August 2009

Conrad among September additions

After Monday night’s win over the Marlins, the Braves announced that Brooks Conrad, Luiz Valdez and Clint Sammons will join the big league club when the rosters are expanded on Tuesday.  

Conrad instantly became a fan favorite with the energy he displayed while hitting .344 with two homers in 14 games with Atlanta earlier this year.   The gritty infielder’s  power potential could bolster Atlanta’s bench. 

Sammons will provide the Braves a third catcher for the season’s final month and Valdez, who has notched 26 saves and posted a 3.33 ERA in 57 appearances for Triple-A Gwinnett this year, will provide bullpen depth. 

Braves once again attempt to break free from Marlins

Covering a Sunday night baseball game in Philadelphia and then experiencing the majority of your sleep on the flight to Ft. Lauderdale isn’t exactly pleasurable.  But arriving in your hotel room and gaining the joy created from the sight of Rich Rodriguez fighting back tears made this a great day to be a West Virginian.

Losing two of three to the Phillies obviously wasn’t the way the Braves wanted to end a week that was also damaged with the two losses they’d suffered against the Padres.  But at the conclusion of this past weekend’s series, I’d have to say I felt as optimistic about their postseason hopes as I had earlier this month, when they took three of four from the Dodgers.   
Mother Nature affected both clubs on Friday night.  But it seems obvious that the Braves were affected more by the fact that they had to remove Tommy Hanson after just two innings.  

During Saturday’s game, the Braves baffled Cliff Lee and captured an unexpected win.  Then while claiming Sunday night’s series finale, the Phillies took advantage of the events that followed Adam LaRoche’s decision to charge on Pedro Feliz’s surprise seventh-inning bunt that went to the third base side of the mound.  

Still Martin Prado got to first base in time and should have sacrificed his body while attempting to secure Chipper Jones’ catchable throw.   His decision not to do so created the error that put the Phillies in position to claim a victory that ended with Greg Norton concluding Brad Lidge’s perfect ninth with a strikeout.  

Norton has managed to produce a .419 on-base percentage since the All-Star break.  But he also has just one hit in his last 19 plate appearances and it’s not like he has the speed to potentially turn a walk into a double.  

Still with the benefit of having two middle infielders (Omar Infante and Kelly Johnson) on his bench, Braves manager Bobby Cox stuck went with Norton.    In Cox’s defense, Johnson is hitless with three strikeouts in five career at-bats against Lidge and Infante is 1-for-6.

As for Norton, he is 2-for-7 in his career against Lidge and he had drawn walks in each of his three previous plate appearances against the veteran closer this year.

While it was a questionable decision, it wasn’t as if Cox made the worst coaching mistake in sports history.   I mean, it’s not like he squandered  a chance to go to the national championship game by losing a home game to Pitt or anything.   Oh wait, did I mention that Rodriguez was seen fighting back tears this morning?  

For those of you who aren’t college football fans, West Virginia’s loss that night to Pitt  would be the equivalent of the Braves losing four straight to the Nationals to end the season and erase the three-game WC lead they’d possessed entering the series.   

Now back to the Braves postseason outlook.  For you Michigan fans not familiar with baseball, this would be like advancing to one of those bowl games that you used to visit during the pre-Rodriguez days.

Unfortunately time isn’t providing the Braves  the same margin of error that they possessed on Aug. 9, when they exited Los Angeles having used the series win over the Dodgers to move to within 3 games of the National League Wild Card lead.  

At that time, their challenge was to erase that deficit and leap frog four teams in a span of 50 games.  

Heading into tonight’s series opener against the Marlins, the Braves have just 32 games to erase this same 3 -game deficit that they  face in the Wild Card standings.  But  they now have just two teams in front of them and the opportunity this week to put the Marlins in their rear-view mirror.  

This is the third time since July 28 that the Braves and Marlins have started a series against each other with identical records and to further prove how evenly-matched these two clubs appear to be, they’ve split the previous six games played during this span.  

