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 ½ 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 ½ 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.