April 2009

The old Gonzo is back

Watching Mike Gonzalez record three strikeouts against the heart of the Cardinals lineup on Tuesday night brought back memories of  the pure dominance he displayed on consecutive August nights three years ago at Turner Field. 

While notching a pair of perfect innings for the Pirates those evenings, he collected five strikeouts.  His final three strikeouts came during an 11-pitch span against Adam LaRoche, Matt Diaz and Marcus Giles. 

Unfortunately after throwing another perfect inning in Houston the following day, Gonzalez began experiencing elbow soreness that would prevent him from proving dominant again until now.

On the way to notching Tuesday’s save, Gonazalez needed just 15 pitches to record consecutive strikeouts of Colby Rasmus, Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick.  His fastball is once again resting around 94 mph and his breaking pitches are consistently sharp.

“That’s the old Gonzalez from Pittsburgh that I remember,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said. “He was outstanding.”

Always confident and upbeat, Gonzalez seemed to truly regain his swagger when he gained a 3-2 count by getting  Pujols to look at consecutive fastballs.  This brought the crowd to its feet and led the left-handed closer to exagerate his pre-delivery sway before unleashing a slider that the St. Louis monster simply watched. 

In the seven career at-bats Pujols has registered against Gonzalez, he’s recorded one hit and struck out three times.  When asked about this success, the left-handed closer said that guys like Chipper Jones and Pujols bring out the best in him.

Look Jones is one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen and it’s been a pleasure to have had the opportunity to cover him over the course of the past nine seasons.  But it still makes you pause when anybody is placed in the same category of King Albert. 

Still somehow the Braves have managed to limit Pujols to one hit in eight at-bats during the first two games of this series.  

“We try hard,” Cox said. “He’s going to be one of the greatest players in the game’s history.  There’s nothing he can’t do.”

When Gonzalez displayed limited velocity during Spring Training, he said he would be fine once the bright lights were shining on him during the regular season.  While wanting to believe him, I heard him say some of the same things just two years ago, when he eventually had to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Doubts about Gonzalez grew when he allowed four earned runs in his first five innings this season.  But since surrendering a two-run, eighth-inning homer to Nate McLouth on April 17, he’s struck out nine of the 13 batters that he faced.

After surrendering that homer to McLouth, Gonzalez sat motionless at his locker, simply staring forward.  A little more than a week later, he finds himself confidently serving as the anchor for a much-improved Braves bullpen.

Change of emotions
:  As 9:30 p.m. ET approached last night, the Braves were seemingly destined for another frustrating evening.  But Peter Moylan, who had issued a costly walk in Tuesday’s loss, pitched a perfect eighth inning and Matt Diaz produced the clutch hit the offense has too often lacked over the course of its two-week slumber, during which they’ve scored two runs or less in eight of 12 games.

From afar, there was also reason to worry about the fact that Brian McCann was hitless in three at-bats for Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach in a Minor League rehab assignment.  But   after writing my recap of what had occurred in Atlanta, McCann called to say that his vision was better than it had been since his left eye had started to bother him.

With a -.50 contact lens in his left eye and a -.25 lens in his right eye, McCann will make one more rehab appearance for Myrtle Beach and then return to Atlanta.  He believes he’ll be fine by the time he is eligible to come off the disabled list on May 8.

While it was nice to see Jo-Jo Reyes pitch so effectively on Tuesday night, the evening’s real feel-good moment occurred when McCann revealed that he was encouraged about his improved vision. 

As time progressed and doctors weren’t able to pinpoint the reason for his left eye ailment, you couldn’t help but worry about the possibility that he might be dealing with something that would at least hamper him throughout what appears to be a very bright future.

McCann is great baseball player and an even better person.  Let’s hope he provides another encouraging call tonight.

Hampton returns Friday:  It’s going to be interesting to see how Mike Hampton is received when he returns to Turner Field on Friday night to pitch against Derek Lowe and the Braves.  What do you think?  Will the crowd boo the injury-plagued hurler, who was on the disabled list throughout most of final four years in Atlanta?

Or will he just receive an apathetic welcome from a fan base that began to forget him as his injury woes mounted from 2005-2008?

Follow me on Twitter @mlbbravesscribe 

Waiting on updates from McCann and Glavine

Regardless of how Jair Jurrjens fares against Albert Pujols and the Cardinals, this should be an interesting day for the Braves.  We should learn more about Brian McCann’s condition and Tom Glavine may provide some information about his future.

