ATLANTA - The Nationals have looked forward to this series for a while now, even if they would not admit it out loud. The four-game series against the first-place Braves is upon them. But Nationals manager Davey Martinez said his team is repeating the mantra that it cannot get ahead of itself even with only 23 games remaining.
“Trea (Turner) talked about it yesterday - just control today, win today,” Martinez said. “Go 1-0 today and go from there.”
But with the National League East deficit at seven games in the division, is catching the red-hot Braves still a priority? Or are the Nats content with a wild card berth?
“We want to catch the Braves,” Martinez said. “That wild card game is not fun to play in. So we are here to win today. We want to win the division.”
Martinez said he has been a part of the wild card game twice and it is nerve-wracking.
“You lose, you go home,” Martinez said “So all hands and deck. It’s nice just to have a couple of days off and get ready for division series.”
Tonight’s lineup has Michael A. Taylor in right field, Howie Kendrick at first base and Adam Eaton still on the bench. Met at his locker, Eaton did not want to talk about how his right knee was feeling. But his skipper had details on the thought process with his regular right fielder.
“He’s getting better,” Martinez said of Eaton. “He’s still sore. It’s a brutal area to get hit in. It’s going to take some time but he’s getting better.”
Facing off against the left-hander Max Fried tonight, Martinez put Taylor in the lineup batting eighth.
“I looked at the matchups,” Martinez said. “I thought Michael would fare well. Plus you’re talking about Michael being a really good defender as well. Having him out there with Stephen on the mound is kind of nice.”
The skipper said putting Taylor back in center field was not his first choice.
“Victor (Robles) has earned the right to play center field,” Martinez said. “You are looking at a potential Gold Glover, he’s played that well out there. Michael could play pretty much anywhere.”
Kendrick returns to the lineup playing first base against the left-hander. It will be his first start since Aug. 27. Martinez said he loves his veteran in the pinch-hitting role, which has limited his starting opportunities. Plus he wants Kendrick to be healthy and ready to go for the end of September and beyond.
* Martinez said the Nationals have continued working with Roenis Elías to make sure the southpaw throws all his pitches against lefty hitters.
“We talked to him about different things,” Martinez said. “I think as he gets more comfortable doing it, you’ll see him getting better at it. I think he can do it. He’s got three really good pitches: above-average fastball, good curveball and a good changeup. I think the more he uses all his pitches against left-handed hitters, the better he’s going to be.”
Aaron Barrett warmed up against the Mets Wednesday afternoon, but did not enter the game. Martinez said that will change in this series.
“Once I got him up yesterday and sat him down, then I didn’t want to get him back up,” Martinez said. “He’s had a really good year, especially against right-handed hitters. I talked to him about it: ‘You’re here to pitch. You can help us. Just be ready. You earned the right to be here because of your performance.’ “
Sean Doolittle did pitch Wednesday and said to reporters he felt like it was another positive step forward as he seeks to return to form. He allowed no runs on one hit with one walk in the ninth inning.
“Better, better. A definite improvement from the first outing against the Marlins,” Doolittle told reporters. “The velocity was up a little bit. The spin rates were up a little bit. I was pretty happy with how I moved the ball around the zone and worked in some of the off speed stuff. I think it’s definitely a step forward in the right direction.”
Doolittle was not sure how much and when he would be used in this big series.
“I’m not exactly sure,” Doolittle said Wednesday. “Hopefully, I’ll be in the mix in some capacity in Atlanta, especially with the lefties they have in their lineup. That was good for me, too, from a mental standpoint. I finally got Wilson Ramos out. I don’t think I got him out all season. Thanks to Howie. That was a really, really awesome play.
“But that team’s given me a lot of trouble this year. To navigate an inning, put up a zero, mentally that definitely helps. I don’t know what the plan is exactly, but hopefully I’ll be in the mix somewhere down there and start to be able to help.”