After winning series vs. Nats, Braves to face tougher test in St. Louis

Braves starting pitcher Jared Shuster (left) watches after walking in a run during the first inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Sunday, April 2, 2023, in Washington.

Credit: AP photo/Alex Brandon

Credit: AP photo/Alex Brandon

Braves starting pitcher Jared Shuster (left) watches after walking in a run during the first inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Sunday, April 2, 2023, in Washington.

WASHINGTON -- One bad inning by a green pitcher didn’t cost the Braves a sweep in Washington. Lefty Jared Shuster’s rough MLB debut ended up not mattering much because his teammates produced little offense on Sunday. It still was a good series for the Braves, who dominated in the two victories, but they could have used some more cushion before heading to St. Louis.

The Braves faced a light-hitting, young lineup in Washington. They’ll be up against a veteran squad of big boppers in St. Louis.

“Really, really strong lineup,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

The Braves won’t have staff ace Max Fried to deal with the Cardinals. He’s headed to the injured list soon. The Braves on Monday will start veteran Charlie Morton, who sputtered to close 2022. Dylan Dodd is set to make his MLB debut on Tuesday. The starter for Wednesday is to be determined but young right-hander Bryce Elder probably will be called up to take Fried’s turn.

Those circumstances are why a sweep of the Nationals would have boosted the Braves. It’s hard to say that any MLB team definitely should sweep another. Baseball is a funny game. Still, the Nationals lost 107 games in 2022 and could approach that number again this season, so the non-competitive effort in the finale was a letdown for the Braves.

The Braves won the first two games against Washington by a combined score of 14-3. The Nationals struck back for a 4-1 victory behind a strong start by left-hander MacKenzie Gore.

Gore is one of the players the Nationals acquired from the Padres last summer as part of the Juan Soto trade. He hadn’t pitched in an official MLB game since July 25 because he was shut down with left elbow inflammation after that. Gore got good results in his Nationals debut. The Braves couldn’t score a run against him over 5 1/3 innings while managing just three hits, all singles, and striking out six times.

Gore was the No. 3 pick in the 2017 draft out of Whiteville (N.C.) High School. Shuster was the 25th pick in the draft three years later out of Wake Forest. Starting Shuster against the Nationals was probably a better situation for him than sending him out against the Cardinals. His debut came at sleepy Nationals Park against the rebuilding Nationals instead of inside a packed house against the Cardinals, who are heavy favorites to win the NL Central.

It wasn’t a good first start for Shuster. It could have been worse. The first six Nats batters reached base as Shuster struggled to find the strike zone. The Nationals scored more runs (four) in the first inning than they did in the first two games of the series. Two of those runs scored on walks.

Shuster didn’t allow a run over the next 3 2/3 innings. He was helped by a double play in the third inning and catcher Sean Murphy throwing out Luis Garcia on a steal attempt in the fourth.

“He took their best punch and he came back,” Murphy said of Shuster.

Shuster needed help from Atlanta’s lineup. He didn’t get it.

Gore faced the minimum nine batters through three innings. He induced double plays in the third and fifth innings and stranded two runners in the fourth by striking out Marcel Ozuna on three pitches. Gore was pulled in the sixth inning with one out and two runners on base. Hunter Harvey came out of the bullpen and got Ozzie Albies to hit into a double play.

The Braves threatened to score twice over the last three innings. Michael Harris doubled off Erasmo Ramirez with two outs in the seventh, but Murphy couldn’t bring him home. Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. walked with one out in the eighth and went to second on passed ball. Nats right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. retired Matt Olson and Austin Riley to end that mild rally.

The Braves left Washington with plenty to feel good about. They won the opener despite Fried leaving the game in the third inning. Right-hander Spencer Strider was great in his season debut. Olson’s strong end to 2002 and sharp spring carried over to the start of the season. Orlando Arcia, the replacement for Dansby Swanson at shortstop, was good at the plate and in the field against the Nationals.

It could have been a better series for the Braves if they produced more offense in the finale. There won’t be many games in which they score just one run. This shouldn’t have been one of them. Gore threw just 56 strikes on 96 pitches and walked four batters.

“He was effectively wild,” Snitker said.

The Cardinals have three pitchers better than Gore lined up to face the Braves. Ace Adam Wainwright (groin) is out, but Jake Woodford, Steven Matz and Miles Mikolas are solid. They are backed by a very good defense. The St. Louis lineup features two stars, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, and good hitters throughout.

After winning two of three games against the hapless Nats, the Braves will have to be better in St. Louis to get a similar result.