Once this series with the Marlins concludes, the Braves will play 19 of their final 28 games against teams that currently possess a losing record.   The Rockies will play 19 of their final 31 games at Coors Field, where they’ve gone 36-26 this year.
 
The Giants play 16 of their final 31 games at home might be more intriguing.  They’ve gone 44-21 in San Francisco and 28-38 on the road this year.  

CF update:   After examining the results of Nate McLouth’s MRI exam today, doctors once again determined that his left hamstring is simply strained and not torn.   The Braves will further discuss his status as the week progresses and determine whether he’ll continue to rehab with the big league club or in Minor League games.  

With his back feeling better on Tuesday, Ryan Church gained hope that he could return to the lineup on Tuesday.
 
Jordan Schafer underwent a surgical procedure to remove a bone spur from his left wrist on Monday.  The 22-year-old center fielder won’t be able to participate in Winter Ball.  But the Braves are confident that he’ll be ready for the start of Spring Training.  

McLouth aggravates his hamstring strain

Nate McLouth’s ailing left hamstring may prevent him from making his expected return to the Braves lineup this week.
  
McLouth removed himself during the fifth inning of Double-A Mississippi’s game against West Tennessee on Saturday night.  The 28-year-old center fielder exited after aggravating his hamstring while racing into the gap to catch a fly ball.

Because there wasn’t much discoloration and McLouth still possessed satisfactory strength in his leg, the Braves are hoping that this is just a mild aggravation of an injury that he originally suffered on Aug. 8.  
 
Even though McLouth is eligible to come off the disabled list on Monday, the Braves were contemplating the possibility of activating him on Tuesday, after the rosters have expanded.  It now appears they’ll have to wait a little longer for the return of their leadoff hitter and center fielder.  

LaRoche exits with a sore right hip

PHILADELPHIA  —    Adam LaRoche was forced to exit Saturday night’s game against the Phillies because of right hip discomfort that has progressively worsened over the course of the past few days.  
 
After grounding out in the fourth inning of Saturday’s 9-1 victory, LaRoche told Braves manager Bobby Cox that he was able to swing the bat, but was having trouble running and moving in a lateral direction.  The veteran first baseman isn’t sure what initiated this discomfort.  

“I can’t pinpoint it,” LaRoche said.  “It started like three or four days ago.  Luckily I play a position where I can play through a lot of injuries.  So I treated it and for three or four days and I was just going to suck it up.  But today, it was just worse.”  
 
When LaRoche doubled off Cliff Lee during the second inning, he felt what he described as something grinding around his hip.    One inning later while having to lunge in an attempt to catch Derek Lowe’s throwing error, he felt increased discomfort.  
 
“That was kind of the icing on it,” LaRoche said.  “It was already hurting pretty bad.” 
 
LaRoche, who has hit .375 with eight homers in the 25 games he’s played since the Braves acquired him from the Red Sox on July 31, is hopeful that he’ll be able to return for Sunday night’s series finale against the Phillies. 
 
“I hope I wake up and this feels better tomorrow,” LaRoche said.  “I don’t want to miss a game.”   
 
 

Howard continues to destroy the Braves

Welcome back to Philadelphia, the home of Citizens Bank Park or what Brian McCann refers to as “a high school field.”  

McCann has used the offensively-friendly confines here in Philly to account for three of his 17 homers this year.  But this frustration-induced description he provided following Friday night’s loss came in response to watching Ryan Howard lunge over the plate and loop yet another homer the opposite way and over the left field wall.  

Off the bat, Howard’s second-inning homer off Tommy Hanson did indeed appear to be a pop fly that would have been caught at the warning track at most other ballparks.  

As for his fourth-inning, two-run shot off Kris Medlen, it initially appeared to be one that was destined to place another crack in the Liberty Bell.  

There’s obviously no reason for Howard to feel ashamed about the fact that he takes advantage of his power and the dimensions of his park by routinely flipping homers over the left field wall.  McCann just missed two homers while attempting to do the same during a couple of his four plate appearances last night.