McCann was scheduled to visit Dr. Alan Kozarsky this morning to gain more clarity about why he’s been experiencing blurred vision in his left eye since the season started.  Hopefully, the remedy will prove to be as simple as once again undergoing Lasik surgery.

It’s understandable that his vision could have changed since he initially underwent this procedure at the age of 23 at the end of the 2007 season.  But while admitting I can’t spell ophthamology without Google’s assistance, I still have to wonder what has caused the dry sensation he’s complained about.

While McCann is in the early stages of a career that could one day be preceded by the words “Hall of Fame”, Glavine is simply hoping for the opportunity to enhance the numbers that will be linked to him when he’s immortalized in Cooperstown. 

Tomorrow will mark the two-week mark since Glavine asked for two more weeks to evaluate the status of of his troublesome left shoulder.  If he hasn’t realized some improvement this week, he’s not interested in waiting around another couple of weeks before resuming  preparations.  This would essentially take him back to the point he was when he arrived at Spring Training in early March and set up the likeliehood that he wouldn’t be ready to make his first start until some time in June.  

Thus within the next two days, we can expect to  hear him say that he’s going to begin another Minor League rehab within the next week or that he’s ready to put an end to his storied career that has included 305 wins. 

Even before Glavine found some success during Spring Training, there was reason to believe there should be fewer concerns about him than Kenshin Kawakami.  This was based solely on the fact that he’s spent the past 20-plus years learning exactly what it takes to retire Major League hitters.

The 7.06 ERA that Kawakami has notched in four starts isn’t nearly as concerning as the fact that he’s allowed at least one homer during each of his outings.  This development hasn’t exactly been surprising.  During the early days of camp, it was apparent that he has a tendency to live up in the zone with far too many pitches. 

That’s a recipe for disaster while facing hitters that physically stronger than the ones that served as the opposition during his successful days in Japan.

With this being said, Kawakami has the potential to be a successful fourth or fifth starter in the Majors.  The first homer he surrendered to Jay Bruce on Sunday came courtesy of a mistake he made in a situation when he should have issued a walk.  The opposite-field shot snuck inside the left field foul pole. 

From there it seemed like Kawakami allowed his emotions to get the best of him.  He could have easily escaped the fifth inning unscathed.  But as the adversity built with an intereference call on a potential double-play grounder and an infield single, he began to throw more high strikes, much to the delight of Joey Votto and Bruce, who has now hit .609 with four homers in six career games against the Braves.

Still regardless of what occurs with Glavine or Kawakami during the next few weeks and months, the Braves rotation is shaping up nicely for the final months of the season.  

While regaining his aggressive approach during his past two outings, Jurrjens has enhanced the strength of a rotation that has been solidly anchored by Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez.  And of course, it won’t be long before we start to see Bobby Cox sending Tommy Hanson to the mound every five days.

Through his first four starts for Triple-A Gwinnett, Hanson is 0-3 with a 2.18 ERA.   He has allowed one earned run or fewer in three of those outings and opponents are hitting just .205 against him. 

It was encouraging to see Hanson complete six innings with 95 pitches against Charlotte on Friday night.  During his two previous outings, he had reached the 95-pitch mark before completing five innings and was removed to preserve the arm strength that could prove to be so benefiical in Atlanta during the season’s final months.

Kelly’s inconsistencies:  During the first eight games of the season, Kelly Johnson hit .333 with a .412 on-base percentage.  But in the past 10 games, the current leadoff hitter has batted .111 with a .220 on-base percentage. 

This better explains why the Braves have scored two runs or fewer in six of their past 10 games.  It hasn’t helped that Chipper Jones missed three of those games or that McCann’s bat has essentially been absent since the end of the season’s four game. 

But Johnson’s inability to serve as a catalyst in the leadoff spot during the past 10 games, has certainly played a factor. 

With McCann absent,  Johnson and Yunel Escobar have to find a way to consistently provide Jones with run-producing opportunities.  Casey  Kotchman has spent the past three games in the cleanup spot and he’s still on pace to go homerless this year.

During the just-completed nine-game road trip, the Braves received a .135 (5-for-37) batting average, .220 on-base percentage and .162 slugging percentage from the batters hitting in the leadoff spot.  Those players batting in the ninth spot of the order hit .167 with a .333 OBP and .208 SLG.  

Owings is no Pujols

Before today’s game an unnamed Braves player was asked to provide a scouting report on Red starter Micah Owings.  In response, he simply replied, “he can hit.” 

Well the big right-hander from Gainesville, Ga. has done more than just hit when he’s faced the Braves.  In his two previous starts against them entering this afternoon,  he had gone 2-0 with a 3.46 ERA.  

