Wiedmer: Gnats keep hot Atlanta Braves frustrated

Wiedmer: Gnats keep hot Atlanta Braves frustrated

August 8th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Braves' Tommy Hanson delivers a pitch.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

A word of advice to Atlanta Braves fans: Quit watching the scoreboard.

Quit worrying about what the Washington Nationals are doing, because they're breaking the Braves' hearts almost nightly.

For proof we give you two recent Nats wins. The first came last Saturday night when the pesky Gnats -- as Braves Nation must surely view them -- scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to turn a probable 6-4 loss against the Marlins into a 10-7 win.

Only it's actually worse when you examine it more closely. Marlins reliever Mike Dunn dropped a toss from first baseman Carlos Lee for what should have been the second out of the inning with no runs yet across.

"Nine out of 10 times or 10 out of 10 times, he's going to make that play," Marlins starter Mark Buehrle said of Dunn's drop. "Unfortunately, he didn't. That pretty much cost us the game."

Now fast-forward to Monday night at Houston, the Nationals having blown a lead against the Dis-Astros, arguably the worst team in baseball. Benefiting from a dropped bunt that ultimately produced two errors on the same play in the 11th inning, the Nationals won 5-4 after blowing a 4-1 lead.

"It doesn't always have to be pretty," Washington manager Davey Johnson said. "We bent a lot, but we didn't break."

Having won 13 of their past 16 heading into Tuesday night's game at Houston, the Nationals are on the kind of surge that could easily break the Braves' spirit, even though Atlanta remains neck-and-neck with Pittsburgh and St. Louis for the final National League wild-card spot.

The Braves won 11 of 16 in that same stretch and still fell two games further behind the Gnats in the NL East standings.

And that was before Atlanta's 3-0 loss to the Phillies on Tuesday night.

But to look inside those previous 16 games from each team before Tuesday is also to see why Braves Nation may have nothing to worry about down the stretch.

It all begins with pitching, long Atlanta's calling card. In those 11 victories, the Braves surrendered a grand total of 17 runs. They scored 62. That averages out to a winning score of 5.6 to 1.5. You can't dominate from the mound much more than that.

By contrast, the Nationals' 13 wins have come by an average score of 6.5 to 3.0, which certainly screams of postseason promise but isn't quite as impressive on the runs-allowed column as 1.5.

Pitching still wins championships more times than not, and that difference of 1.5 runs allowed could prove telling in the final eight weeks of the season.

Beyond that, the Braves are doing it without a strong Cy Young candidate, although recent acquisition Ben Sheets already is 4-1 with a 1.41 earned run average.This entire unsung staff led by Tim Hudson is starting to pitch like the 1969 Mets, 1988 Dodgers or 2010 Giants, probable winners in any game they score at least three runs.

In fact, Sheets may be only the second most efficient Braves starter if manager Fredi Gonzalez follows through with his notion to keep Kris Medlen in a six-man rotation should Tommy Hanson return from the disabled list on Aug. 15 as expected.

Over his last 18 starts, Medlen has gone 7-0 with a 3.62 ERA, the Braves winning 16 of those games, including 13 in a row since May 29, 2010.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, retiring Braves third baseman Chipper Jones gives Atlanta the one component Washington can't match -- a proven clutch hitter when the stakes are highest.

This is not to say there isn't something magical about these Gnats. In fact, go back 21 years and they could easily be those '91 Braves, arguably the greatest worst-to-first story in National League history.

Washington doesn't seem the equal of Atlanta on paper, but it has won eight of 12 meetings to date between the two clubs. And just like those '91 Braves, these Gnats can both chug and charm, their wins touched as much by pixie dust as true grit.

"It's a tight race," Washington star rookie Bryce Harper said this past weekend. "The Braves are playing well; we're playing well. We win; they win. It's going to be tough to keep it going. [But] we're a fun team and we love to win."

With stories such as Chipper's retirement, Sheets' rebirth and Medlen's versatility, Atlanta is a fun team, too. Now it just has to hope the Nationals begin losing enough for anyone beyond Braves Nation to have reason to notice.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.