Two weeks ago after watching his team hit a number of balls to the wall during a loss to the Phillies in Atlanta, Braves manager Bobby Cox said that the outcome of the game would have been different had they been playing in CBP.   

While that was an arguable statement, there is less reason to argue the possibility that the Braves would be in a much better place in the National League East standings had they recently been as successful  against Howard as they were while holding him homerless during his first 39 at-bats against them.   

In the 11 at-bats that have followed, Howard has damage them with five homers.   In fact, his fourth-inning shot off Medlen gave him four homers in a span of five at-bats against Cox’s pitchers.

Howard’s 29 career homers against the Braves are the most among all active players.  David Wright ranks second with 23.   

While 17 of these home runs produced by the Phillies first baseman have been hit at CBP, he’s also homered once every 11.75 at-bats at Turner Field.

How impressive is this 11.75 ratio?    The only other Major Leaguer to ever produce a better career  ratio against the Braves was Dave Kingman, who homered once every  11.2 at-bats against Atlanta pitchers.

Howard’s career ratio of one homer in every 9.76 at-bats against the Braves is easily the best ever produced.   Willie McCovey hit an all-time best 71 homers against the Braves and did so while hitting one every 12.7 at-bats.   

The next-best ratio was produced by Willie Stargell, who homered once every 13 at-bats against Braves pitchers.  

So the question is, why have the Braves continued to consistently provide Howard the opportunity to beat them?    

While it’s doubtful that Howard’s second-half surge will prove significant enough for him to move past Albert Pujols or Hanley Ramirez for National League MVP consideration, he has already solidified himself as the Most Destructive Force in relation to the Braves postseason hopes.
 
During the three wins the Phillies have tallied in four games against the Braves this month, they’ve scored 11 runs and eight of those have come courtesy of Howard’s five homers.
 
So why would the Braves continue to provide Howard the opportunity to beat them?   The obvious answer is that the two guys hitting behind him have already combined for 56 homers   —   Jayson Werth (29) and Raul Ibanez (27).
 
But it also has something to do with the fact that Adam Dunn is the only Major Leaguer who has struck out more often than Howard dating back to the beginning of the 2005 season.   And this year, the Phillies first baseman’s strikeout total has been topped by only by Arizona’s Mark Reynolds.  

Unfortunately for the Braves, they haven’t been able to find the hole in Howard’s swing as often as most other teams.   He has struck out once every 4.74 plate appearances in his career against Atlanta.  His combined ratio against every other big league club is once every 3.43 plate appearances.
 
And before concluding this Howard evaluation, it should be noted that the Braves have outhomered the Philles 12-8 this year at the high school field known as CBP.  

McLouth update:   Nate McLouth went 0-for-2 in three plate appearances with Double-A Mississippi on Friday night.  The center fielder, who is on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring, will continue playing with Mississippi through Sunday and then fly to meet the Braves in Miami.
 
But even though he is eligible for activation on Monday, the Braves may wait to activate him on Tuesday, after the rosters have been expanded. 
 
When the Braves activate Tim Hudson for his start on Monday, they  will have to make room for him on both the 25 and 40-man rosters.
  
Despite the fact that he’s hitting just .141, Greg Norton won’t be the roster casualty.   To make room for Hudson on the 25-man, the Braves could option Boone Logan or possibly choose to place Kenshin Kawakami on the 15-day disabled list.
   
It’s a little harder to project what the Braves will do to make room for Hudson on the 40-man roster.   But there’s a chance the club could choose to part ways with outfielder Brian Barton, who has fallen out of favor since joining the Triple-A Gwinnett club in April.    

Could Chipper turn things around like he did in 2006?

When Chipper Jones directed Luis Perdomo’s fastball into the left-center field gap on Thursday night, it appeared that he was destined to record his third hit in three innings.    But Padres center fielder Tony Gwynn robbed the Braves third baseman of this rarity with a diving catch that seemed improbable when the ball left the bat. 