Owings’ finest effort against his hometown team occurred on Aug. 18, 2007, when he allowed three runs in seven innings and tallied six RBIs during a four-hit performance that was highlighted with two home runs.  <p>

In the 79 at-bats he’s compiled since putting on that one-man show at Turner Field,  he has hit .342 with two homers and a .544 slugging percentage.  But in the 30 subsequent starts that he’s made, he’s gone 8-13 with a 5.22 ERA.  

Proving that Jo-Jo Reyes isn’t alone, Owings has gone 0-9 with an 8.54 ERA in the 14 appearances  (10 starts) that  he’s made since last winning on May 25, 2008. 

If the Braves can prolong Owings miseries and miraculously notch their fifth win during this once-forgettable nine-game road trip, they’ll head back to Atlanta with optimism and the hope that Albert Pujols opts not to accompany the Cardinals for this week’s three-game series at Turner Field. 

In 49 career games against the Braves, Pujols has hit .372 with a 1.211 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).  More impressive is the fact that in his past 30 games against them, he’s hit .419 with 13 homers and a 1.458 OPS. 

“He’s more dangerous than Bonds was,” Chipper Jones said. “Pujols hits the ball all over the field.  He hits strikes. He hits balls. It doesn’t matter.  He’ll go out of the strike zone to hurt you.”      

Getting back to work

If you are not complaining, then you are not watching.  Or is it more appropriate to say, if you are not complaining, then you are not blogging?

Whatever the case, even if the Braves had started this season 11-4 (as opposed to 7-8), we’d all still be voicing our concerns about a specific aspect or aspects of the club.  To truly enjoy the splendor of a 162-game season, you basically have to treat every day like a new episode of “24”.

Of course in relation to “24”, we all know that Jack Bauer is going to eventually escape or overcome any and every terrorist attack that he encounters.  In the baseball world, we’re not so sure about tomorrow will bring.

The suspense of this current season has us wondering when Brian McCann might regain his optimal vision and help the slumbering Braves offense to awake.

During the last nine games, the Braves have scored 24 runs (11 in one game), batted .229, recorded a .312 on-base percentage and produced a .345 slugging percentage.   The sample size is too small to provide reason to worry.  But it is somewhat telling to see that left-handed hitters have batted just .181 during this span. 

That number is a direct reflection of the recent struggles encountered by McCann, who has just one hit in the 19 at-bats he’s totaled over the past nine games.  The Braves can only hope that his vision continues to improve to the point that he’s able to prove why many believe he’s the game’s top offensive catchers. 

We’ve all discussed how losing Chipper Jones for an extended period would be a crushing blow to this club’s postseason aspirations.  While this is true, you could argue that McCann’s presence is even more important because his absence directly affects Jones’ potential production. 

As long as opponents are fearing McCann in the cleanup spot, Jones is going to have the necessary protection that will allow him to see good pitches on a regular basis.  

If McCann continues to struggle or is forced to miss time, you’ll either see Jones’ walk total rise or his impatience grow to the point that he’s chasing bad pitches far too often.

In the event that McCann is forced to miss an extended period, Jeff Francoeur might be the best option to fill the cleanup spot.  It would be interesting to see how often opposing pitchers would be willing to challenge him to find out if he truly has turned things around. 

In a team-high 60 at-bats, Francoeur has batted .317 with a .795 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).   As long as he stays patient, the power numbers will increase as the summer progresses and you’ll likely once again see him produce another 100-RBI season.

The most encouraging aspect about Francoeur’s start stems from the fact that he’s hit .471 (8-for-17) with runners in scoring position.  While the sample size is small, there’s at least indication that he’s no longer pressing like he did when he hit .193 with RISP last year.  

(While looking for Francoeur’s stats, I noticed Andruw Jones has five hits in his first six at-bats with RISP.   It’s still amazing to think that Andruw had 128 RBIs while hitting just .207 with RISP in 2005.)

Rotation producing optimism:   Most of the optimism the Braves possessed entering the season centered around their reconstucted rotation.   So far this new group of starters has lived up to expectations.  They rank second in the National Leauge with a 3.27 ERA and the 88 innings they’ve completed are five fewer than the League-leading total completed by the Pirates. 

Javier Vazquez could have won each of his first three starts and Jair Jurrjens has been nothing but impressive since proving fortunate to win his first two outings. Derek Lowe showed his potential dominance on Opening Night and provided more reason to believe he’s at his best during big games.

