The Braves get one more shot at the Washington Nationals this weekend. They would like nothing more than to take the final series of the year between the teams after being dominated for two seasons by the Nats, a team the Braves used to frustrate on a regular basis.
Atlanta has lost a staggering 15 of the past 17 games against the Nationals including 13 of 15 this season. The Braves are 7-28 against them since the beginning of the 2015 season and have been outscored 209-123 in those 35 games.
It won’t be an easy task beginning tonight, when the Braves will send rookie John Gant to the mound against Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who is 7-1 with a 2.17 ERA and .181 opponents’ average in his past 12 starts and has 96 strikeouts and 16 walks in 83 innings over that stretch. However….
The Braves’ offense has been vastly improved in the second half and particularly since Matt Kemp joined the lineup Aug. 2. Tonight they'll add another speedy option when outfielder Mallex Smith returns to the big league roster. He's been out since breaking a thumb June 19 but played since Sept. 1 for Double-A Mississippi, which lost Wednesday in the Southern League championship series.
Smith had a .350 OBP, four triples, two homers and eight stolen bases in his last 31 games for the Braves before the injury, and had seamlessly shifted to left field when Brian Snitker, who took over May 19, decided to play Smith in left and Inciarte in center. (Before Fredi Gonzalez was fired as manager, he played Smith in center and Inciarte in left for a week after Inciarte returned in early May from a one-month stint on the disabled list for a hamstring strain.)
But it's unclear how much playing time he'll get the rest of the season now that the Braves have Kemp in left field, Ender Inciarte thriving in the center field and leadoff roles, and the offense clicking since Kemp's Aug. 2 arrival.
Lately, the ramped-up offense hasn’t been enough to offset a weary pitching staff and an injury-diminished starting rotation. The Braves have hit .301 with 10 homers and 48 runs in the past nine games, but went 2-7 in that stretch with a 6.11 ERA. They allowed at least five earned runs in eight of those nine games including seven or more earned runs in five games.
The Braves gave up 31 earned runs in their past four games including all three games in the Marlins series that ended Wednesday, a series that saw the Braves total 35 hits in three games and outscore the Marlins 22-21… but still lose the series.
Scherzer had two wins against the Braves in his current dozen-game tear including an 11-9 game Aug. 20 at Turner Field, when he gave up six hits, four runs and three walks in 6 1/3 innings. That’s one of only three times he’s allowed more than two runs in his past dozen starts, but the second consecutive time he gave up four runs against the Braves this season.
He’s 3-0 with a 4.10 ERA in four starts this season against the Braves, including a start 11 days ago at Washington. Since it was in Washington, where the Braves have struggled beyond belief lately, it’s probably no surprise how it went: Scherzer allowed seven hits, two runs and two walks in seven innings of a 7-5 Nationals win.
Scherzer’s teams lost in four consecutive starts he made against the Braves before this season, although three of those were in 2009 and 2010. In nine career starts against the Braves, he’s 4-3 with a 3.84 ERA.
Among Braves who’ve faced him most frequently, Nick Markakis is 9-for-31 with five doubles against Scherzer, Ender Inciarte is 5-for-15 with three doubles, Gordon Beckham is 9-for-48 with 15 strikeouts, Freddie Freeman is 2-for-11 with a double and a home run and Adonis Garcia is 3-for-12 with a double and a home run.
Going into tonight’s matchup with the Nationals, Gant is 1-3 with a 3.73 ERA and .246 opponents’ average in his past eight games (six starts) with 31 strikeouts and 11 walks in 31 1/3 innings.
The rookie is 1-2 with a 3.49 ERA and .231 opponents’ average and .706 opponents’ OPS in six starts, compared to a 6.14 ERA, .333 opponents’ average and .999 opponents’ OPS in nine relief appearances.
Gant has fared better on the road that at Turner Field, where he has a .293 opponents’ average and .913 opponents’ OPS. On the road: .255 average and .757 OPS.
He’s struggled at times with runners on (.299 opponents average, .849 OPS) and especially in 44 at-bats with RISP (.373 opponents’ average, .895 OPS)
• Don’t know if you saw the off-day story I wrote on how the outfield situation could get interesting this winter, but here’s a link in case you missed it.
