Braves-Nationals: Clutch Hitting Carries Atlanta to Series Sweep

James HulkaAnalyst IApril 12, 2009

KISSIMMEE, FL - MARCH 5: Chipper Jones #10 of the Atlanta Braves stands at bat during a Spring Training game against the Washington Nationals at The Ballpark at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex March 5, 2007 in Kissimmee, Florida. The Braves won 14-5. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

The Braves certainly didn't dominate the Nationals during their first series of the season at Turner Field, but nevertheless they did complete their first series sweep of the season with an 8-5 victory on Sunday afternoon.

CF Jordan Schafer was the only starting position player not to get a hit, but his two running catches in the eighth and ninth innings definitely made up for his 0-4 day at the plate. His grab of Elijah Dukes' liner to right-center in the eighth inning off reliever Buddy Carlyle preserved a lead with two runners on and only one out.

Seven different Braves drove in runs on Sunday afternoon, including Casey Kotchman who only got one at-bat as he was inserted late in the game as a defensive replacement for Martin Prado at first base.

Chipper Jones drove in RBI singles in both the fifth and seventh innings, and Jeff Francoeur had two opposite field triples, one definitely aided by a glaring sun in the eyes of Nationals right fielder Austin Kearns.

The key to Sunday's victory was the offense's ability to come right back after the Nationals closed the gap.

Right after the Nationals tied the game 3-3 in the top of the fifth, the Braves got RBI hits from Chipper Jones and Brian McCann to give the Braves the lead at 5-3. Washington scored one in the sixth, but the Braves got two more in the seventh to extend the lead to 7-4.

The Nats tried to inch closer in the top of the eighth, but could only get one to get to within 7-5 before Casey Kotchman's RBI single scored Jeff Francoeur from third base with the game's final run.

Rafael Soriano struck out two setting down the side in order in the ninth, earning his first save.

After the first week of the season, the only major concern for the Braves has been their middle relief corps.

Rafael Soriano has been lights out in the Braves bullpen.

Mike Gonzalez hasn't been completely consistent, but the blame for his blown save on Friday night can't be placed solely on his shoulders. The first two "hits" of the inning were a fly ball that Matt Diaz should've caught in left field, and a bloop single off the end of the bat on a pitch down and away.

As bad as Peter Moylan looked in his first two appearances, he was that good on Saturday when he struck out the side in the seventh. Blaine Boyer and Eric O'Flaherty have been shaky at best, and that's being polite.

Fellas, don't get too comfortable because Manny Acosta and Boone Logan are waiting at AAA if you struggle any longer.

I give credit to Bobby Cox for bringing in Buddy Carlyle in that jam in the eighth inning today. Buddy gave the Braves a couple decent innings on Friday after the rain delay. Today, Carlyle did allow one inherited run to score, but preserved the lead by getting a big-time strikeout of Adam Dunn to end the eighth.

The offense thus far has been a pleasant surprise.

After week one, the Braves have no one really struggling on offense. The lone starter who's "struggling" is Jeff Francoeur whose five RBI in six games including two triples on Sunday leave his average at .240. Garret Anderson isn't off to a great start, but Matt Diaz has been productive filling in playing left field.

Even the bench players in Omar Infante and Martin Prado are hitting well and being very productive. The two combined for three hits, two runs scored, and an RBI, allowing Kelly Johnson and Casey Kotchman to take most of the day off.

At the end of week one, the Braves have scored 37 runs in six games, and seven different regulars have already hit at least one of the Braves 10 total home runs, currently second best in the majors (surprise—Colorado is first).

Five regulars have batting averages over .300 to start the year and only the injured Garret Anderson does not have an RBI of the position players to make at least one start so far.

The starting rotation has been solid. Most weren't expecting complete dominance from the Braves' staff, but Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez, and Kenshin Kawakami have shown to be as advertised during the season's first week. A 4-0 record with a 2.65 ERA and 26 K in 34 IP is solid.

Tom Glavine is still scheduled for a call-up to start Saturday in Pittsburgh despite leaving early on Sunday, pitching in a rehab start with AA Mississippi before the third inning. Jorge Campillo, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Tommy Hanson are the possible replacement starters if Glavine is not healthy enough to pitch on Saturday.

Friday's rain delay and Wednesday's bullpen implosion against the Phillies are the only reasons the quartet hasn't pitched more innings.

The signs are encouraging as the starting pitching and offense are both off to good starts. We didn't see too many one run wins from the Braves last year or a lot of two-out hitting from Jeff Francoeur. Both happened this weekend as Braves fans hope to see the misfortunes of 2008 turn around in Atlanta for 2009.

For one week, so far so good.

The Braves face a tough test as the other team with the best record in the majors after the first week of the season (the 5-1 Florida Marlins), start a three-game series on Tuesday.

Scheduled pitching matchups for the series are:

Tuesday: Javier Vazquez (0-0, 4.50 ERA) vs. Chris Volstad (1-0, 1.80 ERA)

Wednesday: Derek Lowe (1-0, 0.82 ERA) vs. Andrew Miller (0-0, 3.86 ERA)

Thursday (day): Kenshin Kawakami (1-0, 4.50 ERA) vs Anibal Sanchez (1-0, 0.00 ERA)


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