The only two losses Lowe has incurred during his past 14 starts have occurred at excitement-starved Nationals Park.  But it should be noted that he pitched effectively during both of those outings. 

The Braves haven’t provided any indication that they’re going to promote Tommy Hanson within the next week.  They are in position where they can continue to let the 22-year-old right-hander gain more season at the Minor League level. 

Obviously Hanson has the potential to be a valuable asset during the stretch run and because of this, the Braves haven’t allowed him to exceed the 100-pitch limit during his first three starts with Triple-A Gwinnnett.   Unfortunately because of high pitch counts during the early innings, this has prevented him from completing at least five innings during two of those outings. 

Once Hanson is promoted to the Majors (my best guess remains first week of June), the Braves should have a rotation that would rival the Marlins for the division’s finest.   The Mets haven’t found any consistency behind Johan Santana and the entire Phillies rotation is going to have neck problems before the season is complete. 

Philadelphia’s starters have accounted for 22 of the 31 homers the club has surrendered this year.  Kenshin Kawakami has accounted for three of the seven homers the Braves pitching staff has surrendered this year.

It was nice to have a few days to visit family and relax this week. But it’s time to get back to work and see if the Braves can alter the mood of this road trip, which has so far proven to be forgettable.   

Schafer and fans need to show patience

After Saturday’s loss to the Pirates, Chipper Jones echoed the popular sentiment by saying that he was concerned about the fact that Jordan Schafer was striking out too often.  But as the same time, he said he was confident the 22-year-old center fielder would soon cut down on his swing and utilize his speed to end his mini-slump.

“He’s smart,” Jones said. “He works hard and he wants to get better. Guys like that make the adjustment eventually.” 

With his three-hit performance on Sunday, Schafer halted his forgettable five-game slump and followed Jones’ suggested blueprint.   After notching a second-inning single, he produced a fourth-inning bunt single. 

Then with Pirates third baseman Andy LaRoche standing on the edge of the infield grass to protect against another bunt, Scafer lined another single off of a diving LaRoche’s glove.

Suddenly Schafer could smile again and forget about the fact that he’d recorded one hit and struck out 13 times in the 21 at-bats he’d recorded during his previous five games. 

“You don’t want to get to the point where you start doubting yourself,” Schafer said. “I know that I can hit.  I just need to start making adjustments a lot faster than I did. I know that I can compete here.” 

As we all started to wonder whether the Braves had made the right decision by bypassing the option to provide Schafer more Minor League seasoning, we were showing the same lack of patience that factored heavily in the development of this short skid.

Having hit two homers in his first three Major League games, Schafer has been going to the plate with the same overanxious excitement that has caused him to be too overaggressive in his pursuit of multiple fly balls over the past couple of weeks.

There have been a couple of near-collisions when he’s ventured into the left and right center field gaps.  Plus his insistence to race all the way to the wall in pursuit of balls that are going to riccochet back into the outfield grass  has been somewhat maddening.  But this really only proved costly on Friday night, when he allowed Brandon Moss to turn a double into a triple and score the only run charged to Jair Jurrjens in 6 2/3 innings.  

The man who has taught me more than anybody about player development has always said “trust your instincts” and “the player will let you know when he’s ready.”

While watching Schafer for six weeks during Spring Training, my instincts told me that he was ready for the Majors.  At the same time,  I was mindful of the fact that you have to guard against being overly impressed by results produced by prospects in the Grapefruit or Cactus Leagues. 

But the instinctive reason for believing Schafer was ready extended far beyond his statistics and five-tool talents.   There’s just something about the quiet confidence that is displayed through his actions and words.  

Like Chipper Jones, Schafer is one of those few players who truly gives you a sense he was born to play the game of baseball.

In a roundabout way, I guess I’m saying that instead of panicking about a five-game stretch we should just trust the evaluations that we’d compiled with data that was collected over a much longer period of time.

Left field concerns:   While I’m confident that Schafer will prove effective while battling through inevitable strikeouts, I’m also pretty sure the Braves spent about $2.5 million too much on the left field manequin that Scott Boras sold them in February.

When you talk to Garret Anderson, he’s as lifeless as he looks during those few occasions that he’s actually deemed himself healthy enough to be on the field.  He’s a nice guy who has had a nice career. 

But there were a number of better, more economically-sound options for the Braves, who would have been wise to just stick to their initial intention to give some of their own players a chance to prove they could play left field.  

