If Thursday was any indication, the Braves won’t be cakewalking to another National League East title.
The resurgent Nationals slaughtered the Braves in the series opener of a four-game set, using an eight-run third inning to win 13-4. The Nationals have won five consecutive games at SunTrust Park. They’ve cut the Braves’ division lead to 5-1/2 games with three more head-to-head chances this weekend to potentially close the gap.
Since sweeping the Padres to cap a five-game winning streak, the Braves are 1-3, dropping their last trio of games. They’ve been outscored 31-9 in that time, underscoring the need for pitching help prior to the trade deadline.
“You’re going to go through runs like this,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s not just going to be easy, I’ve said that a number of times, for 6-1/2 months. You’re going to have to weather some storms. The offense is going to go sometimes, the pitching. You just have to keep fighting through it.”
Most embarrassing for the Braves is the stat that tells the tale: Washington starter Stephen Strasburg was 3-for-3 with a home run and five RBIs. He became the first major league pitcher with at least three hits and five RBIs in a game since Arizona’s Micah Owings had four hits and six RBIs in August 2007.
Braves starter Kyle Wright had been superb in Triple-A, earning another outing in the majors. But it couldn’t have gone much worse, due to a horrific third frame. He couldn’t locate his fastball and quickly found himself inefficiently trying to pilot through a deep Nationals lineup.
“If you don’t command your fastball, it’s hard to pitch here, hard to pitch anywhere” Snitker said. “We had a hard time commanding fastballs all night really.”
Strasburg opened the disastrous third inning with a single. Wright fanned Trea Turner but didn’t receive help from his defense on the ensuing play, when Ronald Acuna dove – and missed – a ball in left field that resulted in an Adam Eaton triple.
Ender Inciarte, returning to center field after missing 54 games on the injured list, couldn’t reel in a fly ball at the wall from Anthony Rendon. The back-to-back extra-base hits, helped by misfortune on defense, gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead.
Wright walked Juan Soto and struck out Ryan Zimmerman. He then lost control, throwing a wild pitch and walking the next two Nationals. Victor Robles’ double made it 5-1 and chased Wright from the game.
The Vanderbilt product allowed a career-worst seven runs in 2-2/3 innings, with all the damage coming in the third. It was the shortest outing in his four major league starts.
“Whenever you walk guys – guys are too good up here, they’re going to make you pay,” said Wright, who issued three free passes. “So that’s the most frustrating part, beating yourself a little bit. I think it was lack of feel with the fastball. I commanded some off-speed pitches OK, but it starts with the fastball and from the get-go I never had a great feel with it.”
In came Touki Toussaint, another young arm trying to find his place. Strasburg demolished an ill-placed fastball 420 feet to left field that completed the meltdown. It was the Braves’ worst inning since the infamous collapse in frigid Chicago last April, when the team allowed nine runs in one frame.
Toussaint’s role hasn’t been particularly conducive to his development, though he’s at times proven valuable in long-relief. But Wright, a former top-five pick, hasn’t quite looked ready for the majors at times. That’s OK – not everyone can excel so early as Mike Soroka has – and he’s still among the team’s most cherished arms. In the eyes of many, he’s the No. 1 pitching prospect in the system.
“I just have to do a better job of making them beat me from the get-go,” Wright said, assessing his outings in the majors. “Make them put balls in play. We have too good a defense to be walking guys. So that’s the main thing. Attack them, try not to be so refined with that first pitch, second pitch. Just stay out of those deep counts, those disadvantaged counts.”
Wright was most frustrated that his Triple-A success – namely built on the aggression he admitted to lacking Thursday – didn’t translate. Wright had a 1.99 ERA with 37 strikeouts in his last five starts (31-2/3 innings) with Gwinnett.
Still, coaches and teammates laud Wright’s ability at every turn. He has the stuff of a potential ace, according to catcher Brian McCann, and Snitker continuously praises Wright’s mental capability and talent even after a poor showing.
It might not be in the present, but Wright could still factor into the Braves down the stretch. He won’t, however, influence the team’s nearer plans regarding its pitching needs. After Soroka and Dallas Keuchel, the starting group is a question mark.
One of their starters searching for consistency will start Friday, when the Braves turn to Julio Teheran in an effort to even the series. Lefty Patrick Corbin, the Nationals’ biggest free-agent acquisition, starts for Washington.
“It’s such a long season, you have your ups and downs and everybody knows that,” McCann said. “The one quality, my favorite quality of this team is we show up every day and put our best foot forward. We’ll show up tomorrow and be ready.”
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