ATLANTA -- As much as the Braves would have liked to deliver a crushing blow this weekend, they entered this four-game series against the Nationals understanding the challenge of cooling off what has been MLB’s hottest team for nearly two full months.
“You show up to win every game, and you know it’s not going to happen,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “As a whole, we’ve been playing extremely good baseball from day one. We’ll continue to do that the rest of the way out.”
Unfortunately for the Braves, they have experienced their worst week in more than two months at an inopportune time. Still even after suffering their fourth loss in five games with Saturday’s 5-3 setback against the Nationals, they still own a 5 1/2-game lead in a National League East race that should remain interesting the rest of the way.
“[The Nationals] have a very good team, and they’re very hot of late, too,” starter Mike Soroka said. “They’re coming to win, too, with the same intent down the road. It’s going to [be] fun down the road. We play them a lot.”
As frustrating as it might be for Braves fans to see their team lose two of the first three games of a series that could be split when Joe Ross starts in place of Washington ace Max Scherzer Sunday night, a longer stretch of frustration has been felt by those Nationals fans, who find their team four games back in the loss column despite producing a MLB-best 30-13 record dating back to May 28.
With the July 31 Trade Deadline quickly approaching, the Braves will look for ways to improve their pitching staff while continuing to evaluate games like Saturday’s, during which Ronald Acuña Jr. joined the 20-20 club and A.J. Minter created further reason to believe the addition of at least one reliever would be beneficial.
Sitting just one run down while Nationals closer Sean Doolittle was in the process of attempting to record five outs for just the third time this season, it wasn’t optimal to have Minter start the ninth inning knowing three of the first four batters he’d face are right-handers.
Since returning in June from his one-month demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett, Minter has allowed righties to produce a .840 OPS over 38 plate appearances. Left-handers have produced just a .470 OPS.
But the Braves certainly weren’t going to test Anthony Swarzak’s worrisome shoulder, especially when trailing by one run. Chad Sobotka would be a suitable fit for the situation, but he wouldn’t have been available to pitch a third straight day Saturday. But more importantly, Snitker wanted another chance to see what he has in Minter, who hasn’t been the same since creating some brief encouragement with a scoreless ninth in Sunday’s win against the Padres.
Minter allowed three runs over an inning of Thursday’s lopsided loss to the Nationals and then surrendered another run while retiring just one of the five batters faced Saturday. The former closer has posted a 5.93 ERA and allowed opponents to produce a .385 on-base percentage over the 16 appearances he’s made since returning to the Majors.
The durability of Swarzak’s shoulder, Minter’s struggles and the concerns that have grown as closer Luke Jackson has allowed a run in 11 of his past 24 appearances have at least created reason to argue acquiring a proven reliever might be more important than adding a frontline starter before the Trade Deadline.
The run tallied against Minter proved to be inconsequential. But there’s always late-inning intrigue surrounding the potent Braves’ offense if Acuna continues to run like he has over the past week.
With 23 homers and 21 stolen bases, Acuna joins Jason Heyward (2012) and Andruw Jones (‘00) as the only Braves players to record a 20-20 season within the past 20 seasons. He’s the first player under 22 years old to join this club since Mike Trout in 2012 and ‘13.
Soroka’s rough inning
Soroka surrendered five consecutive one-out hits, including two infield singles, during the three-run fifth. Three of the hits had an expected batting average between .200 and .220, per Statcast. But the game’s decisive hit came courtesy of the 112.8 mph RBI single Juan Soto drilled to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.
After allowing four runs over six innings, Soroka saw his ERA rise to 2.46, which ranks third in the NL. The 21-year-old rookie allowed one earned run or less in nine of his first 10 starts this season. But he has posted a 4.38 ERA over the seven starts that have followed.