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3 to Watch: The 'Full-court press' edition

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

Among some people in the Braves organization, there's a thought that all they need to do this month is stay close in the National League East race.

The idea is that if the young Nationals get to September with a one- or two-game lead, the more-experienced Braves may be able to fly right past them.

The Braves players aren't sure the theory is sound. They're not counting on the Nationals to crumble, once they realize they're in a pennant race.

But they also know that there's only one way to find out:

Keep winning. Stay close.

"We're playing full-court press," Michael Bourn said. "Rick Pitino, old-school style."

They've had to. Over their last 17 games going into Sunday night, the Braves were 13-4.

They began that 17-game stretch 4 1/2 games behind the Nationals. They ended it 4 1/2 games behind the Nationals, who had an eight-game winning streak snapped on Sunday afternoon against the Diamondbacks. And sure enough, when the Nationals finally lost, the Braves lost, too, Sunday night against the Mets, so they begin this week 4 1/2 games behind the Nats.

The Braves and Nationals meet next week in Washington, for three of their six remaining head-to-head games. The Braves lead into that series with seven home games against the Padres and Dodgers, while the Nationals play three games in San Francisco and three at home against the Mets.

The Braves would love to come to Washington with maybe two games separating the two teams atop the NL East. But they've come to respect the Nationals to the point that they believe the race will go to the end of September.

"I don't foresee them going anywhere," Chipper Jones said. "Their starting staff is too strong, and they have dominant bullpen guys, guys who play their roles well.

"Davey [Johnson] has done a great job, and their everyday guys, they've got a bunch of guys who want it. A kid like [Bryce] Harper is in a very good situation, being brought up in the game the right way. I've been really impressed by them."

The Braves have what amounts to a 4 1/2-game lead in the wild-card race (they hold the first of two wild-card spots, with a 4 1/2-game lead over the two teams that rank third). But with the new playoff system that forces wild-card teams into a one-game playoff, while ushering division winners directly into the Division Series, the Braves aren't talking wild card.

"Our eyes are on the prize," Bourn said.

With a full-court press.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. The Nationals-Giants series features Ryan Vogelsong (starting Monday), who leads the National League ERA race. It features Jordan Zimmermann (starting Tuesday), who is second behind Vogelsong. It features Gio Gonzalez (starting Monday), whose .209 batting average against is the lowest among all NL starters. It features Madison Bumgarner (starting Tuesday), who has the exact same ERA as Cole Hamels, who just signed for $144 million. But if you're looking for star power, you have to look at Stephen Strasburg vs. Tim Lincecum, in Nationals at Giants, Wednesday afternoon (3:45 ET) at AT&T Park. Lincecum's ERA of 5.35 is easily the highest of anyone starting in the series, and ranks 54th among the 55 full-time NL starting pitchers (Randy Wolf, at 5.46, is the only one worse). But Lincecum also has a 2.72 ERA in his last starts. And he's Tim Lincecum. He's facing Stephen Strasburg. I'm watching.

2. If you look up Roberto Hernandez, you find out that he once won 19 games in a season . . . and lost 15 games last year. You'll find that he's scheduled to make his 151st big-league start in Indians at Angels, Wednesday night (10:05 ET) at Angel Stadium. And you may find yourself scratching your head, asking who in the heck he is and why you don't remember him. Here's why: In all those other starts, including three last year against the Angels in which he pitched 20 2/3 innings and allowed just two earned runs, he was calling himself Fausto Carmona.

3. The Braves have had to remake their rotation, but they've done so successfully, signing Ben Sheets as a comeback free agent, trading for Paul Maholm (after getting turned down by Ryan Dempster) and turning Kris Medlen into a starter. Medlen gets the least attention, but he has a 1.62 ERA since moving to the rotation, and the Braves have won all three of his starts. He starts again in Padres at Braves, Thursday night (7:10 ET) at Turner Field. It's a key game for him, because the Braves have Tommy Hanson just about ready to return from the disabled list, and they need to figure out whether Hanson replaces Medlen, or if they go to a six-man rotation. It's an important start for the team, too. The Braves look at the Padres series as a possible chance to make up ground, but the Padres have won seven of nine, including two of three over the weekend in Pittsburgh. Jason Marquis, who faces Medlen on Thursday, threw a two-hit shutout Saturday against the Pirates.


 
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