A strange series — with the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals, there can be no other kind — ended with both sides feeling they’d done what they needed to do. The Braves won two of three to slow the slide that began on the West Coast and draw a game closer to first place. (Though 3 1/2 games back isn’t all that close.) The Nats didn’t get swept by the team they lead in the standings but rarely beat on the field.
The Braves again trumped the two Nationals pitchers they’ve come to own. Stephen Strasburg yielded four home runs in five innings Friday — his previous high in any game had been two — and Gio Gonzalez neglected to cover first base on a play that yielded the winning run Sunday. The Braves are 6-2 in the past eight games started by Strasburg and 8-0 in those started by Gonzalez, and if you’re still wondering why the Nats can’t seem to beat the Braves … well, there’s why.
Now for the really weird part: As big as the Nats’ series was, it was actually the easiest assignment of this 10-game homestand. The next seven games will come against the Dodgers and the A’s, two teams demonstrably better than Washington. There’s still much heavy lifting to be done if the Braves are to put themselves back into real playoff contention.
And yet again, the Braves are surely asking: What to do about B.J. Upton? He didn’t play in the final game of the West Coast swing, giving way to the deadline acquisition Emilio Bonifacio. He started Game 1 against the Nats and homered off a Strasburg curve. (Seasoned observers couldn’t believe Strasburg did Upton the favor of throwing him a curve.) He was 0-for-5 with three strikeouts and a ninth-inning groundout with a runner in scoring position in the 11-inning loss that ended at 2:29 a.m. Sunday. He didn’t play in Sunday night’s victory.
We made a (somewhat) big deal over the (very) modest success Upton had when moved into the leadoff spot — a move that coincided with the Braves embarking on their month-plus of games against sub-.500 teams — but let’s get real: It was a success only by B.J. Upton standards. In the No. 1 spot, he’s hitting .220 with an on-base percentage of .282 and 19 more strikeouts than hits.
The only semi-legitimate reasons to bat Upton leadoff involved other hitters. Having a right-handed hitter bat No. 1 enabled Fredi Gonzalez to put lefty Tommy La Stella in the No. 2 spot, where he belongs, ahead of Freddie Freeman, another lefty. (Gonzalez wanted to avoid having Jason Heyward lead off ahead of La Stella and Freeman, thereby clustering his three lefty swingers.) But the two-month rental of Bonfacio gives Fredi G. another option, and he’s starting to exercise it.
Trouble is, the Braves still have three more seasons at $46 million invested in B.J. Upton. If you give up on him for the second time in two years, can you really bring him to spring training in 2015? But if you keep Running Him Out There to no good effect, are you being fair to the other guys on your team? Apparently there was an effort made to trade B.J. before the deadline, but there were no takers. (Fancy that.) And given how long it took the Braves to buy out Dan Uggla, how long might they need to pull the plug and write the check on Bossman Jr.?
Ah, well. That’s the intriguing thing about these Braves. Even when they win a significant series, there’s always something.