Before this season started, many journalists wanted to know whether Tommy Hanson would be introduced to the Major League scene in time to warrant Rookie of the Year consideration.
Consumed by what Jordan Schafer had displayed over the previous six weeks, I primarily told them that Schafer’s contributions over a six-month period would likely trump those that Hanson would be able to provide during the regular season’s final four months.
But as the first month of Hanson’s big league career comes to a close, you can already argue that he’s running neck-and-neck with St. Louis’ Colby Rasmus at the front of the chase to be named the NL’s Rookie of the Year.
Five starts into his career, Hanson still hasn’t enjoyed that utterly dominant outing that he’s capable of providing on a regular basis. But while limiting the Red Sox to two hits and issuing just two walks in six innings on Sunday, we at least got a glimpse of how effective his stuff can be against one of the game’s top lineups.
If the Red Sox don’t possess the game’s top lineup, then that distinction would have to be given to that Yankees bunch that saw Hanson work his magic last week, while pitching around five walks and holding them scoreless over 5 1/3 innings.
After Sunday’s performance, a fan tweeted, “could Tommy Hanson be a candidate for Rookie of the Year if he keeps pitching this well?” My response was, “if the Braves turn things around, he’s the club’s MVP.”
Hanson has started five of the nine games the Braves have won since he joined the rotation. His four wins this month exceed the combined totals of Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami and Javier Vazquez, who have each totaled one more victory in June than the winless Jair Jurrjens.
While going 1-3 with a 1.98 ERA and limiting opponents to a .197 batting average and .554 OPS, Vazquez was undoubtedly Atlanta’s most impressive starter in June. But because the Braves scored just six runs during the 37 innings that he was on the mound this month, he also has to wear the unenviable tag of being “the most unlucky”.
During a four-start stretch that has seen him allow opponents a .356 on-base percentage and surrender just two runs, Hanson has obviously been somewhat lucky. But the game’s greatest pitchers will tell you that you can often create your own “luck” and the big right-hander has done so while limiting opponents to two hits in 19 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
Hanson’s current streak of 20 consecutive scoreless innings dates backto the fourth inning of his June 12 start against the Orioles. Since allowing that final run at Camden Yards, he has allowed opponents to load the bases five times and then managed to escape unscathed.
With 17 walks and 18 strikeouts in his first 29 career innings, Hanson has provided every indication that he needs to improve. Of course, given the results that he’s gained while battling inconsistent control with his fastball, he’s also provided even more reason to wonder just how great he could prove to be.
During Spring Training, Guy Hansen, a long-time pitching coach in the Braves Minor League system, compared Hanson to Toronto’s Roy Halladay. Then Sunday, Chipper Jones echoed this comparison to the former AL Cy Young Award winner.
Going from the impressive to the least impressive, we now turn our attention toward Derek Lowe, who will attempt to end his three-game losing streak against during tonight’s series opener against the Phillies.
Lowe, who has posted a 12.34 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .433 against him in his past three starts, will be looking to begin anew in the same impressive fashion that he displayed while tossing eight scoreless innings against the Phillies on Opening Night. <p>
While winning just seven of their previous 21 games, the Phillies have hit .240 with a .399 slugging percentage. Still the 29 homers they’ve hit during this span is exactly half of what the Braves have totaled throughout this season.
From a pitching perspective,during this 21-game stretch, the Phillies have posted a 4.84 ERA and allowed 29 homers, which is just 20 fewer than the Braves have allowed through their first 75 games this season.
Thanks to the Phillies and Mets, the Braves have lost 20 of their last 32 games and still enter this week’s series just five games behind the front-running Phillies.
While the visits made by the Red Sox and Yankees created a great buzz around Turner Field last week, this week’s series will prove much more influential. The Phillies won each of the nine games they played in Atlanta last year and if they leave town celebrating another three-game sweep this week, the Braves will be staring at an eight-game deficit and their focus may have to toward the 2010 season.
After making it through his warmup session in the bullpen, Tommy Hanson has taken the mound to make this afternoon’s start against the Red Sox.
With Hanson battling the flu, the Braves were prepared to go with Kris Medlen.
