Happy 4/20. If Nationals fans seem strangely happy given the state of the team, it might not be just because of the Zimmerman contract or excitement over the arrival of Flash Jordan. Hope the concessions stands are well stocked.
Here's my preview of the Atlanta series, including the line-up, bullpen, and game one starter Derek Lowe.
When the Braves are Up
--Chipper Jones missed a couple games with a bruised thumb that reportedly was bothering him during the Nationals series last week. But he was back yesterday and went 1 for 3 with a walk. Otherwise, he's off to a solid Chipper-esque start, hitting .333 / .419 / .519 through his first 31 trips to the plate.
--The book on rookie CF Jordan Schafer is that he's a good hitter with solid on-base skills and some pop, but that he has a tendency to strike out too much and can be wicked streaky. Well, so far he's striking out in 40% of his plate appearances, check. And while he started out red hot, he abruptly hit a 1 for 22 skid that was snapped with a 3-for-5 day yesterday. Hopefully that was a momentary departure from an ongoing slump and not the beginning of another hot streak.
--Brian McCann abused the Nationals last week, but like Schafer has slumped since, going 0 for his last 13. Reportedly he's having blurry vision in his left eye, and he's likely to miss at least the first game of the series, maybe more. He'll be replaced by David Ross, a 32-year-old righty who put up some big HR numbers in the Great American Small Park. He's an out machine who lost his last starting gig in 2007 with a putrid .271 OBP.
--Jeff Francoeur is off to a decent start, hitting .333 / .347 / .521 through the first two weeks. Still, he's taken only one walk on the year. Look for him to hit an extended skid starting pretty soon.
--Shortstop Yunel Escobar has been out for a few days with an abdominal strain. When he was playing, he was off to a hot start, posting a .402 wOBA over his first 38 PA. If he doesn't play, it'll be utility-man Omar Infante, who isn't particularly good or terrible.
--Veteran left-fielder Garret Anderson missed the Nationals series with a calf injury. One could argue that his poor numbers are a result of his bad fortune missing the Scats' pitchers, but that would be catty. He's always been a hacker, but continuing a long-term trend he's showing less and less power. Singles hitters who don't walk while playing below average defense aren't very useful. Step right up Frank Wren! Get your left-fielders right here! We've got a bunch, and they're very punctual!
--Overrated second-baseman Kelly Johnson went 6 for 10 with 2 doubles and a homer against the Nationals. Against non-Nationals pitching, he's got a miserable .222 OBP and .125 BA. He's also 0 for 1 in stolen base attempts and should have gotten a strict red light on the base paths years ago.
--Casey Kotchman has been his usual slappy self so far this season. He's got 3 XBH in 46 PA so far this year. Just not really the production you want from first base. Step right up Frank Wren! Get your first-basemen right here! We've got a bunch, and they're very punctual!
On the Mound
Derek Lowe has stepped right into the Tim Hudson role, pounding the zone with sinkers and eating up innings. He's got his usual 60+% groundball rate going and looks as strong as ever at age 36. We saw him in the last series on another rainy night in Atlanta, and we actually managed one run off of him in 3 innings. But Lowe held us to a .130 / .161 / .204 line last year.
--Lefty closer Mike Gonzalez has an ugly 7.20 ERA, but he's ok. He's struck out 8 of the first 24 hitters he's seen this year and been victimized by a small sample-size .496 BABIP.
--Rafael Soriano has been impressive since returning from elbow surgery last season, throwing 5 shutout innings to start the year.
--The drop-off after those two is pretty steep to guys like Pete Moylan. The Atlanta bullpen remains a vulnerability.
Season record: 8-3
Lowe dominates. Zimmermann does well enough in 5-6 innings max. Atlanta rolls, 5-0.