April 2009

Anderson injures calf again

As Brian McCann’s two-run homer cleared the right field wall in the first inning this afternoon, how many of you said, “who needs Chipper and Garret anyway?”

Obviously you probably already know that Chipper Jones and Garret Anderson were scratched from today’s lineup.  Jones is dealing with a bruised left thumb that likely won’t keep him out of the lineup for more than one game. 

But I’m expecting to hear the Braves announce that Anderson is going to be out a little longer with the strained right calf muscle that he aggravated before today’s game.  This same ailment sidelined him for more than three weeks during Spring Training. 

While I don’t know if Anderson will miss another three weeks, I think we can prepare to see Matt Diaz in left field on a regular basis. 

Anderson hasn’t played more than 106 games in the outfield during any of the past five seasons and he didn’t play more than 85 games out there either of the past two seasons.

When the Braves signed Anderson in November, there was reason to question his durability.  Now that he’s dealing with this calf strain that seemingly could prove to be a lingering problem, I think we should assume that he’ll once again be limited to playing 80-90 games in the outfield.

Day of anniversaries:
  Most of you know that today is the 35th anniversary of the day Hank Aaron hit his 715th career homer.  Some of you might also remember this is the 15th anniversary of Kent Mercker’s no-hitter against the Dodgers. 

But how many of you remember this is the one-year anniversary of the day that Major League Baseball announced that they giving Jordan Schafer a 50-game suspension. 

Obviously we’ve talked a lot about how much Schafer has matured over the course of the past year.  He’s a likable kid with a bright future, who isn’t dwelling on the past. 

“I didn’t even know this was the date,” Schafer said Wednesday morning.  “It’s 100 percent behind me. I really don’t think about it any more.”  

Lowe set the tone

While enjoying some idle time in Philadelphia yesterday, one of the Braves coaches asked me, “what was the most important thing that happened last night?”  Thinking it might be a trick question, I initially thought about Jordan Schafer’s homer, Jeff Francoeur’s homer and Mike Gonzalez’s ability to escape the ugly ninth-inning mess that he created.

Another comical bystander said, “I think it was McCann’s monstrous first-inning homer.  That just intimidated everybody.”

But while the homers hit by Francoeur and Schafer created nice story lines, Derek Lowe’s masterful performance undoubtedly was the most important Opening Night development.  He allowed just two Phillies to reach base over the course of eight innings. SI.com’s Tom Verducci reported that no pitcher had previously allowed two baserunners or fewer while throwing at least eight innings at Citizens Bank Park.

Whether or not you want to call Lowe an ace, you can’t dispute the fact that his performance trumped any other produced by any other pitcher so far this season.   With that being said, Felix Hernandez’s effort with a bum ankle yesterday was certainly masterful. 

During Spring Training, one veteran observer told me that Hernandez was the best young pitcher he’d ever seen and that Tommy Hanson ranked right behind King Felix.  Hanson and the Triple-A Gwinnett team will get things started on Thursday morning in Charlotte.  First pitch is set for 11:15 a.m and you’ll be able to follow the game via the Gameday feature provided on Milb.com.

Enough about the future ace.  Let’s turn our attention back to Lowe, who undoubtedly set the tone for the Opening Night victory that allowed the Braves to truly enjoy yesterday’s rain-filled offday in Philly. 

If McCann hadn’t drilled his first-inning two-run homer into the second deck, there’s a chance that Lowe could have once again been undone by the emotions that had felled him during his previous two Opening Day starts. 

But straying away from the “if my aunt had a beard” line of thinking, Lowe didn’t and consequently allowed the Braves to begin the season in a near-perfect manner.   While evaluating that game, critics could only point toward the stress-filled ninth-inning that Gonzalez experienced while attempting to protect a four-run lead.

After the game, manager Bobby Cox talked to Gonzalez about the need to bounce his breaking pitches when ahead in the count.  The two singles surrendered by the left-handed closers came on sliders that were thrown during at-bats that began with first-pitch strikes.  