“When he caught that ball I was thinking as much as last year was my year, this isn’t my year,”  Jones said.
  
Coming off his first career batting title, Jones entered this season knowing that he likely wouldn’t match the career-best .364 batting average that he compiled last year.   But at the same time, he didn’t have much reason to believe that he’d enter August’s final weekend with a .281 batting average.
 
The last time that Jones’ average sat this low outside the month of April was on June 25, 2006, when he exited that day’s game in Tampa hitting .276.   One day later at Yankee Stadium, Jones recorded a three-hit game and found himself beginning a tear that would carry him through the end of last season. 

During the 423 games Jones played from June 26, 2006 through the end of the 2008 season, he hit .337 with a .436 on-base percentage and a .583 slugging percentage.  

It appeared he was on pace to produce similar numbers when on June 9 of this year, he was hitting .335 with a .442 on-base percentage and a .565 slugging percentage.  But during the 64 games that have followed, he has hit just .242 with a .370 on-base percentage and a .381 slugging percentage. 

Jones was encouraged by his two-hit performance on Thursday night and said that the swing that produced the liner that Gwynn glove would be one that he’d be taking into this weekend’s series in Philadelphia. 

Providing Jones even more reason for encouragement should be the fact that he’s hit .345 with eight homers and a 1.138 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) in his last 25 games at Citizens Bank Park. 

Hanson’s perfect bid:  With a win or no-decision during tonight’s game the birthday boy Tommy Hanson will ensure that he’ll produce perfect records during two of his first three months at the Major League level. 

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last rookie pitcher to record two perfect months with at least four wins was Houston’s Roy Oswalt in 2001. 

Because Hanson was celebrating his 23rd birthday on Friday, we’ll provide him the gift of a mulligan while comparing his success to other Major League pitchers since he debuted.   Thus we won’t factor in his June 7 big league debut. 

In the 13 starts he’s made dating back to June 12, Hanson has posted a 2.68 ERA, which ranks first among the Braves starters and  12th among all Major League pitchers (min. 50 innings) during this span.    One of his primary competitors for NL Rookie of the Year honors, J.A. Happ has posted a 2.47 ERA during this stretch.

Javier Vazquez’s 2.75 ERA ranks 14th in the Majors during this span and Jair Jurrjens’ 2.96 mark ranks 19th.     

Braves bats have recently slumbered at Turner Field

Had the Padres bullpen kept things relatively clean following Mat Latos’ exit on Tuesday night, it would have been a little easier for the Braves to simply tip their caps and accept the fact that they were on the wrong end of a one-run shutout loss.  

During Latos’ seven scoreless innings, the Braves recorded two hits and moved just one baserunner (Matt Diaz in the sixth) into scoring position.  During each of the next three innings that followed the 21-year-old hurler’s exit, they put a runner in scoring position with one out and still managed to register just one run.
 
While recording just one hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position during those three innings, the Braves prolonged a troubling trend that has factored heavily in the that they’ve produced a pedestrian  7-6 record in their past 13 home games.   During this same span, which dates back to July 31, they’ve won seven of 10 road games.

Within their past 13 games at Turner Field, the Braves have compiled a .224 batting average and hit .223 (23-for-103) with runners in scoring position.  During their past 10 road games, they’ve batted .297 and been successful at a .397 (33-for-87) clip with runners in scoring position.

This glaring discrepancy comes within a small sample size.  But at the same time, it’s not as if the Braves possess the margin of error that will allow them to continue experience these kind of offensive struggles at Turner Field and still catch the Phillies or the Denver-based Rock-offs. 

With a second consecutive extra-inning, walk-off victory last night, the Rockies moved 5 games in front of both the Braves and Marlins, who are once again tied for third place in the National League Wild Card standings. 

Even with all of Colorado’s recent success,  it’s too early for the Braves to panic.  While they’re spending the next two nights facing a couple of Padres starters not named Latos, the Rockies will be facing the greater challenge presented by the Dodgers, who have the luxury of serving as the opposition when Josh Fogg makes his first big league start of the season tonight. 

