The Atlanta Braves have played as well as any team in the league during the first week and a half of the season. But coming into their first series against the divisional rival Washington Nationals, everything until this point is thrown out the window. In a division that is expected to go down to wire, every head-to-head matchup matters, and for the Braves on the road this weekend, winning a series has never been more important.
So for Atlanta, there are five key facets of the game that will likely determine the winner of this early April showdown. Here are the five keys to success for the Braves this weekend against the ever-hated Nationals:
Attack Fastballs Early
Washington will throw two of its horses at the Braves this weekend when Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez take the mound Saturday and Sunday, respectively. For the Braves, it will be important to jump on both of these aces early in at bats to avoid the devastating breaking balls that put hitters away by the masses. Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and the rest of Atlanta’s nightmarish lineup must sit on and pick out fastballs early and force Strasburg and Gonzalez out of their element. Against Strasburg, the first two pitches of the at bat will be key, as hitters have compiled a .300 average against him on the first pitch of at bats during his career. In 1-0 and 0-1 counts, big leaguers have hit .359 and .311 against Strasburg. Compare that to the dismal .102 average in 0-2 counts and the .132 average in 1-2 counts. The same can be said of Gonzalez, as hitters have combined for a .313 first-pitch average.
3 Quality Starts
The Braves lack the kind of big-name aces that Washington will feature, but for Atlanta, pitching will be just as important this weekend. Starting with Julio Teheran on Friday and moving forward with Hudson and Maholm Saturday and Sunday, the Braves will need to compile three quality starts that can keep the offense in the game and give the bullpen a close game to work with. It won’t take complete games or shutouts for the Braves to come out victorious this weekend, but it will be important that all three starters pitch into the 6th inning before turning the ball over to O’Flaherty, Walden and Kimbrel in the late innings.
Take Away Home Field Advantage
It might sound like an impossible feat, knowing that Washington will be riled up all weekend for this rivalry series, but for Atlanta, taking the Nationals fans out of the game will be important in creating and sustaining a lead. In six home games this season, the Nats are 6-0 and the “Natitude” that we saw last year seems to be in full bore. It will be essential for the Braves to jump out to a lead early on Friday and keep the foot on the pedal all weekend. Two or three runs early in the game on Friday will set the tone for both the players and the fans, and give Atlanta an opportunity to level the playing field by curbing the enthusiasm of the Washington die-hards.
Jailbreak For Heyward and Upton
We talked about the importance of hitting as a whole, but for two of Atlanta’s sluggers, it will be even more vital. Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton must look to break out of their disappointing starts on the road this weekend to allow the Atlanta offense to click on all cylinders. Both players have received ample support and encouragement from the Braves fans at home, but maybe getting on the road will ease the pressure and the nerves and allow both of these stars to enter a comfort zone for the next couple of weeks. Heyward enters the weekend with only two hits on the season while B.J. Upton has mustered only three to go along with 12 strikeouts. Having both of these guys on the bases will be imperative for Atlanta to keep constant pressure on the Nationals pitching. Forget the homeruns and RBI’s, all the Braves need is a few hits in front of Justin Upton and Evan Gattis.
Shake The Monkey On Your Back
In 2012 the Braves mustered only eight wins against the Nationals, including a three-game sweep that was suffered in the first series last May. Historically, Atlanta has had a way dropping pressure-packed games, and while it is only April, three games against the Nationals could go a long way in giving the Braves a mental edge over Washington moving forward. For the past three years it seems, the Nationals have held a sort of superiority over the National League East, forcing teams into the mindset that they are merely playing for one of the NL Wild Card spots. For Atlanta and its fans, a hot start against Washington will send a resounding message that the division title is most certainly up for grabs. It’s been eight years since the Braves have been recognized as the team to beat in the NL East and if they want 2013 to be the start of a new reign in the division, taking down Washington is first on the to-do list.