April 2010

Long losing streak has not killed postseason hopes

One horrid nine-game stretch in April does not define the path that a Major League club is destined to travel over the course of a 162-game season.  But as the Braves attempt to snap a nine-game losing streak against the Astros tonight, they can’t escape the fact that many are already asking, “are they really this bad.”   

Just seven days have passed since I last sat in this Turner Field press box with the belief that a slumbering offense would soon awake and direct the Braves toward a pennant race in September.   Yes 47-year-old Jamie Moyer had just baffled the Atlanta bats in a frustrating manner.   But such an event is deemed just a bump in the road when the calendar still rests on April 22.   

Now on April 30, just 10 days since the Braves constructed their consecutive back-to-back walk-off victories, manager Bobby Cox returned to Turner Field without much reason to laugh.   Coming off a winless seven-game road trip, he is among the many who have to wonder if his club’s nine-game losing streak is a fluke or a sign of things to come.  

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, this is essentially unchartered territory for Cox.   The only 10-game losing streak he has experienced during his long managerial career began with a loss to the Astros on June 11, 2006.  Horacio Ramirez was drilled in the head with a Lance Berkman liner that afternoon and as the Braves left Houston that afternoon they learned their flight to Ft. Lauderdale would include the bumps caused by a nearby hurricane.   

This prompted Chipper Jones to say something like, “The hits keep coming…I suggest staying as far away from the Atlanta Braves as you can now.”

Jones’ playful comment was made at the beginning of a 10-game skid and in the midst of a 23-game stretch that included just three victories.   

During that 10-game losing streak, the Braves hit .256 and saw their pitching staff post a 6.10 ERA.   Within this current nine-game losing streak,, the Braves have batted .223 and compiled a .188 (12-for-64)batting average with runners in scoring position.   The pitchers have posted a 5.20 ERA.  

When asked Friday afternoon, Jones said he did not remember the emotions he felt during that 10-game skid from four years ago.  But he later said, “I’m pretty sure this club is much better than that one.”  

On the charter flight back from St. Louis last night, many of the players dealt with the shock caused by the frustrating road trip.  When some mentioned that things needed to change before the front office decided to start making changes, Jones said, “I like the guys on this team far too much to let us reach a point where some of these guys are getting traded.”  

During this conversation, Troy Glaus mentioned that  the 2002 Angels club that he was a part of started the season with the same 8-14 mark that the Braves carry into Friday night’s series opener against the Astros.  That  Angels club won the World Series six months later.  

Last year there were three postseason participants  –  Twins (11-11), Angels (9-13) Rockies (9-13)  –  who didn’t have a winning record through the season’s first 22 games.    During the 2007 season, three of the National League’s four playoff participants   –  Phillies (10-12), Cubs (9-13) and Rockies (9-13) –  fell into this same category.  

En route to six of their 14 most recent division titles, the Braves had a non-winning record through the first 22 games.   But their only losing record within this category came in 2001, when they won 10 of their first 22 games.  

Given a chance to face Brett Myers, who is 0-3 with a 6.53 ERA in his past four starts against Atlanta, during tonight’s series opener, the Braves seemingly have a good opportunity to begin this homestand in auspicious fashion.   

Because they’ve dug themselves in an early hole, the Braves have made this 162-game journey much more challenging.  But at the same time history has shown that one horrible week can’t solely determine where a team stands in October.

Injury front:  With an offday on Monday, the Braves plan to push Jair Jurrjens’ next start back to May 8.  Jurrjens strained his hamstring during Thursday’s game and was still feeling some tightness on Friday afternoon…Yunel Escobar will be evaluated on a day-to-day basis with his strained left adductor muscle.   Escobar has missed 3-5 days when he has battled this injury in the past. 
 

 

Chipper heals sooner than the Braves offense

From first to worst in a span of four games that the Braves can only
hope mark one of the ugliest mini-stretches they will experience this
season.

As I search for the positives heading into tonight’s
series finale against the Mets, I’m forced to simply draw upon the fact
that the Braves could have easily entered this game riding the
frustration of a seven-game losing streak.

Remember the only
thing separating them from this was the two-walk off victories they
claimed in games where they were behind with two outs in the ninth
inning. 

Or maybe, we can look at the fact that Chipper Jones is
back in tonight’s lineup, less than 24 hours after telling reporters
that he felt his sore right hip would keep him sidelined for more than a
couple of days.

