Braves in division race but Nationals have something they don’t

Heading into July, the Atlanta Braves have used nine starters this season.

I chewed a lot of bubble gum as a kid. I chewed so much bubble gum that I set the neighborhood record for cavities and the dentist named drill bits in my honor, but at least an addiction to Bazooka Joe helped me win a bubble-gum-blowing contest at summer camp, which remains my greatest athletic achievement, and I saved a bunch of wrappers that could be redeemed for “great” prizes.

So you ask: Why bring this up as the Brave were opening a four-game series against the Washington Nationals Thursday? Because when I think of the Nationals, my brain wanders back to those Bazooka Joe “great” prizes, which always looked a lot better on wrappers than in reality.

Initial emotion: “Wow! That’s a cool battleship and it shoots real torpedoes!”

Buyer’s remorse: The toy arrives in the mail, the Nationals arrive in October and neither really works like it’s supposed.

Washington has won the National League East four of the last six seasons but has yet to win a playoff series. They’ve managed to out-Braves the 1990 Braves. At least the Braves won a World Series, five pennants and nine division series.

But here’s where the mocking stops. The current Nationals remain far ahead of the Braves in at least one important area: starting pitching. It’s how they’ve been able to win 21 of their last 27 games following an 11-16 start.

It’s why they’re in first place for the first time this season and they’ll probably be in first place when the season ends. (After that, all bets are off.)

The Braves’ lineup continues to do improbable things. It has produced eight wins in the final at-bat, including three straight walk-off homers. But that’s generally not a sustainable model. It’s easier for starting pitching to carry teams through 162-game seasons than counting on walk-offs by Johan Camargo.

“Look at their numbers -- they’re all in the twos and low threes (in ERA),” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “That’s what you need to win games. You can get by with five, six innings from your starters for a few weeks but sooner rather than later your bullpen is not going to be able to keep up with that. They have the guys who can go seven, eight innings. (Max) Scherzer went eight innings (Wednesday) night and it saves their bullpen.”

The top four starters in Washington’s starting rotation are Scherzer (1.92 ERA), Gio Gonzalez (2.10), Stephen Strasburg (3.13) and Tanner Roark (3.17). Even their fifth starter, Jeremy Hellickson, has an ERA of 2.30. There’s no rest.

Scherzer, Gonzalez, Strasburg and Roark have combined for 30 quality starts in 44 outings. (A quality start is a pitcher going at least six innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs.) The Braves’ top four starters – Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz, Julio Teheran and Brandon McCarthy – have combined for 19.

Some baseball folks look down on the quality start stat because allowing three runs in six innings factors out to a mediocre ERA of 4.50, but that ignores that two realities: 1) Starters with a number of QS’s usually have a solid ERA; 2) It prevents the bullpen from getting worn down, which potentially is the Braves’ biggest problem moving forward.

This Nationals team is different than the one the Braves split six games against in April, and Freeman said Washington remains the measuring stick in East. He pointed to a pitching staff that has the second-best starters’ ERA (2.81) and batting average-against (.210) in the majors.

Washington has gotten hot at a time when it has 12 players on the disabled list, including left fielder Adam Eaton, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and second baseman Howie Kendrick. Bryce Harper also is off to a miserable start, hitting .238, down 81 points from a year ago. The Nationals ranks 18th team batting average (.242).

Logical forecast: At some point, the offense will come around and the pitching will still be there.

“This whole division – also the Phillies’ staff, even the Mets’ – it’s a gauntlet to run though,” Freeman said. “You (play) two or three division opponents and you run up against aces. The No. 3 on their staff is practically a No. 1 on most teams. ... Roark’s not going to overpower you but he’s going to pitch you deep into games. Hellickson’s been pitching great. Gio for three years in a row has been like an All-Star in the first half. They’re always coming at you in some different way. Roark is sinking it or curving it, Strasburg’s got power, the next day Gio is thumbing it.”

To fans and some media, this is a huge series. In reality, the season is only one-third complete and neither team would be in control even with a four-game sweep.

“You can’t worry about three months from now -- we’re just trying to win today,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

“A lot of people talk about this (being) a big series,” Freeman said. “But if you’re trying to make the playoffs, then every series is a big series.”

And over a full season, it’s ultimately starting pitching that gets a team to October. Washington has that.

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