ATLANTA -- With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg serving as the anchors, the Nationals can rightfully lay claim to having the National League's best starting rotation. But their attempt to defend a division crown will be influenced by the continued development of an Atlanta rotation that has become much more
ATLANTA -- With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg serving as the anchors, the Nationals can rightfully lay claim to having the National League's best starting rotation. But their attempt to defend a division crown will be influenced by the continued development of an Atlanta rotation that has become much more formidable as Sean Newcomb has consistently looked like a legit front-line starter.
Unfazed by what had occurred during last weekend's forgettable homecoming experience in Boston or the way he began Thursday night's 4-2 win over the Nationals, Newcomb showed the mental resolve of a seasoned veteran and helped the Braves move back to the top of the National League East standings.
"Obviously, I think we're a really good team, but first place a third of the way into the season doesn't mean a whole lot," Braves left fielder Preston Tucker said. "It's nice to know we're playing well against a really good ballclub and we're going to see these guys potentially in the playoffs. But obviously, whether you're in first or second place at the end of this series doesn't matter. We're just trying to play well right now."
As the Braves moved a half-game in front of the Nationals, who came to town with a six-game winning streak, Freddie Freeman extended his hitting streak to 13 games with a decisive double and Ozzie Albies contributed a couple key hits. But the tone was set by Newcomb, who began his outing with consecutive walks and exited it having allowed just two runs over seven innings.
"I knew I had to lock it in to get through some innings, and that was kind of my approach," Newcomb said. "I didn't think I was going to get through seven after that first, but that thought process was to just lock it in and throw as many innings as possible."
This isn't the same Newcomb who posted a 4.32 ERA and walked one out of every eight batters he faced over his first 19 career starts last year. One year older and wiser, the 24-year-old southpaw has commanded his fastball more consistently and gained confidence with a changeup that has allowed him to realize his tremendous potential.
Newcomb has a 2.16 ERA in 10 starts since he allowed a season-high five earned runs over four innings during his April 2 season debut against the Nationals. He constructed a 1.54 ERA and went undefeated while notching a MLB-best five wins in May.
The Boston-area native's month would have been even more impressive had his command not eluded him as he completed a career-short three innings while pitching in front of a throng of friends and family members last weekend at Fenway Park.
"I was just looking forward to getting another start [after my start last week], kind of wipe it clean and get out there and start attacking the zone," Newcomb said.
Newcomb needed eight pitches to record his first strike Thursday and he encountered a 1-0 deficit courtesy of a first-inning sacrifice fly by Anthony Rendon, who added a game-tying RBI single in the third. After that Rendon single, the Braves lefty retired 14 of the final 15 batters he faced and exited with those two early walks standing as the only ones on his ledger.
"He just never quit pitching," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "He was going pitch to pitch, it wasn't working early, but he never stopped. I don't think he stopped that approach, and then he got in it and kind of got on a roll and got settled in. But that's a huge credit to him and where he's come and where he's going that he could just regroup like that."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Fast enough: After the Nationals gained an early lead, Nick Markakis opened a two-run second inning with a double and scored when Tucker produced a double of his own. The Braves gained their first lead of the night when Newcomb hit a one-out, bases-loaded chopper to Trea Turner and then got down the line just fast enough to prevent a double play that would have negated the inning's second run.
"That's probably as fast as he had run all year," Snitker said. "The worst thing that could happen is they put that ball in play on the ground -- and he did -- but to his credit he beat it out."
Asked to face the top of the Nationals' lineup and preserve a two-run lead in the eighth, Dan Winkler did not blink. The dominant right-handed reliever opened the frame with consecutive strikeouts of Turner and Bryce Harper. Rendon then fouled off six of the first seven pitches he saw before flying out to left field .
Winkler has worked 15 1/3 scoreless innings over his last 18 appearances. Right-handed hitters have gone 4-for-34 with 16 strikeouts during this span. They have hit .098 and struck out 23 times in the 51 at-bats tallied against him since the start of the season.
"You like him on the mound. He's got great mound presence, has a lot of confidence in himself," Snitker said. "I said he might be the tiredest guy in the clubhouse after that at-bat Rendon put on him."
As the Braves improved to 4-3 on the season against the Nationals, Freeman delivered a double that scored Albies from first base courtesy of Harper's errant throw to second base. Ender Inciarte helped create an insurance run when he singled with two outs in the seventh and scored on Albies' double to right field.
"They have some confident players over there, then they have some really good players," Turner said. "Their veterans are playing unbelievable -- Markakis, Freeman and Inciarte were good tonight. They have the younger guys to go with it. They're tough."
HE SAID IT
"I think you don't try to focus on [the standings], but I kind of obviously know they [were] a half-game up on us so I came in with a little more intensity for sure." -- Newcomb
Mike Foltynewicz will attempt to build off his most encouraging start of the year when the Braves and Nationals resume their four-game series Friday at 7:35 p.m. ET. Foltynewicz took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and allowed one run over a season-high seven innings as he beat Chris Sale and the Red Sox Sunday. He will be opposed by Strasburg, who tossed eight scoreless innings against Atlanta on April 10.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.