When pinch-hitter Eric Bruntlett fell behind with a 1-2 count and then laced a single into left field, it was impossible to forget about last year, when the Phillies claimed four of their 14 wins over the Braves in games that they were once trailing by at least three runs.

But after Chase Utley drew a five-pitch walk to bring Ryan Howard to the plate as the potential tying run, Gonzalez began pitching like he did during the 2006 season, when he successfully converted each of his 24 save opportunities, despite allowing opponents to produce a .325 on-base percentage.

With runners at first and second and the Braves holding a two-run lead, Gonzalez recorded game-ending conseuctive strikeouts of Howard and Raul Ibanez.  He utilized nine sliders (including five of six pitches to Howard) during this 12-pitch sequence and recorded both strikeouts with fastballs that registered 93 mph.

That was the best velocity we’ve seen from Gonzalez at any point this year.  But I think it’s becoming more apparent that his success will be better dictated by his control and ability to efffectively throw his breaking balls. One positive he can draw from Sunday is the fact that his slider certainly improved as the inning progressed. 

By the way, during the 2006 season with runners on first and second base, Gonzalez limited opponents to four hits in 24 plate appearances, recorded eight strikeouts and issued one walk.   There’s no doubt that he has the abilty to thrive under pressure. 

But for the sake of Cox’s blood pressure, let’s hope that some of his ninth innings prove to be a little less stressful. 

Something memorable will occur

During the final day of last year’s September series in Philadelphia, Jeff Francoeur sat in the dugout and talked about how he was looking forward to being back in that same spot to open this season. 

At the time, he specifically mentioned being here on the afternoon of April 6.  But that was before the Phillies won a World Series and prompted ESPN to choose tonight’s game as the one that will kick off Major League Baseball’s season. 

This marks the second straight year that the Braves will participate in the first game played on United States soil.  Last year in Washington, the Nationals were opening a new stadium and George Bush was present to throw the first pitch, which drew an ovation only trumped by the one elicited after Ryan Zimmerman drilled the evening’s final pitch over the left-centerfield wall.

After tonight, this long marathon will include 161 more regular season games and
there’s sure to be some pitching matchups that will create some
midseason energy.  But until you get to October, it’s hard to match the
adrenaline you feel leading into an Opening Night (Day) game. 

Something will happen tonight that you’ll remember for many years to come.    

I seriously can’t remember the second game that was played during any of the past four seasons.  But  Ihave vivid memories of each of the Opening Day contests that were played during this span.  In 2005, the Marlins ruined John Smoltz’s return to the rotation and in 2006, Tim Hudson teamed with Derek Lowe to allow the Braves and Dodgers to stage an 11-10 offensive slugfest that was decided by Ryan Langerhans’ eighth-inning solo homer.  

In 2007, Edgar Renteria hit a late-inning opposite-field homer that propelled the Braves to victory over the Phillies and then last year, Zimmerman gave Nationals fans reason to celebrate by christening the stadium with its first walk-off homer.

The Braves opened the 2007 season with a three-game sweep in Philadelphia and then, six months later, watched the Phillies celebrate the first of two consecutive division titles.

Obviously nothing will be detemined tonight, this week or even this month.  But you can be assured that something memorable will happen tonight. 

Speaking of memorable, I’m looking forward to July 17, when the Braves retire Greg Maddux’s number.  It was an absolute pleasure to watch him on the mound and a true honor to get to know him.  Analytical, hilarious, crude, competitive and humble are all appropriate descriptions.

To provide an example that his analytical skills functioned away from the mound, I’ll tell you about a day in 2003, when we were in Puerto Rico.  Chipper Jones told me that Mark DeRosa had visited a store and bought a can of dip that he was sure must have been transported on The Mayflower. 

After relaying DeRosa’s humorous line, Maddux simply looked at me and said, “It wouldn’t have been the Mayflower.  I think the Pinta or Santa Maria were the boats that would have landed down here.”