The Braves also announced this morning that they’ll skip Kenshin Kawakami’s next turn in the rotation. Thus, Derek Lowe will start Tuesday’s series opener against the Phillies on regular rest. Jair Jurrjens and Javier Vazquez will start the final two games against the defending world champs.
Kawakami, who was struck on the right side of his neck with a Joba Chamberlain line drive on Wednesday, will start Friday’s series opener against the Nationals in Washington D.C. This arrangement will allow Hanson to start the following day with an extra day of rest.
When Jeff Bennett decided to be the one doing the hitting earlier this week, Braves manager Bobby Cox said that the reliever’s decision to punch a door wasn’t exactly smart. Then he added that it was at least encouraging to see that Bennett cared.
Using this same logic, I guess many Braves fans are proving that they still have some passion while questioning whether Cox is the right man to lead this year’s team.
Dating back to the days when Cox was leading the Braves into the postseason on an annual basis, there was always a small group of fans who questioned his tactical approach. But this seems to be the first year that a growing legion is questioning whether his time has passed.
As our faithful blogger Rother pointed out in the comments section earlier this week, Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno are among the most recent coaching legends who have heard fans question whether they’re too old to prolong the traditions of excellence that they established at their respective universities.
Like Bowden with Florida State and Paterno with Penn State, Cox is the man most responsible for the fact that the Braves transformed from laughingstock to a perennial championship contender. He rebuilt the Minor League system during the late 1980′s and then served as an unmatched general while leading the Braves to an unprecedented 14 consecutive division titles.
About five years ago, I wrote that Cox had earned the right to continue managing the Braves as long as he desires. As I’ve had the opportunity to be around this game longer, I’ve come to view that as a short-sighted comment that should never be made in reference to any legend, regardless of their accomplishments.
Still I’m not ready to concede that Cox isn’t the right man for this job. This year’s team possesses flaws that extend beyond the fact that the offense hasn’t adequately backed a strong starting rotation. But while this clubhouse might not be as harmonious as some of the recent ones that have existed in Atlanta, the fault shouldn’t squarely be placed on the manager.
The Braves have pushed for Yunel Escobar to enhance his knowledge of the English language and he told them that he intended to do so this past offseason. But other than the expletive he mouthed toward the press box after being charged with an error on Thursday, I haven’t seen him provide much indication that he’s willing to speak anything other than Spanish.
With limited communication skills and his stubborn personality, Escobar has proven to be both unable and unwilling to fully grasp the messages that veterans like Chipper Jones and the Braves coaching staff have attempted to deliver over the course of his two years at the Major League level.
Like Bowden and Paterno, Cox has reached a point where he has to rely more heavily on his assistant coaches. Within this framework, the responsibility of guiding Escobar has been placed on the shoulders of bench coach Chino Cadahia, who at least attempted to show provide some discipline after the shortstop displayed his unprofessional reactions on Thursday.
As for Garret Anderson, there isn’t anybody who was going to be able to alter the lifeless approach that he’s developed throughout his 16-season Major League career.
Provided no other external alternatives, Cox pushed for the Braves to sign Anderson during February’s final week and the veteran outfielder has at least rewarded him with consistent offensive production that lacks power.
But while Anderson’s bat has been solid, his defensive skills have proven to be worse than expected. His limited range has been on display throughout the season and he certainly didn’t gain any supporters on Friday night, when he didn’t even react to Dustin Pedroia’s high chopper until it landed in shallow left field.
Instead of publicly ripping Escobar or Anderson, Cox has continued to shower them with the same kind of support that Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson have been provided while proving to be this year’s top two offensive disappointments.
While this approach might prove maddening to fans while the team is losing, it’s one that allowed for the dramatic turnarounds the 1991, 1993 and 2004 clubs experienced on their way to division titles.
So for now, I’m just going to maintain the belief that Cox has earned the right to prove he still has some magic in the tank.
Placed in Yunel Escobar’s shoes, I probably wouldn’t have reacted favorably had I been charged with the error that he was given during the fourth inning of Thursday night’s game against the Yankees.
