The Atlanta Braves’ offense is coming off an inconsistent weekend, but they believe there’s reason for optimism - especially if they can get into Washington’s beleaguered bullpen.
Having broken out of their slump, the Braves visit a team they had little trouble scoring against less than two weeks ago when they open a three-game series against the struggling Nationals on Monday night.
After averaging 6.3 runs in their first six game, the Braves (6-6) struggled at the plate, dropping their next five straight. Beginning with Thursday’s 6-2 loss to Florida, Atlanta went 22 innings without scoring, losing the first two games of its weekend series with Pittsburgh 3-0 and 10-0.
Third baseman Chipper Jones returned to Atlanta’s lineup Sunday after missing four games with a bruised thumb, and second baseman Yunel Escobar, who strained an abdominal muscle Thursday, is expected back Monday.
“You can do without one person in the lineup, but when you get two or three people out, it starts getting tough and you start pressing to score runs,” right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. “You can’t do that, not in this game.”
Atlanta continues its nine-game trip in Washington, where the Braves lost six straight last year. They had no trouble at home against the Nationals (1-10) earlier this season, though, sweeping a three-game series April 10-12. Atlanta scored 19 runs, had 36 hits - including 14 for extra bases - and batted .343 in those three victories.
If the Braves can duplicate that success against the Nationals on Monday, it could be a difficult major league debut for 22-year-old Jordan Zimmermann. The highly-touted prospect, a second-round pick in 2007, was 15-5 with a 2.81 ERA in 39 career minor league appearances. The right-hander was 1-1 with a 3.14 ERA in five games this season, including three starts for Triple-A Syracuse.
“He has shown in camp that he is one of our best pitchers, period, that we have,” manager Manny Acta told the MLB’s official Web site during spring training.
While Acta is expecting big things from the rookie, the Nationals’ bullpen might be under even more pressure. Washington was swept over the weekend by Florida, losing Sunday’s finale 7-4 to complete a dismal showing by the relievers.
The Nationals led 3-1 after five innings Sunday, but Saul Rivera gave up a run-scoring double and a three-run double to give the Marlins the lead. Washington’s bullpen was 0-3 with four blown saves and a 9.26 ERA over the weekend and is 0-5 with a 6.48 ERA this season.
“The incompetence of the bullpen was drawn to a head today,” assistant general manager Mike Rizzo said. “It got to a point where it wasn’t fair for the fans, wasn’t fair for the rest of the teammates and the starting pitchers to go status quo. We’re going to change things up.”
The Nationals, whose only win came Thursday against Philadelphia, face Derek Lowe (1-0, 2.81), who struggled Wednesday against Florida. Lowe allowed four runs and seven hits over five innings of a 10-4 loss.
The veteran right-hander is 5-1 with a 2.45 ERA in seven career starts against Washington. He pitched three innings against the Nationals on April 10 before a rain delay shortened his outing. He gave up one run, four hits and struck out six before leaving.