ATLANTA -- As Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto heated their battle for the National League Rookie of the Year Award, the Braves might have ended the NL Cy Young Award debate as they had their way with Max Scherzer while strengthening their hold on the NL East.Having spent the
ATLANTA -- As Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto heated their battle for the National League Rookie of the Year Award, the Braves might have ended the NL Cy Young Award debate as they had their way with Max Scherzer while strengthening their hold on the NL East.
Having spent the past couple months producing some of baseball's top offensive numbers since the All-Star break, Acuna provided further indication he's ready for the caliber of pitching he would encounter in the postseason. The 20-year-old phenom was a homer shy of a cycle through three at-bats against Scherzer, and he notched his first four-hit game in Friday's 10-5 win over the Nationals at SunTrust Park.
"I just went out there with the same approach I always do," Acuna said. "I just wanted to have fun on the field and have good at-bats."
It has certainly been easy for the Braves to have fun as they have positioned themselves for a division title by winning six straight and seven of their past eight. They sit 7 1/2 games in front of the second-place Phillies in the NL East, and their magic number is nine with 15 games to play.
"You always want to play good baseball near the end of the season," Braves starting pitcher Kevin Gausman said. "Winning six games in a row this time of year is good. We just need to keep it going and kind of control what we can every day."
Any lingering debate about whether Scherzer might be more deserving than Mets ace Jacob deGrom for the NL Cy Young Award likely evaporated as the Nationals' ace allowed a season-high six runs over four innings, his shortest outing of 2018. Scherzer had not allowed more than four earned runs in any previous start this season. The Braves have accounted for both instances when he has allowed as many as six earned runs since the start of '17.
Using a patient approach that often leads opposing pitchers to encounter high pitch counts early, the Braves have had some form of success against each of the top three NL Cy Young candidates. They have won each of their five matchups against deGrom, despite the 1.09 ERA the Mets' right-hander has produced in these games. They've won two of three matchups against Philadelphia's Aaron Nola, who has a 2.95 ERA in these starts.
Even with this latest outing, Scherzer produced a 3.19 ERA in five starts against the Braves this year. But the Nationals lost three of those games.
"It feels like we face Scherzer and deGrom every time we play those teams," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "Our guys just do a good job of grinding at-bats. They don't throw at-bats away against those guys. They're driven to succeed against those guys."
Acuna got the Braves rolling when he doubled to begin the first and then produced an opposite-field, two-run bloop single that tied the game with two outs in the second. Acuna tripled ahead of the Freddie Freeman sacrifice fly and Nick Markakis RBI single that gave the Braves a 6-4 lead after four innings.
"He put some good at-bats against me," Scherzer said. "First inning, slider away, he hits it away. I think that second at-bat was when he was able to get that 3-2 slider, and he was able to find a hole. And the third at-bat, 3-2, I thought I had thrown [the slider] enough, but it was a 3-2 fastball right in the middle. He was able to do damage. I just didn't execute pitches enough at a high level to be able to contain him. It just shows: You work behind in the count, you get burned. I don't care who it is."
Provided one last opportunity for the cycle in the eighth, Acuna capped his four-hit performance with an infield single. He has hit .337 with 18 homers, 36 extra-base hits and a 1.134 OPS since moving to the leadoff spot after the All-Star break. A's third baseman Matt Chapman is the only Major Leaguer with more extra-base hits, and Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner is the only player with a better OPS during this span.
Acuna's second-half surge has created some uncertainty about the NL Rookie of the Year Award, which through the season's first four months seemed earmarked for Soto. The Nationals' 19-year-old outfielder drilled his 20th homer of the season to begin Washington's two-run fourth inning. But Soto grounded into a double play in the sixth and struck out with runners on the corners after the Braves' lead was cut to two runs in the seventh.
"He's really impressive with what he does," Soto said of Acuna. "I just watch him and have fun with that. I just tell him, 'Keep it up, and never give up.' Everything he does is fun. I keep watching him. He's amazing."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Before Markakis' two-run single in the three-run eighth provided some cushion, the Braves experienced a couple of stressful innings. Brad Brach surrendered a Mark Reynolds double in the eighth that hit high off the left-field wall -- a couple feet short of a game-tying, two-run homer -- and walked Adam Eaton to load the bases with two outs for Trea Turner, who flied out to right.
When Turner chased Dan Winkler with a one-out double in the seventh, Jesse Biddle entered with a pair of runners in scoring position. Bryce Harper cut Atlanta's lead to 7-5 with an RBI groundout. But Biddle survived the battle when he effectively used his slider and curveball to set Soto down on strikes.
"They just keep making pitches," Snitker said of his relievers. "They take it a pitch at a time and don't get caught up in the big picture."
Ender Inciarte's two-out double gave Tyler Flowers a chance to plate a pair of runs with his third-inning single. Inciarte also doubled in the two-run second that was fueled by the eight-pitch walk to Gausman just ahead of Acuna's single. The Braves center fielder has hit .349 with a .963 OPS over his past 17 games.
Though he didn't have his best stuff, Gausman still managed to provide the Braves 5 2/3 innings while allowing four runs. But his most important contribution may have been the walk he drew after Scherzer had recorded consecutive strikeouts of Flowers and Dansby Swanson. He fouled off consecutive 3-2 pitches before Scherzer missed with a fastball inside.
Gausman has drawn three walks and recorded a hit in 19 plate appearances since being acquired from the Orioles. In the 11 career plate appearances logged before coming to Atlanta, the former AL pitcher had gone hitless while walking once and striking out eight times.
Julio Teheran will attempt to extend his recent success when he opposes Jeremy Hellickson and the Nationals on Saturday afternoon at SunTrust Park. Teheran has posted a 2.64 ERA as he has limited opponents to a .163 batting average over his past seven starts. He will attempt to solve Harper, who has hit .450 (18-for-40) with eight homers in his career against the Atlanta right-hander. First pitch is set for 1:05 p.m. ET.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.