David Huzzard: In battle for NL East, Braves-Nats head-to-head battles are critical

The National League East is going to come down to the Braves and Nationals, and it could be even closer than the four games that separated them in 2012. The Nats have the advantage in starting pitching, while the Braves have a slight advantage on offense and in the bullpen, with the defenses being fairly even.

The Braves are going to score a lot of runs, but with Paul Maholm, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran at the back of their rotation, they are going to need all the runs they can get to win ballgames. The Nats, on the other hand, aren’t going to score as many runs but with a rotation that includes Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler, they also won’t need as many. The difference in who wins the division is going to come down to the 18 precious head-to-head match-ups these two teams play.

The first of these games happens this weekend at Nationals Park, and while some baseball pundits would have you believe April wins don’t matter, they are worth the same in the standings as any win in August and September. Divisions can’t be won in April, but they can certainly be lost, and that makes these first three of these 18 games against the Braves very important. It doesn’t matter when they happen, these games are going to decide this division. Last season, the Nats held a 10-8 edge over the Braves and went into the final series of the season with a three-game division lead, clinching the NL East with two games left in the season.

This year, the NL East looks to be even closer and, for the first time since 2001, a 100-win team could fail to win its division. That is how good these two rosters are and why this weekend’s match-up is of the utmost importance. Any advantage, any edge one of these two teams gets on the other could decide the division, and they have 18 chances during the course of the 2013 season to do the damage themselves.

Since the Nats moved to town in 2005, they have played the Braves tough with an overall record of 73-72. In many of those seasons, the Nats were among the worst teams in baseball and it made little sense for them to play the Braves so close. Now both teams have near even odds to win the NL East and a 9-9 head-to-head record would not be the least bit surprising. Any advantage one of the teams can gain in head-to-head games is important. It is certainly better than getting down to the wire needing to pick up a game in the last week of the season and hoping the Cubs, Brewers or Phillies will help the Nationals out.

The head-to-head match-ups between the top two teams in any division are important, but the NL East looks to be the closest of all. The Braves’ biggest weaknesses in 2012 were the play of their shortstops, who hit a combined .233/.286/.304, and Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens at the back of their rotation. Combining for a 5.00 ERA in 223 innings pitched. Stepping in at shortstop is Andrelton Simmons, who hit .289/.335/.416 in 49 games in 2012 and .299/.352/.397 over two seasons in the minors. The back of the Braves rotation is now being rounded out by top pitching prospect Teheran, who has yet to put it together in the majors, but in five seasons in the minors has a 3.50 ERA, 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.7 walks per nine innings. Also a benefit to the Braves rotation will be more innings from Kris Medlen and the expected June return from Tommy John surgery of Brandon Beachy.

This past offseason, the Braves filled the gaps left in their roster by the retiring Chipper Jones, the free agent Michael Bourn and the traded Martin Prado with the Upton brothers and Chris Johnson. Those moves made the 2013 Braves as good as the 2012 Braves. The increased playing time of Simmons, Medlen and Teheran is what makes them better, and their being better makes the head-to-head math-ups with the Nats all that more important. It all starts this weekend, and it is the Nats’ first chance to show they are still the class of the NL East.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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