x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

MLB: It's a Braves new world for Atlanta

Washington Nationals get all the publicity but Atlanta are the leaders right now, writes Gregg Patton

Atlanta Braves’ Evan Gattis hits a two-run home run against the Washington Nationals.
Atlanta Braves’ Evan Gattis hits a two-run home run against the Washington Nationals.

The Washington Nationals have two of baseball's most popular young stars in Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, and the support of many prognosticators as the favourite to win this year's World Series.

The Atlanta Braves have the better record. It is early, of course, but the Braves do not seem impressed by the high regard in which the Nationals are held. Atlanta won the first series between their National League East rivals over the weekend and, at 10-1, the Braves are off to the fastest start of any team in baseball.

They also have one of the best feel-good stories of the young season in catcher Evan Gattis, 26, who had given up on baseball after high school and began working odd jobs, including a stint as a janitor.

Eventually, he made his way back to the sport, through junior college and then three years in the Braves' minor-league system. He made this year's big-league team only because the No 1 catcher Brian McCann is injured. Gattis hit a home run in his second at-bat, then kept on hitting.

"It's been a dream come true … amazing … everything I wanted it to be," Gattis told MLB.com, of his first days in Major League Baseball. "I'm still pinching myself."

On Saturday, he hit his fourth home run of the young season, a two-run game-winner off Strasburg. But it is something other than fairy tales that usually do the trick in Atlanta.

The Braves have had a remarkable ability to find and develop young pitchers, the foundation of the franchise's historic success.

Nothing has changed.

While Tim Hudson, 36, and Pete Maholm, 30, came from other organisations and provide veteran stability to the rotation, the team will need its home-grown starters - Kris Medlen, 27, Mike Minor, 25, and Julio Teheran, 22 - to make a championship run.

Not bad, so far. Through 11 games, the five starters had posted an impressive 2.29 earned-run average.

Minor and Teheran are power pitchers who aim for strikeouts, and Medlen a control artist who gets outs by moving the ball up and down, in and out.

After winning his second game, Medlen said, "I don't play fantasy baseball. I wouldn't be on my own team if I did, and I don't care. We won, so we're good."

It helps, also, that Atlanta has the most efficient closer in the game.

Craig Kimbrel is proving his value again, saving six games in his first six opportunities without allowing a run. The only concern, so far, was that four of the top six hitters in the order were hitting .206 and under.

"We aren't hitting on all cylinders right now," Fredi Gonzalez, the manager, groused before the Washington series. If they do, the Nationals and the rest of the National League could be in trouble.


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