Didn’t have room in the story for a few other interesting stats I found on some of those guys including hot-hitting right fielder Nick Markakis, who has hit .297 with 20 doubles, 11 homers and 47 RBIs in his past 78 games including .385 (10-for-26) with three homers and nine RBIs in the past seven games.
FanGraphs has Markakis’ percentage of hard-hit balls at 33.7, up from 25.7 last season and his highest since 34.8 percent in 2007, when he hit .300 with career-highs of 23 homers and 112 RBIs in his second full season. His highest since then was 32.6 percent in 2012.
FanGraphs also has Markakis with his career-best “Clutch” rating, measuring “how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.”
Markakis has hit .314 in a team-high 159 at-bats with runners in scoring position. And in the late innings of close games he’s hit .333 (27-for-81) with 17 walks and a .440 OBP, the best average and OBP among Braves with at least 20 at-bats in those situations.
And here’s a few other notes on Inciarte:
He leads major league outfielders with 2.82 putouts per nine innings, just ahead of the White Sox center fielder/right fielder Adam Eaton (2.75), Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton (2.64) and Angels center fielder Mike Trout (2.58).
After hitting .227 with a .294 OBP and .306 slugging percentage in 59 games before the break, Inciarte has hit .347 with a .397 OBP and .453 slugging percentage in 57 games since the break.
In 62 games from the leadoff spot, he’s hit .307 with 21 extra-base hits (six triples, two homers) and a .368 OBP. Earlier in the season he batted in the second spot in 25 games and in the sixth or seventh spots for 21 games.
He didn’t do much in the second spot (.214 average, .552 OPS) but Inciarte hit a combined .363 (29-for-80) from the sixth or seventh spots, albeit with only four extra-base hits (all doubles).
When leading off innings, he’s hit a whopping .335 with a .390 OBP and .833 OPS in 172 plate appearances
And as Chipper Jones noted, a great thing about Inciarte batting leadoff is it doesn’t matter if it’s a lefty or righty he’s facing: against lefties, he’s hit .300 with a .702 OPS in 129 plate appearances, and against righties he’s hit .284 with a .735 OPS in 383 plate appearances.
In the seventh inning and later he has a team-best .310 average (49-for-158) with a .360 OBP
The one thing he hasn’t done is hit with runners in scoring position, with a .188 average (19-for-101) that ranks fifth lowest among NL qualifiers. A little surprising – perhaps one of those one-year fluke things -- since he hit .290 (27-for-93) with RISP in 2015 and .241 (20-for-83) as a rookie in 2014.
• I'll close with this one from Jason Isbell, a good dude, terrific singer-songwriter and big-time Braves fan, off his 2011 album with his longtime band The 400 Unit, Here We Rest. By the way, Jason is playing at the Fox on Sept. 24 (next Saturday).
"STOPPING BY" by Jason Isbell
Driving to a baseball game on a Friday afternoon
Hotter than hell in Atlanta, Georgia.
I guess it's been fifteen years since I came through here
Probably should have called to warn you.
But I'm stopping by. I'm stopping by, Daddy.
How did your life turn out? Do you ever think about
a teenage girl in Chattanooga?
You ever tell your folks the truth?
That might've been the last of you.
Would've been a shame. We hardly knew ya.
Now I'm stopping by. I'm stopping by, Daddy.
I think the best of me's still standing in the doorway
Counting cars and counting days and counting years
I could say you made me go through life the hard way
But it might've been worse if you were here.
Looking through a picture book. There's one I think my momma took.
You couldn't have been much over twenty.
Shirtless in your cutoff jeans, you hand a lollipop to me.
I probably asked where you got the money.
A picture on another page. I recognize my eyes have aged.
I'd been alone for quite a while then.
Trying to get a match to burn. Waiting on a latch to turn.
I still have difficulty smiling.
But I'm stopping by. I'm stopping by, Daddy.
I think the best of me's still standing in the doorway.
Whatever's left is headed south on 85.
Passing families on vacation headed your way.
They look so happy and alive, and I'm stopping by, Daddy.