Braves manager Bobby Cox pushed for Anderson’s signing and he has continued to show support for the 36-year-old outfielder.  Cox  has labeled him to be a “glider” who moves effortlessly toward balls in the outfield.  In addition, he’s believes the 36-year-old outfielder will be a key piece to this year’s success. 

Well Cox is entitled to his opinion and I’m entitled to believe the Braves will be putting Matt Diaz in left field much more frequently than Anderson.  

Don’t let Diaz’s .217 batting average concern you.  He’s owns a .255 career batting average in April.  During the season’s other five months, he’s combined to hit .322.

Weekend remains
:  While shutting the Braves out for a second consecutive game on Saturday, the Pirates threw just one pitch with a runner in scoring position.  

Adding to the afternoon’s frustration was the fact that early in the game, some of the Braves players felt that they had started to decipher the pitch signals Pirates pitching coach Joe Kerrigan was relaying to Ian Snell.  Still with Kerrigan in plain sight, Braves left-handed hitters recorded just one hit (Casey Kotchman’s fourth-inning double) in 22 at-bats against Snell.

Boyer update:
  I don’t have the details yet, but it sounds like the Braves are close to completing a trade that will provde them a return for Blaine Boyer.  They aren’t going to get more than a marginal Minor Leaguer in return.  But that’s better than nothing.

I’m taking a few days off to enjoy time with the family here in Wheeling, WV.  I’ll check in from time to time and follow the games scheduled to be played in rainy D.C. this week.  .    

  

McCann dealing with blurred vision

Brian McCann isn’t ready to discuss the possibility that he might need to go on the disabled list. But the Braves All-Star catcher is concerned about the blurred vision he’s experienced in his left eye since Opening Day. 

After returning from Philadelphia last week, McCann visited an eye doctor who told him that there’s a chance that his vision has changed since he underwent Lasik surgery in Nov. 2007.  But while wearing a contact over the last week, the 25-year-old catcher didn’t experience improved vision.

Essentially, McCann’s left eye has been dry and he hasn’t benefitted from the use of eye drops.  On Saturday morning, he began using a prescribed ointment. 

If this latest treatment doesn’t work, McCann may have to have the vision in his left eye re-adjusted and there’s certainly a chance this would necessitate him to miss at least one week and possibly experience a stint on the 15-day disabled list. 

McCann began this season with six hits, including two homers and three doubles in his first 15 at-bats.  But he recorded just one single in the 17 at-bats that followed. 

While experiencing better vision during the day, McCann entered Saturday’s game hitting .167 (4-for-24) in night games and .375 (3-for-8) in day games. 

Boyer DFA’d:  Blaine Boyer didn’t seem too surprised when he walked in the clubhouse on Saturday morning and was told that the Braves had designated him for assignment.   To make room for Jo-Jo Reyes, Boyer had established himself as the obvious roster casualty. 

While making 51 appearances before last year’s All-Star break, Boyer posted a 3.93 ERA and saw opponents hit .237 with a .301 on-base percentage.   In the 28 appearances that have followed, he’s posted a 13.06 ERA, seen opponents hit .330 with a .402 on-base percentage.

The Braves saw the tremendous physical skills that will likely lead another club to claim Boyer off the waiver wire.  But as time progressed, they became convinced that his mental shortcomings were going to prevent him living up to his potential in their organization.

Chipper and Escobar updates:  Chipper Jones is still aiming to return to the lineup on Sunday and there’s a chance that he could be joined by Yunel Escobar, who has missed the past two games with a strained abdominal muscle. 

Escobar was able to perform just one situp on Friday.  But by Saturday morning, the 26-year-old shortstop’s strength had improved to the point that the Braves gained the belief that he’d be available for Sunday’s series finale against the Pirates.  

Updates on Chipper and Escobar

It’s hockey night in Pittsburgh and the fans are truly showing their colors.  Actually, some are wearing the modern black Penguins jerseys and a handful of others are sporting the blue ones that the club wore during the pre-Mario Lemieux days.

Whatever the case, I’d have to say close to 50 percent of the people I saw walking the streets this afternoon were wearing Penguins jerseys.  I didn’t see a Pirates jersey until Adam LaRoche and his buddies came out to take batting practice here at beautiful PNC Park. 

Speaking of LaRoche, the former Braves first baseman has at least delayed his traditional slow start by recording 10 hits, including three homers in his first 34 at-bats this year.  Considering that he owned a .181 career batting average in April entering this year, it’s safe to say that he’s enjoying this early production.

LaRoche’s buddy Chipper Jones is once again out of the lineup with a bruised left thumb.  The Braves third baseman has been encouraged by the fact that the swelling has decreased and he’s hoping to return to action during Sunday afternoon’s series finale against the Buccos. 

