While the Nationals are cruising toward the postseason, the Braves are in complete free-fall. Atlanta is 5.5 games back in the Wildcard race entering Wednesday, with just 12 games to go. Crazier things have happened, but if they want to get the ball rolling it would have to start with a win over Gio Gonzalez and the Nats tonight on ESPN.
Last night, the Nationals became one of only two teams to clinch their division thus far, winning their 3rd NL East title in franchise history, and 2nd in three years. Still, they're in a tight race with the Dodgers for the top spot in the National League, which would ensure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Looking to the mound, Gonzalez's numbers (8-10, 3.79 ERA) don't do him justice. He has recorded a quality start in each of his last five outings, one of which being a hard-earned win against those same Dodgers. He should have two goals tonight: The first, and most important, is to stay healthy. That should be the aim at all times, but with the Nationals banking on their rotation in October, they can not afford to lose their ace. Win or loss, they can't push him too far.
Funny enough, the second goal may become completely contradictory to the first. Gio has to do everything he can to save the bullpen, which generally means going deep into the game. Rafael Soriano has been removed from the closer's role, and Matt Williams has decided to go with a closer-by-committee approach. While Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard have both thrived in late inning roles throughout their careers, any manager would rather not make that decision every day with the game on the line.
What can Gio do to preserve health, but still go deep into the game? He must throw strikes early and often. This Braves team ranks 29th in runs, 23rd in batting average, and 26th in slugging percentage. The fact is, they just can't hit the ball very hard. While Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis may be dangerous bats, they don't have much protection, and generally don't have men on base in front of them. Sure, Gonzalez has the stuff to finesse his way through heavy bats, but he doesn't need to do that tonight. Expect him to pitch to contact, and not make the game harder than it has to be.
As for the the Braves, they should see a steady dose of fastballs early in the count. Once they see enough pitches, expect free swinging. While Washington is just a middle of the pack team defensively, ranking 15th in the league, they're better suited taking their chances with balls in play tonight, and Atlanta is perfectly okay with that. It's all about whether Atlanta can rack up enough power shots to knock Gio out of the game early. If they do that, they could very well keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
Be sure to open your SnapCall app at 7:00PM ET as Gonzalez takes on Braves' youngster Alex Wood (10-10, 2.83 ERA) in the final game between these two clubs!