And there’s certainly a chance that I would have fired off some kind of expletive. But I don’t think my Irish temper would have led me to fully mimic Escobar’s unprofessional reaction.
When Escobar pointed toward the press box in disgust, he provided the reminder that he’s still immature. While continuing to sulk with his hands on his thighs during the next two pitches, he clearly showed a lack of respect for his teammates and the game.
Braves bench coach Chino Cadahia took Escobar behind the dugout and gave him an earful when the inning concluded.
Based on the accounts of multiple sources, Cadahia berated Escobar with greater vigor than he ever has in the past.
While we can hope that this is the last unprofessional act committed by Escobar, you have to assume that it won’t be. This is his third Major League season and as time has passed it’s become clear why he essentially led his former Double-A Mississippi manager Jeff Blauser to decide he didn’t want anything to do with the coaching profession.
After Cox benched Escobar in the middle of a June 14 game in Baltimore, I used this space to talk about how his stubborn personality makes him difficult to coach. At the same time, I pointed out that he’s arguably the best all-around talent on the Braves club. <p>
Based purely on talent and the fact that he has one arbitration-eligible season remaining, Escobar ranks as one of the game’s best bargains and there’s undboubtedly a number of teams that would be interested in his services.
Right now the Braves don’t have any intention to trade Escobar. But as he continues to show immaturity and a lack of professionalism, he’s providing the club more reason to wonder if there will ever come a time when the majority of the attention he draws is based on his tremendous physical skills.
When you dissect the progression of a baseball season, you can lead yourself to believe that every pitch has the potential to produce consequences that extend beyond the game during which it was thrown.
Had plate umpire Bill Hohn called a strike on the 0-2 fastball that Eric O’Flaherty threw during Sunday afternoon’s game at Fenway Park, J.D. Drew wouldn’t have had the opportunity to deliver the next pitch off the Green Monster for a one-out, go-ahead RBI single.
The Braves believe Hohn’s call cost them that series finale against the Red Sox. Extending this arguable belief, did this call also deny them the opportunity to carry a four-game winning streak into tonight’s series finale against the Yankees?
If Drew had been called out on strikes, with first base open, two outs and left-handed slugger David Ortiz on deck, Cox said that he still would have called upon Peter Moylan to face the right-handed hitting Kevin Youkilis.
But had first base umpire first base umpire Tim Welke not ruled in Jake Fox’s favor on a bang-bang play with two outs in the seventh inning of Monday night’s win over the Cubs, Cox wouldn’t have needed to replace Javier Vazquez with Moylan, who needed just two pitches to end that threat and his evening.
After needing 14 pitches to erase Tommy Hanson’s potential sixth-inning damage and toss a perfect seventh inning during Tuesday night’s win over the Yankees, Moylan was given a night to rest.
Thus he was unavailable when Alex Rodriguez came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s game. Had the Braves gotten the desired ruling from Welke, there’s seemingly reason to believe that the Aussie would have been the one facing A-Rod.
Instead, the Braves were forced to call upon Jeff Bennett, who allowed A-Rod to halt a 1-for-24 skid with a two-run single that gave the Yankees a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
There’s no guarantee that Moylan wouldn’t have allowed A-Rod to deliver the clutch hit. But they certainly likely would have had the option to stay away from Bennett, who opted to challenge the veteran third baseman with four consecutive fastballs before seeing his 0-2 delivery deposited into center field.
Bennett, who was the one who surrendered Nick Green’s walk-off shot on Sunday, was inching closer toward ending his days in Atlanta. But he’s at least bought himself some time with the fractured left hand he suffered when he punched a door after Wednesday’s sixth inning.
When you’ve seen opponents hit .316 against you in 33 appearances and .295 with runners in scoring position, there seemingly must come a time when you’re the one who wants to do some hitting. All indications are that the defenseless door simply suffered a bruise similar to the one on Kenshin Kawakami’s neck.
Kawakami, who was hit on the right side of his neck with a Joba Chamberlain line drive on Wednesday night, reported that he was feeling better than expected on Thursday. Still with an offday on Monday, the Braves will likely skip his next turn in the rotation and allow him to make his next start during the July 4 game in Washington D.C.