“The swelling is getting better,” Jones said. “But (the trainers) were rubbing it down today and it’s still extremely painful.”  

Having already aggravated this injury multiple times by getting jammed with pitches, Jones recognizes the importance of resting the thumb as long as necessary.  The bottom line is that he doesn’t want to deal with this throughout the season.

“If I came back too early and did it again, I’d have to miss another three to four days,” Jones said. “I just want to make sure we get it right.”

As for Yunel Escobar, he could be back to his jumping ways as early as Saturday.  When Escobar strained his abdominal muscle while doing his traditional pre at-bat jumping routine in the on-deck circle Thursday, the Braves thought he might miss three to four games. 

But Escobar took some swings in the indoor batting cage on Friday and didn’t experience any concerning discomfort.

Forget about the possibility of this episode leading Escobar to end his jumping days in the on-deck.  The talented shortstop is as stubborn as they come.

When Jo-Jo Reyes takes the mound to face the Pirates on Saturday, you’ll likely see a pitcher that doesn’t resemble the one who went 0-7 with a 7.81 ERA in his final 13 appearances (12 starts) last year.

Reyes has grown comfortable with the fact that he doesn’t have to attempt to overpower every hitter.  The more efficient 23-year-old southpaw impressed during Spring Training and tossed five solid innings before struggling through a rain-drenched sixth inning during his regular season debut for Triple-A Gwinnett last week.
    
Reversing back to the LaRoche-Jones connection, the two former Braves teammates have become heavily involved with the Buck Commander videos that are produced by noted hunter Willie Robertston. 

With assistance from their good friend Luke Bryan, the guys developed this video that shows them enjoying some of their hunting experiences.  

A tip of the cap to Glavine

Tom Glavine says that he’ll wait at least two weeks before determining if he’ll ever pitch again.  But as he spoke yesterday afternoon, it was hard to ignore the belief that he seemingly already knows his fate. 

In fact, I’m pretty sure he had a pretty good idea after he continued to feel some left shoulder discomfort while throwing his warmup pitches before the third inning of  Sunday’s Minor League rehab start in Mississippi. He chose to wait until Monday to discuss what had happened and how he was feeling. 

This uncharacteristic decision made by one of the most accommodating athletes I’ve ever covered immediately raised red flags.  As for the white flag, you could see it waving in the distance yesterday as Glavine spoke about how he currently considers the glass to be half-empty as opposed to half-full.

Throughout his career, which has included 305 wins and 4413 1/3 innings, Glavine has been an optimistic warrior who has battled through regular shoulder discomfort and other ailments that he’s never revealed. 

Glavine was miserable while experiencing his first three career trips to the disabled list last year.  Still his fighting spirit provided him incentive to attempt to spend one more healthy year in the Majors. 

But for the first time in his career, Glavine is facing the reality that he’s encountered a fight that he can’t win.

“This shoulder has logged a lot of innings,” Glavine said Tuesday. “Sooner or later, it’s going to tell me I can’t do this anymore. I hope this is not what it’s trying to tell me. But I’m prepared if it is.” 
 

If Glavine’s shoulder has indeed reached its physical limitations, we’ll all take time to celebrate the career of the fourth-winningest left-hander in Major League history.  We’ll all remember his two Cy Young Awards and his one-hit gem that clinched the 1995 World Series.

But most importantly, we should never forget that fighting spirit that he carried to the mound.  If he has indeed thrown his final pitch, I’ll never forget the grit he showed while limiting the Rockies to three hits in 6 1/3 scoreless innings on April 7 of last year.
 
They announced the gametime temperature to be 41 degrees and by the time the third inning arrived you had gained the sense that the Coors Field concessionaires didn’t truly need to line their Silver Bullets in ice.

Yet during what was likely the last start that he’ll ever make without any concerning aches or pains, Glavine once again showed the grit and competitive nature that Greg Maddux recognized during his own retirement speech in December.

“One of the biggest things I learned pitching with Glavine was to realize you don’t have to be 100 percent to win,” Maddux said. “You have to take the ball and you have to go out there. That’s what he taught me.

“Sometimes it’s really easy to say, ‘I need another day or two.’ But in Atlanta, we pitched. Tommy led the way with that. He showed everybody that if you go out there, if you could throw the ball over the plate, you had a chance to win, no matter how bad you felt.”

When it does indeed come time for Glavine to announce his retirement, he’ll be showered with compliments.  But none will be more fitting than the one provided by Maddux.   

