The Atlanta Braves sent a message this weekend: Don't forget about us.
We all know the Washington Nationals were prohibitive favorites to win the NL East -- 38 of 43 ESPN.com experts picked them -- and only five picked the Braves. I think the Braves' impressive sweep over the Nationals this weekend, culminating in Sunday's 9-0 shutout, did more to showcase the talents of the Braves than to expose any particular weaknesses in the Nationals.
"We know the Nationals are supposed to be pretty good, so it was good to make a statement early," Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons said after the club won its ninth game in a row. "Let them know we're going to be tough to beat."
Nationals manager Davey Johnson took the more experienced response of a manager who knows pennants aren't won in April: "We should have won the first one. We were right there on the second. We just got waffled today. I don't put too much stock in it."
The most impressive thing about the Braves is -- like the Nationals -- they're a team constructed not just for 2013 but for the long haul. What's really impressive is how the Braves have built this team. Astute draft picks, player development, great trades, obscure pickups and, rarely, an impact free-agent signing.
Unlike the Nationals, who benefited from years of losing records that resulted in high draft picks (especially lucky enough to own the No. 1 overall pick the years Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were in the draft), the Braves developed young talent without the benefit of all those high picks. In fact, in the past 20 years, they've had just two picks in the top 15 -- Mike Minor, No. 7 overall in 2009, and Jason Heyward, No. 14 overall in 2007. Minor was a polished college left-hander who some felt the Braves overdrafted; Heyward was a local high school kid who fell to 14th in part because he was pitched around so much as a senior that he had just 52 at-bats.
Credit the Braves scouting staff for not missing those guys. Roy Clark, the scouting director for the Braves when they drafted Heyward and Minor, is now the assistant general manager to Mike Rizzo in Washington. But beyond those first-rounders, the Braves have found talent later in the draft:
Simmons was a second-round pick out of Western Oklahoma State Junior College in 2010 and his meteoric rise to reach the majors was remarkable, considering few teams believed in his bat and some even projected him as a pitcher.
Closer Craig Kimbrel was a third-rounder in 2008, another junior college pick.
Starter Kris Medlen was a 10th-rounder, yet another junior college pick, and like Kimbrel is a short right-hander (both are under 6 feet tall).
First baseman Freddie Freeman, currently on the disabled list, was a second-round pick in 2007, and like Heyward reached the majors at age 20.
Brandon Beachy, also on the DL after last year's Tommy John surgery, was primarly a third baseman at Indiana Wesleyan and went undrafted. Braves scout Gene Kerns saw him pitching in relief in a college summer league and recommended the team sign him.
And then there's the quickly growing legend of Evan Gattis, who less than three years ago was a 23-year-old playing for the University of Texas-Permian Basin after having quit baseball for five years. The Braves drafted him in the 23rd round, and now he's a 26-year-old rookie catcher filling in for the injured Brian McCann, batting cleanup and hitting .324/.385/.724. Gattis, who knocked in two runs in Sunday's win, has 10 RBIs and four home runs in nine games this season.
All that young talent means the Braves had an Opening Day payroll just under $90 million -- 16th-highest in the majors and less than half of the Yankees and Dodgers.
Then, of course, there are the Upton brothers. Instead of re-signing speedster Michael Bourn, the Braves signed the younger B.J. Upton to add more power to the offense. Then came the blockbuster deal to acquire Justin Upton. All he's done is club seven homers -- his seventh came on Sunday off a Gio Gonzalez 2-2 curveball that Upton hit out to right-center.
Sunday's pitching star was veteran lefty Paul Maholm, another astute Braves pickup, acquired last summer from the Cubs for Arodys Vizcaino, a youngster who missed all of 2012 because of Tommy John surgery. Maholm is a cost-effective mid-rotation starter making $6.5 million this year, the kind of pitcher who is underrated because his stuff isn't overpowering. He'd had a good year with the Pirates in 2011 and was pitching well for the Cubs. He's added a slow curve to his repertoire this year and hasn't allowed a run in three starts.