It doesn’t matter whether the Pinta or Santa Maria actually arrived in Puerto Rico.  The point is that Maddux was always thinking and while taking joy in his argumentitive skills, he always made you feel like he was that much smarter than you.  But he always did so in a very humble manner.

Maddux had a great impact on a number of pitchers, including Derek Lowe, who will make his Braves debut tonight against Brett Myers and the Phillies. 

This marks the fourth straight year the Braves have opened on the road and their only two Opening Day wins during this span came in games that were started by Lowe (2006 Dodgers) and Myers (2007 Phillies).

Will Jordan Schafer be the one who provides the lasting memory while making his Major League debut tonight?  Or will it be Francoeur, who would love to take the opportunity to show a national television audience why this year will be so much different than last year.   
 

 

Schafer makes the cut

Jon Cooper, who is covering for me tonight, just called to confirm that Jordan Schafer won the starting center field job.  In other related news, the Braves confirmed that they’ll open the season on Sunday night in Philadelphia.

As expected, the Braves will start the season with eight relievers and Jeff Bennett claimed that final spot.  The eight relievers are Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Peter Moylan, Blaine Boyer, Jorge Campillo, Buddy Carlye, Eric O’Flaherty and Bennett.

The Braves also announced that Schafer will wear No. 24.  That jersey is going to be a popular seller for many years to come.

Goodbye Florida

Seven weeks have passed and Ken Griffey Jr. still hasn’t shown up.  If you run into any of his friends, ask them to tell Jr. that the Braves are heading home tonight and that they’ve decided to ignore his decision to play in Atlanta. 

Actually the Braves are heading home with reason to feel good about the fact that Griffey decided to play in Seattle.  We haven’t had the opportunity to see a lot of Garret Anderson.  But while watching him race into left-center field to make a catch yesterday in Lakeland, I was officially convinced that the Braves are better off with Jr. in Seattle.
 
The modern-day version of Jr. wouldn’t have gotten to that ball.  Nor can he display the kind of offensive consistency that Anderson has shown since he allowed his right calf to heal for more than three weeks.   When he’s recorded outs over the past three days, they’ve been loud ones.
 
Did I mention that we’ve been down here seven weeks?  I’m certainly not going to complain about having had the opportunity to spend the past 50 days watching baseball in the Florida sun.  But I echo the sentiments of Bobby Cox and all of the Braves players when I say that it’s time to come home.

Because I’m fatigued and anxious to return to Atlanta, this Spring Training simply feels like it’s been long.  But thanks to Jordan Schafer, Tommy Hanson, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, it will also prove to be one of the most memorable. 

Schafer and Hanson proved why many believe they could have a significant impact in Atlanta this year.  As for Heyward and Freeman, they simply exceeded any expectations you’d place on a pair of 19-year-old kids who were experiencing their first big league camp.

Tom Glavine had already notched 19 wins and compiled 65 career starts before Heyward was born.
  
While utilizing baseballmusings.com and baseball-reference.com to research these numbers, I found that Glavine actually tossed his fourth career shutout two days before Heyward entered this world. 

On that Aug. 7, 1989 night at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Glavine surrendered four hits to a Dodgers lineup that included Willie Randolph, Eddie Murray and Mike Scioscia.

Now that we’re strolling down memory lane, I’m going to reminisce about some of the most humourous things I’ve heard and witnessed over the past seven weeks.

Jeff Francoeur’s catch:  Francoeur caught a 6-pound, 4-ounce largemouth bass in the pond behind the visitor’s clubhouse at Osceola County Stadium on Tuesday night.  Since then I’ve learned that the right fielder is certainly a novice fisherman, who simply found some luck after he grabbed one of the clubhouse attendant’s fishing pole and threw it into the water. 