If Fogg channels 2007 and once again becomes the “Dragon-Slayer”  that he was down the stretch that year, then Denver can prepare for another Rocktober and Atlanta can only hope the Dodgers continue to slide or that the Phillies send Brad Lidge to the mound to protect ninth-inning leads on a nightly basis.

Obviously before the Braves can make a serious push toward the postseason, they’ll need to get healthy.  With Ryan Church likely returning tonight and Nate McLouth confident that he’ll be ready when he’s eligible to come off the DL on Monday, they’re at least moving in the right direction.
 
While Martin Prado went hitless in six at-bats last night, it was at least encouraging to hear that he was able to complete a 12-inning game without dealing with any of the headaches or dizziness that had bothered him over the previous 10 days. 

The Braves also welcomed Garret Anderson back to the lineup on Tuesday night and watched him gut through a 1-for-5 performance.    Obviously outfield range isn’t one of Anderson’s assets.  But last night, it was apparent that he was still dealing with some of the lower back discomfort that has kept Church sidelined the past three games.
 
A healthy Anderson wasn’t going to get the game-winner that David Eckstein placed in the  left-center field gap.  But had Church or McLouth been in center, instead of Omar Infante, I think there’s a chance we might have at least seen a 13th inning.
 
Speaking of health, Chipper Jones certainly has said that he’s feeling some of the aches and pains that develop toward the end of a season for a 37-year-old man.  But it’s not as if his offensive struggles simply started over the course of the past nine games, during which he’s recorded one hit in 28 at-bats. 

This nine-game stretch doesn’t seem as concerning when he you account for the fact that he’s walked seven times in his past 18 plate appearances —  largely a product of the fact that the Marlins made it their mission not to let him hurt him this past weekend. 

Plus in the six games that preceded this nine-game slide, Chipper recorded 13 hits, including a pair of homers, in 23 at-bats. 

Concerns about Jones should focus on the fact that he’s hit just .241 with a .384 slugging percentage during his past 62 games.  Within this stretch, which dates back to June 10, he has seen his batting average drop from .335 to .281 and his slugging percentage drop from .565 to .462. 

Making this stretch even more maddening for Jones is the fact that he’s struggled from both sides of the plate and whether at home or on the road. 

Here are some of Jones’ splits during this 62-game stretch:
Vs. LHP   .235 (18-for-91) batting average, .330 on-base percentage, .395 slugging percentage
Vs. RHP  .244 (33-for-135) BA, .384 OBP, .378 SLG
Home:   .239 (28-for-117) BA, .343 OBP, .385 SLG
Road:    .242 (24-for-99) BA, .389 OBP, .384 SLG

Now that the Braves are returning to health, Jones might be given more opportunities to benefit from the rest provided by a day off.   But at the same time, this wouldn’t guarantee an immediate revival.  After straining his left oblique muscle on Aug. 7, he missed three games and didn’t return to the lineup until Aug. 11.
 
If Jones feels that he needs a day off, Braves manager Bobby Cox will likely be more apt to give him one during one of these final two games against the Padres. 

With the Braves heading to Philadelphia this weekend knowing just how significant it would be to exit with a three-game sweep, they’ll need Jones in the lineup  for each of those three games against the Phillies. 

 

Braves playoff hopes still alive

Within yesterday’s offday story, I pointed out that based on the developments that occurred during the previous two seasons, you can’t completely rule out the possibility that the Braves could still win the National League East.

At the same time, I provided a couple of recent examples (2007 Rockies and 2004 Astros) to reinforce the belief that the Braves are still very much alive in the National League Wild Card race.   Of course, I wrote that approximately 12 hours before the Rockies completed their 14-inning marathon against the Giants with Ryan Spilborghs’ walk-off grand slam.

While playing golf, fishing or resting tired muscles yesterday, the Braves lost a half-game in both the National League East and Wild Card races.  They now trail the Phillies by seven games and sit 4 games behind the Rockies.  