Home Sweet Home:  Whatever happens, Glavine will have the comfort of making his decision while being surrounded by his family and the organization that watched develop into one of the game’s legends. 

We saw the love of hometown fans when Ken Griffey, Jr. was showered with cheers when he came to plate for the first time in Seattle this year. 

On the flip side,  this week we’ve also witnessed how an aging legendary figure will be treated when he’s forced to continue playing in a new environment.   Garret Anderson’s Atlanta debut turned ugly last night when after dropping two foul balls, he found himself hearing boos from some Braves fans. 

Had Anderson still been playing in front of the same Angels fans, who had followed him for the past 14 years, he obviously wouldn’t have received the same treatment. 

But this isn’t a matter of fair or unfair.  It’s simply the reality that a 36-year-old outfielder has to face while introducing himself to a fan base that couldn’t care less what he’s done over the course of the past two decades in southern California.

Hanson Update:
  Javier Vazquez wasn’t the only Braves pitcher who didn’t get much run support last night.  Tommy Hanson suffered his first loss while limiting Durham to three hits and one run in 5 2/3 innings of Triple-A Gwinnett’s 1-0 loss.

Through his first two starts for Gwinnett, Hanson has worked 10 innings, allowed one run, registered 17 strikeouts and issued just four walks.   I think it’s pretty safe to assume we’ll see the big redhead in Atlanta some time in May.

As mentioned yesterday, it probably won’t be long until Kris Medlen also makes his way to Atlanta to fortify the bullpen.  I don’t want to jinx anything, so I’ll just say that the young right-hander is off to a good start during this afternoon’s start against Durham.

You can follow Medlen’s progress today on  Gameday.

Also forgot to mention you can now follow me on Twitter @mlbbravesscribe 

Bullpen taking shape

Jordan Schafer’s early success has been refreshing and Jeff Francoeur’s improved approach has been encouraging.  But if you’re attempting to identify the two most important developments the Braves experienced during the regular season’s first week, you have to focus your attention on Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan.

The most glaring concern for the Braves six games into the season has obviously been the bullpen which has accounted for  15 of the 25 earned runs the club has surrendered.  But as we were still wondering how this relief corps had allowed eight of those runs in one inning, Soriano and Moylan started to turned doubt into optimism. 

Soriano’s velocity hovered around 90 mph while he made just four appearances during the exhibiton season.  Yet four appearances into the regular season, we’ve seen him complete four scoreless innings, surrender one hit and issue two walks. 

Jeff Bennett is the only other Braves reliever who hasn’t been charged with an earned run.  But in the 3 2/3 innings that he’s completed, Bennett has surrendered six hits, hit a batter and issued a walk. Don’t even try to figure out how he’s maintained a 0.00 ERA while opponents have compiled a .471 on-base percentage. 

Nor do we need to determine why Moylan wasn’t able to retire any of the first five batters he faced this year.  Overexcited about returning  to the mound from Tommy John surgery, he was rushing his delivery and deny himself the opportunity to create sink with his fastball.

While slightly shortening the stride of his delivery Saturday night, Moylan struck out the only three batters that he faced.  Along with being perfect, the inning also proved to be the most important the Braves have experienced this year.

There isn’t a late-inning situation that Moylan can’t handle.  The side-winding Aussie can retire an opponent’s top left-handed or right-handed hitter.  He can induce the groundball when neccessary and when provided the opportunity, I truly believe he will prove to be a dominant closer. 

In essence, Moylan is the most valuable piece to this year’s bullpen and that’s why you have to give Cox so much credit for sending him back out there to protect a one-run lead Saturday night.  By doing so, he allowed the right-handed reliever to regain the confidence he’d shown while proving to be the club’s most impressive pitcher during Spring Training.

After Moylan exited Saturday’s game, Soriano worked a scoreless eighth and Gonzalez produced a perfect ninth, during which he threw nine of his 13 pitches for strikes.

This is the way Cox envisions ending a number of games this year.  At the beginning of Spring Training, he said his bullpen’s success hinged on the health of Moylan, Gonzalez and Soriano, who have all undergone season-ending elbow surgeries over the course of the past two years.

Soriano pitched all three games this past weekend and his most
impressive effort came Sunday, when he threw 10 of his 14 pitches for
strikes and notched two strikeouts in a perfect ninth inning

With this being the final year of a contract that calls for him to earn $6.1 million this year, there probably wasn’t reason to wonder if Soriano would be healthy when the regular season began.

