The Braves’ magic number to clinch the National League East is 13, but it effectively feels like zero.
After Friday’s 4-3 victory over Washington, the Braves lead the division by nine games. They’ve beaten the second-place Nationals in nine of the last 11 meetings, including the first two of this four-game set at SunTrust Park.
“I’ve felt for a while now that we have something special here,” said third baseman Josh Donaldson, who launched a two-run homer in the seventh. “Obviously (general manager) Alex (Anthopoulos) thought that as well at the trade deadline, going out and getting some guys. We’ve been playing some good baseball pretty much all year long. We got off to a rough start early but since then we’ve been doing a good job of playing all phases of the game.”
Washington entered the series trailing by seven games. Realistically, it needed to take three of four - maybe even sweep - to spark a race to the finish. Instead, the Nationals find themselves in a fight for the right to host the wild-card game, with division title aspirations slipping away.
The Braves are treating the Nationals as they have all their opponents recently. And Washington’s best-case scenario is now leaving Atlanta in the same position it held prior (seven games back). The Nationals’ oft-cited MLB-best record since May 24 has been surpassed by the Braves, whose 60-31 mark since that date is tops in the bigs.
It was the team’s 12th consecutive win at home, tying a modern franchise record achieved by the 2000 Braves who also won 12 straight home games from April 8 through May 5.
This was the Braves’ eighth consecutive win overall. They’re playing complete baseball: They’re hammering pitches, containing opponents’ bats and displaying exemplary defense.
Ozzie Albies homered off Patrick Corbin, awarding the Braves a 1-0 lead. Tyler Flowers knocked in Adam Duvall after a double for the second run. Donaldson’s 35th homer made it 4-0. Shane Greene registered the save in his 13th straight scoreless outing. The only blemish was Ryan Zimmerman’s three-run homer off Luke Jackson.
As has usually been the case lately, starting pitching ruled the day. Twenty-four hours after Max Fried marveled with seven scoreless innings, fellow southpaw Dallas Keuchel delivered his own shutout. After navigating a two-on one-out threat in the first, Keuchel settled in to toss six scoreless innings, working his way out of jams to protect an early lead. He allowed six hits, walking two and striking out three.
“He’s always a pitch away from getting out of (a jam),” manager Brian Snitker said. “He never gives in. That’s it. He gets guys on and he’s always a pitch away from getting out of it. He’s got no pulse when he’s out there. It’s fun to watch.”
Keuchel, added in June to provide a steady veteran in the rotation, has been worth his $13 million price tag since mid-August. Outdueling Corbin continued Keuchel’s best run of the season.
The left-hander hit a season low Aug. 8, allowing eight runs in 3-2/3 innings against the Marlins. He’s since been brilliant, allowing two or fewer runs in five consecutive starts while going six or more frames in each. He’s allowed three runs over 31 innings across that stretch (0.87 ERA).
“It’s not predicated on getting ahead or anything for me,” Keuchel said. “It’s just quality of pitches per at-bat. The more quality pitches, the better off you’re going to be even in a 2-0, 3-0, 1-0 count. I just have to remind myself hitting is hard enough as is, pitching is hard enough as is, but I’d rather be a pitcher any day of the week than hitting in the box.
“As long as I make quality pitches, I like to get ahead of every hitter, but at the same time, I’m going to get frustrated at myself when I know there’s a 50-50 first pitch that - ‘Hey, I think (Howie) Kendrick is going to swing right here and I don’t want to give him a fat cookie.’ So I’d rather throw him a tease pitch. That’s what I’m predicated on. I make the hitter guess and I’ve been guessing right for myself.”
Through two games against the Nationals, Braves starters combined for 13 scoreless innings, striking out 12 and walking two. Postseason questions revolve around the team’s arms but seeing how their lefties performed against an upper-tier offense should add further confidence in how they’ll handle the playoffs.
The Braves can take the series outright with a win Saturday night. Julio Teheran will face Austin Voth, who replaced the recently scratched Joe Ross. The Braves and Nationals have five head-to-head meetings remaining this season, with a three-game series in Washington next week.