Jones took a few dry swings in his hotel room
this morning and immediately felt his right hip was strong enough for
him to at least bat from the left side of the plate tonight against Mets
right-handed starter Mike Pelfrey.

“The action of pushing off is
what aggravated it yesterday,” Jones said.  “I don’t do that
left-handed.  I just have to get my foot down and pivot from the
left-handed side.  So the left-handed swing should offer a minimal
amount of pain.  When it’s going to come in play is if they turn me
around.”  <p>

Jones said that he will be able to deal with
the pain if the Mets turn him around during an at-bat during the latter
portion of the game.

Yunel update:
The Yunel Escobar
saga continued on Saturday when he chose not to tag from third on the
routine sacrifice fly that Troy Glaus drilled to the right-center field
gap.  The fact that he traveled more than halfway to the plate before
returning to third base indicates he simply thought there were two
outs. 

Escobar hasn’t provided us an explanation and Cox hasn’t
revealed what the shortstop told him or his coaches.  The Braves manager
simply said before Sunday’s game that his coaches have talked to
Escobar “a lot.”

In other words, this wasn’t the first time that
Escobar has made a glaring mental mistake.  The Braves have benched and
yelled at him in the past to no avail.  Of course, I’m not sure Cox has
ever taken the approach that he did yesterday when he unleashed during
his postgame address to the team. 

The point is that the Braves
have made numerous attempts to connect with Escobar and proven
unsuccessful most of the time.   The fact that he played his best
baseball and provided the fewest problems during the second half of last
year wasn’t a fluke.   The influence that Javier Vazquez had on him was
immeasurable. 

Vote of confidence for TP:
  Before
tonight’s game, Cox said there isn’t any reason to blame hitting coach
Terry Pendleton for the club’s offensive struggles. 

“The worst
person in the world you ought to blame for a team not hitting is the
hitting coach,” Cox said. “We all feel bad.  We’re not hitting that bad.
It’s just that when we’re not hitting, we’re not getting them in.”

About
90 minutes after Cox said this, the Braves loaded the bases in the
first inning and then saw Pelfrey escape the jam by getting Jason
Heyward to hit a harmless pop fly to Mets shortstop Jose Reyes. 
 
Entering
Sunday, the Braves  ranked last in the NL with a .216 batting average
with nobody on base and 14th with the .242 mark they had posted with
runners on base.   With runners in scoring position, they ranked 13th
with a .248 mark.  

“That’s the hardest job in the world being
the hitting coach,” Cox said. “They always get fired and re-hired
somewhere.  Why blame them?  Terry is a very good hitting coach.”  

I’m
not making the trip to St. Louis.  But I’ll check in on Tuesday with a
new entry.

Follow me on Twitter @mlbbowman

Braves hope their offensive woes stayed in Atlanta

It’s early, but based on the frustration I could sense in the clubhouse after last night’s loss to Jamie Moyer and the Phillies, I’d have to say the Braves players and coaches share many of the worries you developed while watching them split this recent homestand.

Yes, the Braves managed to win win three of six on this past homestand.  But at the same
time, they needed two dramatic ninth-inning comebacks to prevent going
1-5 during this stretch against the Rockies and Phillies.

It will be a homestand remembered for the two clutch hits that Jason Heyward provided to erase deficits with two outs in the ninth inning.  But even Heyward encountered struggles during this homestand, hitting .211 (4-for-19) with seven strikeouts.  

During this six-game stretch at Turner Field, the Braves hit .225, which is actually better than the .214 mark they have compiled over the previous 10 games entering tonight’s series opener against the Mets. 

Yes,  the Braves were burdened by the fact that they faced Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay and Ubaldo No-No Jimenez during this stretch.  But in the seven games that they didn’t face these elite hurlers, they managed to hit just .249, a mark that would rank as the 11th-best in the 16-team National League this year.  

J.D. Drew, Aramis Ramirez, Mark Teixeira and reigning National League Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan have provided the reminder that many talented players can find their batting averages resting below the Mendoza line during this early stage of the season. 

But as Braves manager Bobby Cox will certainly attest, you can’t have too many key players falling into this category at one time.  

Through the first 15 games of the season, Nate McLouth (.171), Troy Glaus (.170), Matt Diaz (.167) and Melky Cabrera (.125) all find themselves serving as the holes that Jeff Francoeur, Jordan Schafer and Kelly Johnson were during the early portion of the 2009 season. 

McLouth has shown some recent promise and at least provided indication that it’s time for him to play everyday and prove he can be the leadoff hitter the Braves envisioned entering Spring Training.  Yes, he hit just .200 (3-for-15) during the homestand. 