Because he’s less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, there was reason to wonder about Moylan’s arm.  But proving to be somewhat of a medical marvel, he hasn’t provided any indication that he’s felt any sort of discomfort while throwing over the course of the past two months. 

Gonzalez still hasn’t regained the velocity he possessed before undergoing TJ surgery in May of 2007.  But if he continues to spot his curveball consistently, he can still be effective with a 92-93 mph fastball. 

With Kris Medlen waiting in the wings, the Braves have the ability to fortify the front end of the their bullpen when necessary.  But based on what we witnessed this past weekend, the back end is shaping up nicely.

Glavine update: Tom Glavine is expected to return to Turner Field this afternoon after meeting with Dr. James Andrews.  There’s obviously a chance he could tell us he’s experienced a tear and needs to retire.  Then again, he could just tell us that his shoulder discomfort is a product of broken scar tissue. 

Whatever the case, I’d have to think it will be at least another month before he’d be cleared to pitch in a game with the big league club. 

 

  

Saying goodbye to Kalas

As we sat in the visiting manager’s office at Citizens Bank Park last Wednesday, Harry Kalas entered and said, “Hey Coxxy” with that same distinctive and distinguished voice that sports fans have recognized for so many years. 

Walking and talking a little slower than he had in the past, Kalas beemed with excitement as he talked to Braves manager Bobby Cox about the dawn of a new season.  A few hours later, he’d throw out the ceremonial first pitch and receive his 2008 World Series ring with the rest of the Phillies family that justifiably viewed him as a father figure. 

During their short exchange, Cox asked Kalas how much he’d enjoyed this most recent Phillies world championship.  With a youthful excitement that didn’t necessarily coordinate with his 73-year-old soul, the long-time broadcaster spoke about how this World Series title was actually much more enjoyable than the first one he’d experienced in Philadelphia in 1980.

Kalas talked about how the 1980 team had simply accomplished what they’d originally envisioned would have occurred in 1978 or ’79.  Then he spoke about the delight he experienced while watching Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels make their surprising dominant run through this most recent October. 

Many of us who weren’t raised in Philadelphia knew him as the owner of that voice that only improved the quality of the video supplied by NFL Films.  The players, broadcasters, coaches, front office employees and fans who had the opportunity to recognize him as more than simply a broadcaster, knew him as man who definitely improved the game of baseball.

When I spoke to Pete Van Wieren and Chip Caray this afternoon, it was obvious that that they’d lost much more than a colleague. 

“He was not only a great broadcaster, but also a dear friend,” Van Wieren said. “We had the opportunity to spend many years broadcasting together and enjoying other activities away from the broadcast booth.  This is very sad news.   There are certain broadcasters that are much more than just voices for their team.  Some of them are iconic figures for the game and Harry was one of those broadcasters.

“I don’t know anybody who didn’t like him.  He was much more than just a broadcaster for the team.  We often sat together for dinner in the press room, whether we were in Philadelphia or Atlanta.  He was just a great guy.  He always had great questions to ask about our team and insight to provide about his own. He’ll definitely be missed.”

Caray recognized Kalas as an inspiration and one of the many dear friends who showed genuine support when his father, Skip Caray, passed away last year. 

“The thing that makes broadcasters unique is the richness of their voice and their passion for the game,” Chip Caray said. “Harry had both of those qualities.   When you think of the greatest ambassadors of the game, Harry was certainly one of those guys.  The  passion he had while calling games for Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and so many other great Phillies players was a real inspiration for young broadcasters, like myself.

“When I think of Harry, I think of friendliness and class.   When my dad died, he gave me a hug and a handshake that I’ll never forget.  He was truly a treasure.   He was a mentor and a friend.  People will say that the game won’t be the same without him and it won’t.”

Personally, I’ll always remember Kalas as a man who always provided a friendly “hello” while displaying a seemingly eternal smile. 

The last time I saw Kalas was after the Phillies had claimed their comeback win over the Braves last Wednesday.  As I exited the elevator, he was standing there in the hallway displaying that same old smile.

We’ve talked a lot about the ridiculous events that led to the Braves blowing a seven-run lead that afternoon.  But it was that ugly eight-run seventh inning endured by the Atlanta bullpen that allowed a true Philadelphia icon to enjoy his final day in his home ballpark.  

The Braves won the final game that Skip called at Turner Field last year and the Phillies allowed Kalas to enjoy the epic comeback during his final hours in Philadelphia.

In some ways, you have to wonder if baseball gods truly do take care of those who have served the game so admirably.   

 

  

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