Tonight’s lineup: With left-hander Andy Pettitte starting tonight’s series finale for the Yankees, Cox opted to keep Garret Anderson’s hot bat in the lineup. But he did stick with his second base platoon with the insertion of Martin Prado, who is batting second.
Yunel Escobar, who leads the club with 36 RBIs, is batting in the fifth spot. Escobar is hitting .385 (25-for-65) with runners in scoring position.
Obviously Jeff Bennett was feeling some of those same frustrations that Braves fans regularly experienced when he was on the mound this year.
Bennett fractured his left hand when he punched door after the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s loss to the Yankees. While upset that he’d just allowed Alex Rodriguez to deliver a go-ahead, two-run single, his rage was fueled by what has been a disappointing season.
“It’s like a kid throwing a temper tantrum,” Bennett said. “I didn’t handle myself in a professional manner.”
The Braves have placed Bennett on the 15-day disabled list with a broken left hand and filled his roster spot with left-handed reliever Boone Logan, who has limited opponents to a .205 batting average in 29 appearances with Triple-A Gwinnett this year.
Bennett, who has allowed opponents to produce a .416 on-base percentage in 33 appearances this year, will miss at least three weeks while dealing with his fractured non-throwing hand.
As soon as Joba Chamberlain’s line drive struck Kenshin Kawakami’s neck during Wednesday night’s game at Turner Field, I immediately thought about the Lance Berkman liner that struck Horacio Ramirez in the right side of the head during the 2006 season.
One of the most horrific scenes in baseball is the comebacker that strikes a pitcher in the head. Immediate thoughts rest on their physical well being. Then when provided the confidence that they’re physically healthy, you can’t help but worry about how the event might affect them mentally when they return to the mound.
Based on what I could gather from Kawakami during Wednesday’s postgame interview, he’s looking forward to getting back on the mound as soon as possible. As he spoke, it was easy to see the bruise that had formed at the base of the right side of his neck.
While all of the questions were simply aimed toward his well-being, Kawakami twice mentioned the disappointment he felt when this event forced him to leave after just three innings of what resulted as an 8-4 Yankees victory.
“The loss is disappointing,” said Kawakami, who was perfect through his three innings. “ “I’m happy that it just missed vital parts though. It could have been worse.”
Chamberlain, who had just five previous career plate appearances, was an avid Braves fan and his favorite player was Chipper Jones.
Before Wednesday’s game, Jones signed a jersey for Chamberlain. Then a short time later, he found himself joining the 23-year-old hurler and many others who were simply staring at Kawakami with the hope that he had avoided a serious injury.
“When I hit the ball off [Kawakami], (Chipper) came over and said, ‘You’re not supposed to take out my pitcher,’” Chamberlain said. “He signed a jersey for me. I’m 23 and I’ve looked up to that man for a long time. It was pretty special for me.”
As an objective journalist, I’m not supposed to serve as Brian McCann’s campaign manager. But while presenting the facts, it seems like it would be pretty easy to persuade you to click here and show McCann the final-week support he needs to earn the nod as the National League’s starting catcher during this year’s All-Star Game.
When the latest ballot results were released on Monday, it wasn’t too surprising to see that Yadier Molina was still leading the way among NL catchers. St. Louis fans have always shown strong All-Star support to their favorite Cardinals.
But it didn’t make much sense to see that over the course of seven days, Molina had doubled his lead over McCann to 315,973 votes.
While hitting .279 with five homers and a .736 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), Molina is enjoying a solid season and if you want to bring defense into the equation, then maybe you can make a case for him pleasing the hometown fans with his presence in the starting lineup during this year’s All-Star Game, which will be played at Busch Stadium on July 14.
But even while accounting for their gloves can you truly say that Molina is more deserving than McCann, whose .318 batting average is 39 points higher than Molina’s mark, which ranks second among NL catchers?
In addition, McCann’s .915 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) is 169 points better than any other NL catcher.
Having essentially missed the month of April while dealing with blurred vision, McCann doesn’t possess the same kind of power number that have helped him gain an All-Star selection during each of his first three full Major League seasons.
