Three thoughts as Braves brace for big series in Washington

The Braves escaped New York winning three of four after an extra-inning thriller Sunday. It was a day reminiscent of so many in the season’s first half, when the Braves kept hanging around and stealing a few games.

Here are some recent thoughts on the team as they brace for a crucial four-game set in Washington.

1. Ender Inciarte may or may not be back, but at worst he's drastically improved. Manager Brian Snitker references the rained-out game in Washington, two days after the All-Star break ended, as the turning out.

“They (Inciarte and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer) spent a lot of time working in the cage that day,” Snitker said. “I remember Seitz coming back, ‘I can’t wait to see this.’”

The Braves don’t win Sunday without a resurgent Inciarte. His two-run homer tied the game in the seventh. He became the go-ahead run in the ninth when Ronald Acuna brought him home, which became the game-saving run after Devin Mesoraco homered in the bottom of the frame.

Inciarte will be the first to tell you his season’s been disappointing, but he’s historically excelled in the second half. If the Braves add “Regular Ender” to their lineup, you can expand their list of midseason acquisitions that cost nothing.

“Ender’s handled the whole year unbelievable,” Snitker said. “He’s staying pro, just back to being really steady and reliable.”

Since the break, Inciarte’s slashed .340/.346/.480 with four doubles, a homer, six RBIs and five runs scored.

2. The bullpen has been better lately. Brad Brach and Jonny Venters look like brilliant moves in a small sample size, and it wasn't going to take much to improve the unit. Venters gave Snitker a player whom he's familiar with and trusts, and Brach presented a resume no one else in the bullpen could match.

Plus, as Brach acknowledged, going from the hapless Orioles to an exciting contender has been an adrenaline shot.

They needed relief help, though there’s hope the starters (including Kevin Gausman) going deeper in games will mitigate the concern. Gausman threw six innings in his debut, showing reason for optimism but burning out at the end, when the Mets chased him via three straight singles.

Julio Teheran remains a question mark. Mike Foltynewicz, for as good as he’s been, hasn’t proven he can maintain through a full season. The same can be said for Sean Newcomb, who’ll make his first start since his near no-hit bid Tuesday.

3. With the Nationals playing well, it'll be interesting to see how the bullpen and rotation carry over into the nation's capital. If Washington has a run in it, now would be the best time. If the Braves want the Nationals buried, this is their chance to take care of it themselves.

This series could make or break the Nationals’ season. Take this weekend’s series in Boston, for instance. The Red Sox swept the Yankees in four games, likely eliminating their division champions bid and relegating them to a one-game playoff.

The Braves are presented an opportunity to make matters worse: A four-game sweep in Washington would be the final blow to the Nationals. But unlike the aforementioned series, the Nationals have the home advantage and have played better than the Yankees of late.

Even a split wouldn’t be the worst thing, since the Braves would have prevented the Nationals from gaining any ground on them and erased four games in the process. The Phillies begin three with the first-place Diamondbacks on Monday night, but afterward, eight of their next 10 games are against the Padres and Mets. Philadelphia entered Monday 1-1/2 games up on the Braves, and six ahead of Washington.

The National League East likely will come down to the last couple of weeks of September, when the Braves and Phillies meet seven of the last 10 games. But some still believe the Nationals could make things interesting, and this week will go a long way determining if that’s actually possible.