ATLANTA -- At the All-Star break, the Nationals led the Braves by four games in the National League East. Now, more than a month later, the Braves still trailed the Nationals by four games entering Sunday.
Atlanta missed an opportunity to cut into Washington's lead Saturday, when the Mets beat the Nationals, 2-0, but the Dodgers knocked off the Braves, 6-2. It was the 17th time since the All-Star break that the Nationals and Braves games had the same result, leaving the standings unchanged.
The Braves will get a chance to make up ground when they go to Washington for a three-game series beginning Monday. With just six games between the two teams left this season, right-hander Tim Hudson said the head-to-head matchups become more important.
"Those six games are the most important ones of the year in my eyes," Hudson said. "They're the team we need to beat; they're the team we've been chasing most all of the year. It's a big series."
Entering Sunday, the Braves were the only team in the Major Leagues to not gain or lose any ground in their division race since the All-Star break. No matter what happens in the Braves' series finale against the Dodgers, they'll have their best chance to close the gap when they arrive in Washington.
"When you play the first-place team, that is where you're going to make the ground up," first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "We're four games back. Unfortunately we lost on [Saturday], we could have gained a game. But that's just how it goes. You're not going to win every game."
Smoltz praises Medlen's ascent to Braves' rotation
ATLANTA -- Count John Smoltz among those who have admired what Kris Medlen has accomplished after spending the first four months of this season patiently awaiting the chance to join the Braves' rotation.
"He goes down to the Minors to get innings and then comes back and goes to the bullpen," Smoltz said. "Most guys don't survive that mentally. I don't know what happened inside. He's handled, done and said all of the right things. That's a tribute to him. People have no idea how hard that is to prepare for something and then to go completely opposite."
When the Braves were looking to improve their rotation near the end of May, they took Medlen out of their bullpen and sent him to Triple-A Gwinnett to spend a little more than two weeks preparing to be a starter. But when Medlen was brought back to the Majors in mid-June, his presence was more valuable in the bullpen.
Medlen finally gained his wish to join the rotation on July 31. Over the three weeks that have followed, he has essentially killed any thoughts of him moving back to the bullpen. The versatile right-hander has posted a 1.05 ERA and limited opponents to a .245 on-base percentage in his first four starts. He tossed a five-hit shutout against the Padres on Thursday night.
The Braves have won each of the past 15 games Medlen has started dating to his breakout 2010 season that was halted by the need to undergo Tommy John surgery.
The only other time the Braves have won this many games started by one pitcher was in 1996, when Smoltz constructed an incredible stretch of 15 straight games that vaulted him toward the 1996 National League Cy Young Award.
When Medlen opposes the Nationals on Wednesday night, the Braves will be in position to win 16 consecutive games started by one pitcher for the first time in franchise history.
"When you're fearless and you've got pretty good stuff, that's a great combination," Smoltz said of Medlen. "I think that's what everybody loves to see, his energy. Having energy and being fearless are great. But he's also got the stuff. He really thinks that he's supposed to be there and be able to throw those pitches. I couldn't be happier for anybody. I hope he wins the next 15 and shatters everything."
Medlen has laughed when told about the fact that he now shares this record with Smoltz.
Smoltz went 14-0 with a 1.91 ERA and limited opponents to a .173 batting average during his 15-start stretch. Medlen has compiled a 3.28 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .248 against him during his streak.
Tosca takes issue with Astros' decisions
ATLANTA -- Carlos Tosca has been rather reserved and a man of few words since becoming the Braves' bench coach at the start of the 2011 season. But before Sunday afternoon's game against the Dodgers, he made it known that he did not agree with the timing of the Astros' decision to dismiss manager Brad Mills, hitting coach Mike Barnett and first-base coach Bobby Meacham.
Mills, Barnett and Meacham were relieved of their duties after the Astros lost to the D-backs on Saturday night and fell to a Major League-worst 39-82. The Astros were just one game under .500 as late as May 25. But a disappointing June combined with a flurry of trades led first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow to make these changes aimed toward building for the future.
Mills went 171-274 in 445 games as manager. He was in the final year of his contract.
Luhnow was part of the Cardinals' front office before being hired by the Astros this past winter. Many within the baseball industry spent the past couple of months expecting him to hand pick his own manager before the start of the 2013 season. Mills was hired by former Astros general manager Ed Wade before the start of the 2010 season.
Tosca, who employed Barnett as a hitting coach during his days as Toronto's manager, understood this line of thinking. But he felt this is a decision that should have been made before the start of this season or after its conclusion.
"I can certainly see from a philosophical standpoint, if he doesn't agree with that, that's fine," Tosca said. "Do it then or do it at the end of the year. To do it in August, come on. Those are hard-working people. Those are good baseball people."