Having won seven of their last eight and 17 of their past 24, the Rockies aren’t providing any indication that they’re ready to release their stranglehold atop the Wild Card standings.   But at the same time, they’re providing reason to wonder if they may eventually fall out of this equation and catch the NL West-leading Dodgers, who have gone 10-12 this month and seen their lead over the Rockies shrink to three games.

The Dodgers, who owned an eight-game advantage over the Rockies entering this month, have hit .266, compiled a .330 on-base percentage and scored 4.5 runs per game in August.  From a pitching perspective, they’ve posted a 3.23 ERA.  

In the 24 games the Rockies have played since being shut out in consecutive games by the Mets, they’ve hit .274, compiled a .359 on-base percentage and tallied 5.79 runs per game.  During this span, their pitchers have posted a 3.95 ERA.  

While winning 14 of the 21 games they’ve played this month, the Braves have hit .272, reached base at a .348 clip and tallied 5.29 runs per game.   In the process, their pitchers have posted a 3.41 ERA.  

Looking at a larger sample size, the Cliff Lee-aided Phillies (3.04) are the only NL team that has posted a better ERA than the Braves (3.23) since the All-Star break.  With Spilborghs’ walk-off shot, the Rockies (5.30) became the only NL team that has scored more runs per game since the break than the Braves (5.28).   

Yesterday’s offday story also pointed out that the Braves current record of 66-58 matched the ones the Phillies had tallied on the way to winning the NL East both of the past two seasons.  In addition, I’ve since noticed that the 2006 world champion Cardinals also posted this same mark through their first 124 games.  

On the way to winning the Wild Card and advancing to the 2007 World Series, the Rockies possessed a 63-61 record and sat 3 games back in the Wild Card standings.  

Obviously the variables differ from year-to-year and the Braves certainly aren’t guaranteed the luxury the Phillies gained while the Mets collapsed both of the past two Septembers.   But recent history proves that they are still very much alive with the hope they’ve created courtesy of the recent success that they’ve encountered.  

Red-hot Roachy:  When the Braves acquired Mark Teixeira before the 2007 trade deadline, many immediately compared it to the trade that brought a first baseman named Fred McGriff to Atlanta for the final two months of the 1993 season.

While hitting .289 with nine homers, 26 RBIs and a .711 slugging percentage through his first 20 games,  Teixeira provided the similar immediate impact that McGriff did while hitting .364 with seven homers, 15 RBIs and a .753 slugging percentage during his first 20 games in Atlanta.  

When Adam LaRoche was acquired before this year’s trade deadline, there wasn’t any reason to put pressure on him to produce these kinds of outrageous numbers.  But through his first 20 games back as Atlanta’s first baseman, Roachy has hit .406 with seven homers, 16 RBIs and a .739 slugging percentage.  

Based on this success, the Braves will certainly attempt to keep  LaRoche in Atlanta after he hits the free agent market this offseason.  But with Freddie Freeman just a year or two away from reaching the Majors, they aren’t likely to offer him more than a two-year deal.  

Speaking of Freeman, he’s been placed on the seven-day disabled list with a bruised left hand.   During his first 41 games with Double-A Mississippi, the 19-year-old first baseman has hit .248 with two homers and a .650 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).  

For those of you who looked at yesterday’s box score and also noticed that Jason Heyward didn’t play for Mississippi, he simply got a day to rest.   Through his first 43 games at the Double-A level, Heyward has hit .338 with seven homers and a 1.046 OPS.  

These numbers are even more impressive when you account that he’s hit just .162 with one homer and three RBIs in his past 10 games.   The fact that he’s hit .243 with four homers and an .847 OPS this month should simply be a reminder that even the greatest 20-year-old prospects are going to encounter some form of struggles as they make their march toward the big leagues.  

