Originally written September 17, 2013 on Fox Sports South:
The Washington Nationals took both games of Tuesday's doubleheader against the Braves, winning 6-5 and 4-0, respectively, as they fight to stay alive in the National League wild card race. Here are three observations from the games: 1. The Braves entered Tuesday's games with an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth instead, the Nationals padded their wild card-chasing resume There was a moment on Tuesday afternoon when everything fit within the 2013 campaign's cozy little storyline. When Evan Gattis' two-run home run landed in the center field seats in the eighth inning of the doubleheader's first game, giving Atlanta a 4-3 lead with its highly-touted bullpen set to do business, the Braves were in prime position to extend their dominance over the preseason World Series favorite. After adding an error-assisted insurance run before handing the ball to Craig Kimbrel, the league's nearly unanimous closer of choice, it looked like win No. 13 in 18 meetings was well on the way. Then it all fell apart. And it kept falling apart until the Braves looked up and Kimbrel had blown his fourth save of the season oddly concluded by the rare Andrelton Simmons defensive miscue and the Nats had carried the momentum from Game One's 6-5 final into a 4-0 shutout victory. In a matter of six hours, Atlanta's magic number of four had not budged and Washington inched two wins closer to sneaking into the 2013 postseason. Take this to the bank, too: Not one team not the Braves, not the Dodgers and certainly not the NL Central triumvirate want to meet the resurgent Nationals in October. In fact, this series' two overarching goals had nothing to do with clinching the division: the Braves should have been focused on moving closer toward the NL's No. 1 seed and squashing the Nationals' playoff hopes. They accomplished neither. For better or for worse, both are still alive and well. Washington (81-70) is four games out of the wild card race and playing better baseball than anyone else. The Braves can not say the same. "They're playing good baseball, they really are. Up and down the lineup they're swinging the bats and they're getting good pitching," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We just need to get it going again ourselves. But you can't take that away from them. I can't sit here and deny that they're playing good baseball. We need to start playing better baseball and start swinging the bats. I don't believe that I like where we're at, our position, but there's still baseball games to be played. We just gotta get back on a roll again." Atlanta has lost nine of its past 13 games. 2. Gonzalez keeps imploring his offense to pick it up; the results are stuck on 'Repeat' For what seems like the 24th time in the past 24 games, Gonzalez dropped a line you can read it above revolving somewhere around the phrase, "Our offense needs to get going." Over that span, the 49-year-old manager has shuffled his lineup, changed up his leadoff hitter, given highly-paid hitters "extended rest", offered young players opportunities to step up, so on and so forth. Aside from a few outbursts, though, the offense has been below-average over the past month. There's a correlation in that time span, too. As has been mentioned time and again, this offense has just not been the same since a misplaced Jonathan Niese fastball made contact with Jason Heyward's jaw. For the better part of the second-half schedule, led by the Gold Glove right fielder and his newfound home at the top of the lineup, there were few questions pertaining to Atlanta's offensive production. (Side note to Heyward's golden glove: This two-game stretch in Washington might have been the strangestworst defensive effort the normally defense-proficient Braves have put together this season. Errors and gaffes galore for both clubs.) Before Heyward's injury on Aug. 21, the Braves were averaging 4.5 runs per game. Since losing Heyward, Atlanta is averaging just three runs per game that includes two series against the pitching-deficient Mets and Padres, too. Even after missing nearly a month of baseball, Heyward still ranks third on the team in wins above replacement (3.1) after hitting .253.347.423 with 13 homers and playing top-tier defense. Only Simmons and Freddie Freeman, who became the first Braves player since 2007 to reach the 100-RBI plateau on Tuesday afternoon, have proven more valuable. Without drifting too far into hyperbole, there's a confidence tha comes with Heyward in the lineup and in the field. He ranked as one of the 10 most valuable players in baseball last season for a reason. He's a key piece to Atlanta's postseason equation. It makes sense that the offense would somewhat sputter without his bat, though maybe not to this degree. In short, they need him and they need him to be healthy. In spite of the comfortable NL East lead and the all-but-guaranteed playoff appearance, there is reason for concern with Atlanta's organization. Clinching home field advantage is, perhaps, more important to the Braves than it is to any other team in baseball they are 52-22 at Turner Field; they are 37-40 elsewhere. Can they clinch the league's top seed without Heyward? Yes, the schedule should give them a favorable chance. But can they make a serious run once October gets underway without their (healthy) star right fielder? That's much, much taller task. "Right now, we're just trying to win four games," starter Freddy Garcia said after the 4-0 loss in which he pitched seven innings of one-run ball. "Sometimes, it's hard. You need to be focused and concentrate on what you do. We're gonna keep playing. We've got a lot of games to play." 3. Denard Span's hit streak provides a history lesson The Washington Nationals' speedy leadoff man extended his hitting streak to 28 games on Tuesday night, the longest streak in the majors this season. Braves second baseman Dan Uggla is now riding a two-game hitting streak, which is hit own personal longest hitting streak since July 29-30. The two were definitively connected during the Nationals' 4-0 win, and not just because of Uggla's fake-throw-slash-convenient-recovery gaffe that led to Span being tagged out trying to take home plate (honestly, it's difficult to wrap up all of that tomfoolery in one sentence). Span's streak is, in fact, the MLB's longest since Uggla rattled off a 33-game run in 2011, his first season with the Braves. That was just over two years ago. When Uggla's 2011 streak started on July 5, he was in the familiar boat he's floated in for the majority of his time in Atlanta: he was hitting just .173.241.327. By the time he went 0-for-3 against the Cubs on Aug. 14, he was back above the .200 plateau (.231). He finished the year with a .233 average. He went on to post a .220 average in 2013. This season, riding this current two-game hitting streak, Uggla's average is up to .183. Needless to say, the Braves need more from their second baseman as the postseason draws near not to mention B.J. Upton, who might be in an even worse position than Uggla at the moment if and when Heyward returns; it's common knowledge that these are the two highest-paid players on the roster. With the offense in such a rut, there's plenty of slack to be picked up. If the Nationals go on to sweep this series, it's not the end of the world for the Braves. Atlanta will win four more games before the season comes to a close, and the NL East title and magic numbers and everything else will fall into place. The larger question is how the team is playing down the stretch, how the offense is producing in an October environment. After guaranteeing themselves a series loss for the third time in past four tries, the Braves need to get back on the same page.
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