The Braves won their 13th straight game in Nationals Park on Friday, defeating the hapless gNats 8-1. 8-4. (Edit–Just noticed that I wrote this score in the top of the ninth and forgot to correct it when I completed the recap. I guess I hadn’t realized that Will Smith was going to pitch the bottom of the ninth.)  With the Mets rainout, the deficit is two games.

How the mighty have fallen!  Just three years ago, the Natspos won their first World Series.  This year, they’d be an underdog against the 1962 Mets. Remember that guy Patrick Corbin who pitched so well for the Nats in their run to the World Series in 2019?  For the past couple of years they’ve had a lefty starter who, strangely enough, is also named Patrick Corbin.  It’s obviously not the same guy.  This new Corbin is one of the worst pitchers in the league.

As they always do, the Braves’ bats boomed in Nationals Park.  They jumped on Corbin early, scoring three in the first on an rbi single by Olson and a two run blast by Riley. Olson delivered another run scoring single in the second to make it 4-0, and then did the same in the fourth to make it 5-0  (three singles and three rbi’s for Olson to that point—who says this team is home run or bust?).  In the fifth Arcia homered to left to make it 6-0 (in the light of the Cano signing, Orlando says “don’t give up on me”).

Did you notice that as the Braves run total mounted in the preceding paragraph, the Nats remained stuck at zero? That’s because Ian Anderson was very good through five innings.  He was efficient, working quickly and throwing strikes.  And he must have been reading the comments on Braves Journal.  Many have pointed out that his problem is that he’s a two-pitch pitcher.  Tonight, he occasionally mixed in his curveball to good effect.  For five innings he looked as good as he has all year.  Through three innings, he faced only one over the minimum.  He had thrown only 39 pitches, 27 of which were strikes; indeed, he struck out the side in the third.  The fourth started differently. He had to face the only three big league hitters in their lineup, Bell, Soto, and Cruz. Bell led off with a double off the left field wall, and Soto received Ian’s first walk (discretion might have been the better part of valor on that one).  But with runners on first and second and no outs, Jethro retired the next three batters—strikeout, pop fly, and another strikeout.  He used 29 pitches, but escaped without any runs scoring.  The Nats went down in order in the fifth.  At that point, Ian had thrown 80 pitches.

As we all know, Anderson struggles to go more than five innings, and tied to that, he struggles against hitters the third time through the order.  He faced both issues in the sixth.  The inning started identically to the fourth: leadoff double by Bell, walk to Soto.  After a groundout, he walked Ruiz to load the bases.  As much as the guys in the booth wanted Anderson to get through the 6th, at 100 pitches Snit could not afford to give Anderson any more rope.  McHugh, who is quietly putting together a very good season, got out of it with only one run scoring, on a HBP where the batter didn’t do much to avoid the pitch.

All in all, an encouraging outing for Anderson.  He walked three, but two were to Soto (no shame in that) and the third was when he had thrown 100 pitches. 

Meanwhile, the Braves continued to produce “add-on” runs.  In the 7th, Contreras drove in Duvall who had doubled, and in the ninth Adam hit a long home run to make it 8-1.  Duvall had three hits on the night and really seems to be coming around.  On the other hand, Ozuna went 0-5, including striking out on a pitch that hit him in the ribcage.

Dylan Lee was perfect in the 7th and 8th, with three strikeouts.  Don’t look now, but he has an ERA of 1.23 in 20 innings.  His WHIP is now 0.83, and he already has a bWAR of 0.9.  He looks like a keeper. 

Going to the bottom of the 9th, it was 8-1.  That should have been plenty of Will Woom, so none of y’all were nervous when Hancock came on for the 9th.  But never underestimate Smith’s ability to make it interesting.  He gave up a run on a couple of bloop hits to make it 8-2.  Then with two outs he walked Bell to load the bases for Juan Soto.  On four pitches he walked Soto to make it 8-3 and end his own night.  Snit was forced to use Minter to end this one.  AJ, though, promptly tossed a wild pitch to make it 8-4 and then walked Adrianza to load the bases and bring the tying run to the plate.  Fortunately he ended the drama by striking out Ruiz to end the game.

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Chipwatch:  After all his years working in the game of baseball, you have to wonder how well he understands the game.  In the 4th, the Braves were leading 5-0, but the Nats put runners on 1st and 2nd with nobody out. The count went full to Nelson Cruz.  Chip says “The Nats have big decision to make—do they send the runners?”  In what universe would you have Josh Bell try to steal third base, down by five runs?  Chip suggested that might send the runners to avoid the double play.  It seems clear that the most obvious double play possibility would be when Cruz strikes out and Bell is thrown out easily at third.  Cruz did indeed strike out.  Fortunately for the Nats, they had not followed Chip’s advice; the runners had stayed put.

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As JonathanF noted in yesterday’s recap, the all star break is traditionally a time to take stock of the season so far and look ahead to the second half.

The story of the first half is pretty straightforward—our guys stunk it up through May 31, falling four games below .500 and 10 and a half games behind the Mets.  Since June 1, the Braves have gone 32-10, for the best record in baseball. 

Looking ahead to the second half, I’d suggest they play like the June/July team, not the April/May team.

Can they do that? I’m not predicting a winning percentage over .750 the rest of the way, but I do expect them to be a lot more like the June/July Braves than the April/May version.  This may be he strongest Braves team since the glory days of the nineties.  The rotation is very solid one to five.  The bullpen (other than the Fresh Prince, of course) has been the most effective in the league.  The lineup is deep.  They are among the best defensive teams in the league.  When Duvall is in left and Arcia at second (like tonight’s game), there are no defensive weak links; every position is above average.

It’s going to be a fun second half.  There are still 12 games remaining against the Mets, including nine in early August; I’d love to leave them in the dust. 

Varsity Fried takes the hill in Saturday’s game.  I expect him to put that shaky outing against the Mets behind him and finish the first half* of the season in great shape.

*I know they passed the halfway point a couple of weeks ago, but it’s ok to call the two parts of the season “halves”, kind of like when I divide a piece of cake with my wife into two “halves”.