From left, Atlanta Braves Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton congratulate each other after finishing a three-game sweep of the Nationals on Sunday. The Braves, who are 11-1 and off to their best start since 1994, hold a four-game lead on the Nationals in the NL East standings.
ATLANTA — What a difference a year has made for the Braves, who lead the majors with an 11-1 record and are riding a nine-game winning streak.
Atlanta was swept in Washington during their first series with the Nationals last year and could never catch up in the National League East despite a 94-win season.
Now Washington, which trails the Braves by four games just two weeks into April, will have to do the chasing in 2013.
Atlanta went into the season with a new and improved offense, but it’s more a formula from the Braves’ run of excellence in the 1990s and early 2000s that has them off to their best start since going 13-1 in 1994.
Despite the early heroics of Justin Upton and the surprising Evan Gattis at the plate, pitching, pitching and more pitching has been the key to the fast start.
The Braves lead the majors with a 1.81 ERA after cooling off Washington’s previously hot bats in impressive fashion during the three-game weekend sweep.
The Nationals had just 10 hits and one run over the final 26 innings of the series, with Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm turning in masterful starts for Atlanta in the final two games.
The bullpen has been the best in baseball, with Craig Kimbrel going 6-for-6 in save opportunities and relievers not allowing a single inherited runner to score. But it is the work of the starting rotation that has turned heads.
Most thought the Braves didn’t have the starters to match Washington or other top rotations. But that certainly hasn’t been the case so far.
Maholm is 3-0 and hasn’t allowed a run over 20 1/3 innings, giving up just 11 hits.
Mike Minor is 2-0 with a 0.69 ERA, Hudson is 2-0 with a 2.50 ERA that is just the fourth best among the five starters.
Can the starters keep it up? That is probably asking too much. But they may not need to keep pitching this well. The Braves’ offense should get even better.
Atlanta is off to its fast start with Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann on the disabled list and B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward not hitting.
The Nationals come to Atlanta for a four-game series at the end of the month. It’s still very early, but the Braves won’t be the ones trying to play catch-up this time.
STATEMENT MAKERS: “It was good to make a statement,” said Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who had a three-run homer as the Braves beat the Nationals 9-0 on Sunday to complete a sweep. “We know the Nationals are going to be pretty good.”
Atlanta first baseman Chris Johnson (four hits) was involved in two rallies and Justin Upton also went deep in the third as the Braves (11-1) won their ninth game in a row with a 12-hit attack.
Atlanta has won its first four series of the year and is off to its best start since going 13-1 in 1994. But don’t bring up the Detroit start of 35-5 in 1984 with the red-hot Braves.
“It is early,” Gonzalez said. “It is still better than being 1-11. We still have (16) games against” Washington.
Maholm improved to 3-0 as the Braves won before a subdued crowd of 39,389.
“We made some nice plays behind him. He was able to keep pounding the strike zone,” Gonzalez said of Maholm.
Leadoff hitter B.J. Upton had three hits, including two doubles, and scored twice. He entered the game with an average of .105 and is now up to .163 as his team heads home to begin a series today with the Kansas City Royals.
Upton said, “We are playing good baseball. Overall, man, a pretty good trip.”
STRONG BULLPEN: The Atlanta Braves’ bullpen — already considered one of the best in baseball — led the majors in ERA through the first nine games. But that didn’t stop general manager Frank Wren from adding another arm to the mix.
The Braves obtained veteran right-hander Luis Ayala from Baltimore in exchange for pitching prospect Chris Jones on Wednesday and the 35-year-old joined the team Friday in Washington for the first of the three-game series against the Nationals.
He came on in the seventh and retired all three batters he faced Friday in the 6-4 Atlanta win.
Ayala will definitely come in handy if Jonny Venters, on the disabled list with a strained elbow, isn’t able to return by the end of May or early June. But Wren said he had been eying Ayala since spring training.
“You look to add pieces that can give you more depth in your bullpen,” Wren said. “This is one of those pieces. In watching him this spring, we thought he could help us.”
Ayala had a 2.40 ERA in 118 appearances the past two seasons, pitching for the New York Yankees in 2011 and the Orioles last year. He missed the 2010 season because of Tommy John elbow surgery.
Despite being without Venters, the Braves bullpen hadn’t allowed an inherited runner to score through the first nine games and had a 1.65 ERA to go with a 2-0 record and four saves in as many opportunities.
Kimbrel, who had a 1.01 ERA and struck out half the batters he faced in 2012, hadn’t been quite as dominant despite his perfect record in saves, allowing two walks and a hit over four innings. But the Braves’ bullpen appears to be even deeper than a year ago with the addition of Jordan Walden and now Ayala.
The continued development of Luis Avilan has also been a key. He gives the Braves a second lefty even with Venters sidelined. Left-hander Eric O’Flaherty sets up Kimbrel in the eighth inning, with right-hander Walden the main pitcher in the seventh.
O’Flaherty had allowed a run two of his five appearances, but he posted a 0.98 ERA over 78 appearances in 2011 and had a 1.73 ERA in 64 games last year.
Venters, who pitched in 230 games the past three seasons, was shut down for four weeks after receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection April 2 and will should be able to resume a throwing program after that. An MRI of his elbow was inconclusive.