Medlen’s turnaround:
  While Brian McCann provided the necessary offense, Sunday afternoon’s game against the Marlins couldn’t have been won without the two scoreless innings provided by Kris Medlen.  His effort negated the fact that Derek Lowe was forced to exit after five innings and just 67 pitches   —  a combined product of ineffective mound work and a short bench.
 
In his 13 appearances since the All-Star break, Medlen has worked 19 1/3 innings, posted a 0.93 ERA and limited opponents to a .197 batting average and .250 on-base percentage.
 
This obviously isn’t the same kid who was a nervous wreck when he arrived in the Majors in May.  Much more relaxed, Medlen has proven to be a funny dude in the clubhouse and a talented pitcher, who is going to continue to have chances to provide major impacts as the Braves continue to march into the heat of the postseason races.

Church joins the list of injured Braves

Ryan Church has spent the past week serving as a capable replacement for Nate McLouth in center field.  But  the versatile outfielder found himself as a member of the growing list of  injured Braves players, who were unavailable for Saturday night’s game again the Marlins. 

Church played through the lower back discomfort caused by an aggravated his sacroiliac  joint during Friday night’s series opener against the Marlins.  But when he returned to Turner Field on Saturday afternoon, he found himself battling spasms and a discomfort level that could keep him sidelined until at least Tuesday.

“It was coming on during one of the games in New York and I was just trying to grind through it,” Church said.  “But it’s starting to (spasm) now.”

An aggravated sacroiliac joint has also prevented Garret Anderson from manning the left field position during the first two games of this weekend’s series.  Anderson will begin swinging a bat again on Sunday and might alsobe available for Tuesday night’s series opener against the Padres.
 
“It’s one of those things that’s just a day-to-day type of thing,” said Church, who like Anderson has dealt with this ailment in the past. 

With Church, Anderson and McLouth unavailable, the Braves starting outfield on Saturday consisted of Reid Gorecki in center, Omar Infante in left and Matt Diaz in right.   Infante, who hadn’t previously started in the outfield this year, was replaced at second base with Kelly Johnson.
 
While Martin Prado returned to Turner Field on Saturday and said he was feeling better, it still appears that it will be at least Tuesday before he’s cleared to resume his duties as the starting second baseman.  Prado, who was diagnosed with exertional headaches, is scheduled to visit Dr. Richard Berstein on Monday.
 
The Braves were also without Brian McCann during Saturday night’s game.  Braves manager Bobby Cox gave McCann the opportunity to choose whether he wanted to have his day off on Saturday or Sunday. 

Considering that the Marlins are starting Ricky Nolasco on Sunday, McCann may have made the right choice.  The All-Star catcher has seven hits, including two doubles and two homers, in 22 career at-bats against Nolasco.   But he’s just 1-for-8 in his career against Chris Volstad, who started Saturday’s game for the Marlins. 

McLouth would like to start running to test his strained left hamstring.  But the Braves have decided it would be best for him to wait a few more days.  The 28-year-old center fielder is eligible to come off the disabled list on Aug. 31.  

Braves set for another pivotal weekend

During the second week of this season, while the Marlins were in the midst of winning 12 of their first 13 games, I approached Fredi Gonzalez with one of those casual, “How you feelin’?” and he quickly responded with  “How should I be feeling?”  

Gonzalez was feeling good about his club in April and as we approach the first week of September, he has every reason to feel even better about his club, which had registered double-digit hit totals in 15 straight games before recording just four hits during Thursday night’s loss to the Astros.

Having lost their final two games in Houston, the Marlins come to Atlanta this weekend deadlocked with the Braves in third place in the National League Wild Card standings.  These two teams also sported identical records when the Braves traveled to South Florida during the final week of July and lost two of three.

Simply looking at the fact that there’s an opportunity to push ahead of the Marlins provides reason to say  that this will be the fourth consecutive weekend that the Braves will be playing a “big, clutch, crucial pivotal (or whatever adjective you’d like to insert) series.  

But while spending the past three weekend’s testing themselves against the National League’s elite (Phillies and Dodgers), the Braves didn’t have the opportunity that is present this weekend.