But even with this long absence, McCann ranks second among NL catchers in homers (6) and third with 29 RBIs.
With 52 fewer at-bats, McCann has tallied five more RBIs than Yadier Molina. And in 63 fewer at-bats, he has moved to within 12 RBIs of the leading mark posted by San Francisco’s Bengie Molina, who also paces the NL catchers with 10 homers.
Dating back to the start of the 2006 season, McCann leads all Major League catchers in doubles, homers, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
While these marks shouldn’t necessarily affect this year’s voting, they do serve as further proof that McCann and Minnesota’s Joe Mauer have undoubtedly established themselves as the game’s top offensive catchers.
With this in mind, there’s little doubt that McCann will gain a fourth consecutive All-Star appearance. But while he’ll never admit it, the satisfaction of this latest selection would be accompanied with the disappointment that will be felt if he doesn’t get the starting nod that he seemingly deserves.
Fans can cast their votes for starters up to 25 times with the 2009 All-Star Game Sprint Online Ballot at MLB.com and all 30 club sites until July 2 at 11:59 p.m. ET.
The Yankees are here: When the Yankees last visited Turner Field in 2000, the opener of that three-game series pitted Greg Maddux against Roger Clemens. During this battle between eventual 300-game winners, Maddux allowed seven earned runs and 13 hits in 5 2/3 innings. But with Clemens allowing six runs — four earned – in five innings, the Braves claimed an 11-7 win that was aided by Brian Jordan’s four-RBI performance.
With Tommy Hanson slated to start against Chien-Ming Wang tonight, this week’s series opener doesn’t provide the same kind of epic pitching matchup. But it’s going to be fun to see how Hanson handles himself while staring at the Yankee pinstripes during what will be just his fourth Major League start.
When asked yesterday about the potential anxiety he might experience while pitching to Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez, Hanson said, “They’re hitters, so if I make my pitches, I feel like I’m going to be alright.”
If asked to compare Hanson to former Braves, I’d have to say he possesses Kevin Millwood’s quiet confidence and John Smoltz’s dominant arsenal. The kid is going to be special and his celebrity will instantaneously grow if he produces a gem in front of the New York media tonight.
Heyward update: Jason Heyward missed three weeks with a strained right oblique. Since returning to the Class A Myrtle Beach lineup last week, he has four hits in 17 at-bats. The rosters for this year’s Futures Game will be announced later this week and there’s obviously a chance that Heyward will be among those invited to participate.
Derek Lowe didn’t know how he’d be received by the Red Sox fans tonight. But as he made his way toward the bullpen to warm up, they provided a nice ovation that proved they haven’t forgotten the significant role he played during the 2004 postseason.
While becoming the first pitcher to ever gain wins in three clinching games during the same postseason, Lowe helped the Red Sox end their 86-year drought with the 2004 World Series title. <p>
Five years later, Lowe finally finds himself with another opportunity to pitch in front of the fans who saw him develop from a young middle reliever to a postseason hero. This will actually be his first career start against the Red Sox.
While Jason Varitek, David Ortiz and Tim Wakefield are the only current Red Sox remaining from that 2004 world championship team, Lowe will certainly find some familiarity with the environment. In the 46 starts he’s made at Fenway Park dating back to the beginning of the 2002 season, he is 28-10 with a 3.20 ERA.
(And we interupt this blog to say that the Red Sox fans once again provided a nice roar when the public address announcer said Lowe’s name while announcing starting lineups.)
Frenchy update: The Royals are watching Jeff Francoeur this weekend and there’s still obviously a chance that Dayton Moore could be prompted to make a deal for the 25-year-old outfielder.
But to make this deal work, the Braves may need to be willing to assume the baggage and cost that Jose Guillen would bring. Guillen is making $12 million this season and he’ll be owed and equal amount before his contract expires at the end of the 2010 season.
Smoltz’s humor: Chipper Jones wasn’t happy when the official scorer awarded him a seventh-inning single on Friday and then later opted to charge Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell with an error
Knowing that Jones wasn’t happy, John Smoltz approached his good friend today and attempted to further stir the pot by saying that he was the one who had called the press box to persuade the official scorer to reverse his original ruling.
