lower faster than the stock market. Keep in mind, though, even though he’s fleeting, he’s still Strasburg. Finding a way to get the ball over the fence, coupled with finding patience against his dangerous off-speed stuff, will be the key for the Braves to start the series on a high note.

First pitch is scheduled for 7:20 P.M. You can catch all the action on FoxSports South or with an active MLB.Tv Subscription.

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