If the Braves are able to complete a sweep while having the luxury of not having to face Josh Johnson this weekend, they’ll have a chance to gain ground on both the Giants and the Rockies, who will begin a four-game series against each other tonight at Coors Field.

Entering this weekend, the Braves and Marlins trail the front-running Rockies by four games and they are two games behind the Giants in the NL Wild Card chase.   

What we have here is the equivalent of a Saturday on the PGA Tour.   What occurs during this “moving weekend” could have a significant bearing on who emerges as this year’s WC winner.  

If the Braves or the Marlins were to complete a sweep this weekend in Atlanta, they’d severely damage the postseason hopes of the other team and gain the possibility to move within 1 games of the top spot —  only possible if the Giants were to take three of four from the Rockies.

Looking at a more likely development, if the Braves or Marlins were to take two of three this weekend and the two NL West teams were to split their four-game series, one of the two NL East teams would simply move to within 3 games of the top spot.

So while there’s a chance that significant ground won’t be gained, this still shapes up as intriguing weekend and one during which the Braves and Marlins will want to pull for the Giants to simply reduce the distance between their position and the top spot.

Church’s contributions:
  After last night’s win over the Mets, Braves manager Bobby Cox wondered what he would have done had he not had Ryan Church to play center field while Nate McLouth continues to deal with his strained left hamstring.

Gregor Blanco certainly wasn’t the answer and there’s no reason to even wonder whether Reid Gorecki or Brian Barton could provide what Church has from both an offensive and defensive perspective.

And there’s no doubt that Church has much greater range than Jeff Francoeur, who likely would have only been considered a late-inning emergency option in center field.

In the 28 games he’s played for the Braves, Church has hit .273 with a .373 on-base percentage, a .443 slugging percentage, two homers and 16 RBIs.

In the 36 games, he’s played for the Mets, Francoeur has hit .297 with a .329 on-base percentage, .471 slugging percentage, five homers and 22 RBIs.  

When you factor the value Church has provided with his defensive versatility, it’s once again evident that the Braves were very fortunate to be able to acquire him in exchange for Francoeur.  In fact, I’d have to say this one has worked out even better than Frank Wren could have imagined.

While thinking along these lines, there’s no doubt that Adam LaRoche has proven to be even better than Wren pictured when he acquired him before the Trade Deadline.   In his first 17 games with the Braves, LaRoche has hit .404 with six homers, a .507 on-base percentage, a .754 slugging percentage and 12 RBIs.

There’s no reason to once again compare these numbers to the ones that Casey Kotchman produced in Atlanta.  Instead it’s sufficient to explain LaRoche’s value by pointing out that he leads all NL first basemen in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage this month.  

Because he’d hit just .223 with a .390 slugging percentage against left-handers before he returned to Atlanta, LaRoche has found himself out of the lineup against some southpaws.  But with Martin Prado ailing, he’s taken advantage of the opportunity to prove that he can hit lefties. 

With the Braves, LaRoche has hit .360 (9-for-25) with a .520 slugging percentage against left-handers. 

The fact that the Marlins are scheduled to start three right-handers this weekend should be viewed as a positive for the Braves, who have hit .287 with a .449 slugging percentage against right-handers this month and .248 with a .408 slugging percentage against left-handers. 

During tonight’s series opener, Javier Vazquez will be pitted against Anibal Sanchez, who will be making his first start since being sidelined with a right shoulder sprain on June 2.   Sanchez is 1-2 with a 7.71 ERA in the four starts he’s made against the Braves since the start of the 2008 season. 

Making matters worse for Sanchez is the fact that he’ll be facing a Braves team that now includes Church.  In 16 career at-bats against the Marlins right-hander, Church has hit .500 with three doubles and a homer.
 
Time to head to the park.  I’ll be sure to provide injury updates regarding Prado, McLouth and Garret Anderson, who left last night’s game with some lower-back discomfort.  

 
 

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