Braves assistant clubhouse and team travel manager Chris Van Zant, who supplied the picture of Francoeur’s catch, has since told me that the right fielder initially had trouble casting his line further than five feet.

“Just like he always does, he stayed persistent and then ends up catching a fish that guys spend hours trying to catch,” Van Zant said. 

DOB’s furor
:  As I was walking toward my car in Bradenton on Feb. 28, I heard a guy across the street yelling and screaming in my direction.  I began to laugh when I realized it was the Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s Dave O’Brien, whose car had been locked in a lot at a car repair shop. 

This might have been one of those “you had to be there” moments.  But I’ll attempt to explain the humor by saying that when agitated, O’Brien can make Archie Bunker seem like a lovable teddy bear.

Tiger’s line:   For this final tidbit, I’ll simply pull these graphs from my March 13 story about Francoeur: 

After Francoeur opened the back nine at Isleworth Country Club with consecutive birdies on March 4, (Tiger) Woods asked, “Who are you?”  
 
Francoeur, quickly responded, “I just wanted to see how the world’s number one golfer reacts with his back up against the wall?”  
  
This prompted Woods to reply, “Yeah, well I was wondering how much time you plan to spend playing in Mississippi this year?”

And with that, I’ll close by saying the dramatic improvement Francoeur has shown over the past seven weeks has provided the most signific reason for the Braves to be encouraged heading into the 2009 season. 

The Florida sun has been fun.  But it’s definitely time to bring this show home.     

francoeur.jpg

Blanco starts in center

With Gregor Blanco receiving limited playing time since he’s returned from the World Baseball Classic, it’s been hard to believe the Braves when they’ve said they haven’t decided where Jordan Schafer will begin the season.  

Obviously, they cant’ exactly use the “well we want to see what Jordan can do” excuse, when they have every reason to want to see Blanco much more than he did while compiling a .676 OPS  during his rookie season last year. 

Blanco, who has registered two hits in 18 Grapefruit League at-bats, will get a chance prove himself against the Tigers this afternoon, when he starts in center and Schafer starts the game on the bench.  This is just the third start he’s made in the nine games that have been played since he returned from the Classic.

Schafer has one hit in his last eight at-bats and we’ve discussed how
important this final week would be for him.  But,
he showed enough during the previous four weeks to prove the Braves
would severely weaken their roster if they opted to start the season
with Blanco in center. 

I understand the theory about protecting future investments.  Some have
wondered how Schafer’s psyche would be affected if he were to start the
season in Atlanta and hit around .200 during the first two months. 

In response, I wonder how his psyche would be affected if the Braves approach him later this week and tell him that everything that he’s done over
the past few weeks has earned him the opportunity to gain further
seasoning in the Minors.

Had the Braves kept Josh Anderson, Schafer might have been able to live
with the fact that from a business perspective there was a better
option for the club to utilize in center.  But they didn’t and by doing
so, I think they’ve left themselves with just one option.

Ross update:  David Ross strained his right groin during Tuesday night’s game and reported to the park on Wednesday feeling some relief.  But the Braves still seem concerned about the possibility that he could start the season on the disabled list.  If this occurs, Clint Sammons will likely be on the Opening Day roster. 

“Ross is a good backup catcher,” Cox said. “He’s a good catch-and-throw guy and he’s always in the game while he’s on the bench.  He’s really a team guy.”

With Brian McCann’s bruised right knee still providing some discomfort, Sammons is behind the plate for today’s game.  McCann will likely don the catching gear again on Thursday or Friday.

Heyward still crushing:
  Durign a Double-A game in Viera yesterday, Jason Heyward went 4-for-5 with two homers and five RBIs.  The 19-year-old phenom will likely begin the season with Class A Myrtle Beach.  But don’t be surprised if  he’s with Double-A Mississippi by the time the first week of May arrives.

Justin Verlander is completing his warmup pitches and Tom Glavine is done warming up in the bullpen.  Thus it’s time for me to end this entry. 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 44,658 other followers