After saying, “You’ve got to be (kidding) me,” Jones laughed with Smoltz, Francoeur and some of the other Braves who were in on the joke.
As the Braves prepare for this 13-game stretch that will pit them against the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Phillies, we can either focus on the tone of “Taps” or take the optimistic approach by taking the belief that this will be the two-week stretch that will turn the whole season around.
While taking two of three against the Yankees this week, the Nationals provided hope or at least made Herm Edwards proud by proving that “you play to win the game.”
With their starting rotation, the Braves will at least enter this stretch with the confidence that they’ll have at least be in every game that is played. But as Jair Jurrjens and Javier Vazquez will be the first to attest, mound dominance will only lead to utter frustration when backed by an offense that has habitually provided minimal support.
But we’re going to keep things positive and take the assumption that Thursday’s seven-run uprising in Cincinnati was a sign of things to come for Bobby Cox’s offense. With his four-RBI performance, Nate McLouth showed what he could do at the top of the lineup and at the same time provided himself more reason to feel comfortable within his new enviroment.
In addition, we were reminded that things seem to click when Martin Prado and Matt Diaz are in the lineup. Unfortunately the Braves are scheduled to face right-handed starters during each of their next five games and thus we may find ourselves watching much more of Garret Anderson and Kelly Johnson than Diaz and Prado.
The Braves are 14-11 in the games that Prado has started and 15-13 in the games started by Diaz. They are 14-10 in games against a left-handed starting pitcher and 17-24 in games during which the opponents starts a right-hander.
During Thursday’s win, Diaz certainly made an impressive bid to earn more time in left field. His fourth-inning solo homer provided cushion and his sixth-inning leadoff double led to a three-run inning that allowed Tommy Hanson to cruise toward his second straight win.
But Diaz’s bid to earn more playing time was most significantly enhanced with his fifth-inning diving grab in left-center field with one out and runners on first and second base. If Anderson had been in left field, that ball gets to the wall, at least one run scores and there’s no guarantee that Hanson would have been able to once again wiggle out of the ensuing jam.
While finding himself in a platoon, Anderson certainly hasn’t provided the offensive production the Braves envisioned. In 108 at-bats against right-handers, he has hit .231 with a .612 OPS. In 43 at-bats against left-handed pitchers, he has hit .326 with a .774 OPS.
Then of course, while hitting .238 with a .670 OPS in June, Anderson hasn’t recently found consistent success against anybody. At the same time, 2ith a .267 batting average and .746 OPS this month, Diaz hasn’t exactly set the word on fire.
But with his defense and further proof that he is capable of finding equal success against right-handers and left-handers, Diaz at least provided further reason to argue that he should be seeing more time in left field.
In 60 at-bats against right-handed pitchers this year, Diaz has hit .267 with a .777 OPS. In 58 at-bats against lefties, he has hit .293 with an .812 OPS.
Prado’s case: While hitting .306 (15-for-49) against lefties and .238 (15-for-63) against righties, Prado has made it a little harder to argue that he should be seeing more time at second base.
But his argument proves to be much stronger when you account for the fact that Johnson has hit .148 with an abysmal .402 OPS in 14 games this month. If a bigger sample size is needed, Johnson has hit .216 with a .630 OPS in his past 27 games.
Statistically, Johnson has once again proven that he doesn’t necessarily benefit from the platoon that puts him in the lineup against right-handers. He is hitting .196 with a .569 OPS in 148 at-bats against righties and .303 with a .948 OPS in 66 at-bats against lefties.
Weekend prediction: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this will be a productive weekend for Jeff Francoeur. Playing in front of his Boston-area relatives, Frenchy is once again going to prove that he’s one of those guys who can rise to the occasion. During his only previous three-game series at Fenway Park, he had eight hits, including a double and a homer, in 15 at-bats.
Lowe’s blog is live: On Saturday, Derek Lowe will be making his first start in Boston since helping the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series. He talks about some of those memories in the first installment of his new blog.