Maholm will give up a run eventually and the Braves' winning streak will end soon. Right now they're playing the best of any team in baseball, a fun team to watch that does everything -- play defense, pitch, hit for power and then hand the ball to Kimbrel. And the scary thing: B.J. Upton is just finally starting to hit -- he had three on Sunday to raise his average to .163 -- and Heyward is hitting .103 with just two extra-base hits.
Consider the message received.
REST OF THE WEEKEND
1. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox. Took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Sunday against the Rays, finishing with 11 K's over eight scoreless frames in Boston's 5-0 win. Buchholz had a dominant spring training and it's carried over into April as he's 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA.
2. Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners. Outpitched Yu Darvish in a 3-1 Seattle victory on Friday in a matchup that was certainly huge in Japan. Through three starts Iwakuma is 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA, .129 average allowed and 16/1 SO/BB ratio.
3. Matt Harvey, Mets. Can't avoid another pitcher, but Harvey was dominant once again on Saturday against the Twins, pitching through a start-time temperature of 35 degrees. In three starts he's 3-0 with two runs allowed and six hits in 22 innings.
Clutch performance of the weekend
Albert Pujols, Angels. Trailing the Astros 4-1 in the eighth inning on Saturday, and staring at an embarrassing 2-9 start, the Angels rallied for two in the eighth and then Pujols doubled home Luis Jimenez and Mike Trout with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. A win on Sunday pushed the Angels to 4-8; not good, but not yet a complete disaster.
Braves 6, Nationals 4, 10 innings (Friday). The Nationals led 4-0 after two innings and starter Ross Detwiler departed after seven innings with a 4-1 lead. But the Nationals bullpen struggled yet again, the Braves tied it in the ninth off Drew Storen, and then backup infielder Ramiro Pena hit a two-run homer off Craig Stammen in the 10th.
Hitter on the rise: Evan Gattis, Braves.
What does it say about the confidence Fredi Gonzalez has in Gattis to hit him cleanup after just a few games in the majors? If Gattis is this good, it's going to create a good kind of problem when McCann and Freeman return from the DL. What do you do with him? He's catching now and started one game at first, but you can't really hide him anywhere else.
Pitcher on the rise: Jose Fernandez, Marlins
The 20-year-old rookie had his second straight solid outing, with six scoreless innings against the Phillies on Saturday. That's two starts and one run allowed, although he hasn't earned the W yet.
Move I can't understand
Oh, Dusty Baker, how we love to analyze your moves. On Sunday, the Reds led the Pirates 6-4 entering the bottom of the eighth (and had led 5-0 entering the bottom of the seventh). Aroldis Chapman hadn't pitched in ... well, a week. Neither had setup man Jonathan Broxton, who came in and promptly gave up a walk and home run to Michael McKenry. And then after a groundout, another walk. But it wasn't a save situation so Chapman remained in the bullpen. Starling Marte then homered. Broxton then gave up a walk (to pitcher Jonathan Sanchez) and a single. And was still in there to give up a sac fly. (Baker blamed rust for Broxton's stuggles. OK.) Chapman was finally summoned from the pen. So Baker managed to go an entire week without getting Chapman into a meaningful situation. Meanwhile, Johnny Cueto left Saturday's game with right triceps pain and Shin-Soo Choo continues to hit but struggled defensively in center field.
Team on the rise: Pirates
The Pirates entered the weekend hitting .153 and had scored 21 runs in nine game. They swept the Reds to improve to 6-6, one game behind St. Louis in the NL Central.
Team on the fall: Twins
The Twins have lost five in a row and got snowed out on Sunday, which maybe was a good thing. Rookie center field Aaron Hicks may find a trip to Triple-A in his future, as after a big spring training he looks completely overmatched, hitting 3-for-43 (.047) with 20 strikeouts. And yet Ron Gardenhire continues to hit him leadoff.