But he followed Tuesday’s walk-off homer with what I thought was a solid 0-for-4 effort against Halladay.  He put good wood on the ball with each of the four balls he put in play. 

As for Glaus, I haven’t exactly seen him benefit from the clutch two-run homer he hit in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s thrilling victory.   That stands as the only hit he’s tallied in his past 23 at-bats  –  a span that includes eight strikeouts. 

Last impressions are always the strongest and the fact that I think there’s more reason to worry about Glaus than McLouth, might just be a product of the fact that the Braves first baseman accounted for two of the 11 strikeouts Jamie Moyer has posted in 18 innings this year.  

Diaz’s early-season struggles aren’t anything new.  On the way to hitting .313 last year, he hit .216 in April. 

Cabrera’s early struggles only seemingly confirm the belief that he will be best utilized as a fourth outfielder, whose versatility will allow him to platoon with Diaz and occasionally give McLouth or Jason Heyward a breather.

Making matters worse for the Braves is the fact that Yunel Escobar is hitting .203 and has totaled just three RBIs since driving in a career-high five runs on Opening Day.  His offensive woes have seemingly affected his body language. 

But as I mentioned in last night’s game story, if the Braves do indeed decide to put Omar Infante at shortstop for tonight’s series opener against the Mets, it won’t be solely because Escobar has struggled from an offensive standpoint. 

During Wednesday night’s game against Halladay, the Braves loaded the bases with one out and then saw Escobar rip a sharp grounder that hit the mound and landing in the glove of a diving Chase Utley, who flipped to first base to begin the run-preventing, inning-ending double play. 

Escobar appeared to be pacing himself down the first base line and a National League scout later told me that he had him clocked at 4.54 going down the line.  Just to give you an idea of what that means, I mentioned that to one of the Braves coaches and they playfully responded, “isn’t that what Eddie (Perez) ran?” 

Then Escobar played a role in the three-run third inning the Phillies constructed against Derek Lowe on Thursday night.  While the official scorer gave Martin Prado the error, there were some in the Braves clubhouse who felt that his double-play feed to Escobar was certainly good enough for a double-play to have been turned. 

My thought was that Prado’s feed was certainly good enough to account for at least one out.  But seemingly preparing to leap over the oncoming runner, Escobar dropped the feed and consequently allowed the Phillies to score two of the three runs they tallied that inning. 

Escobar is a tremendous talent, who has the capability of proving to be one of the game’s best shortstops.  But as the Braves leaned last year while benching him at least three times, there are times when it’s best to make him sit and think about things for at least one game.

As for Glaus, some of you have suggested that the Braves platoon him at first base with Eric Hinske.  I haven’t gained a sense Cox is ready to do this. But the career numbers indicate this is something that might work if Glaus continues to struggle.

GLAUS 
vs. LHP   1267 ABs  .275 BA  87 HRs  .949 OPS
vs. RHP   3784 ABs  .247  219 HRs   .820 OPS

HINSKE 
vs. LHP   673 ABs  .221 19 HRs  .667 OPS
vs. RHP  2439 ABs .263 BA 94 HRs .805 OPS

With Glaus having basically missed all of last year, the Braves are
certainly going to give him more than 15 games to get re-acquainted to
the speed of the game.  But this might be an arrangement that Cox occasionally at least toys with over the next couple days and weeks. 

    

 

 

Looking back on an improbable finish

While watching highlights of last night’s incredible finish, I noticed Bobby Cox’s reaction after Jason Heyward drilled his game-tying, two-out homer in the ninth inning.    While his players instantly celebrated when Heyward’s blast cleared the wall, Cox paused and then began clapping in an excited manner.  

When I get to Turner Field today, I’ll ask him if he remembers his reaction.  But my guess is that his split-second pause was just a product of the fact that he had to give himself time to think, “you’ve got to be kidding me, this kid did it again.”

As great as anybody thought Heyward could be, I think it’s safe to say that he has proven to be even greater during the first 13 games of his career.   Through the first seven games he’s played at Turner Field, he has already produced a memorable homer with the first swing of his career, contributed a walk-off single and foiled the rival Phillies with last night’s blast off Ryan Madson.  

At the ripe age of 20, Heyward has already proven to be Mr. Clutch in Atlanta.   He is hitting .727 (8-for-11) with runners in scoring position and .750 (6-for-8) with two outs and runners in scoring position.   During the eighth and ninth innings combined, he has batted .555 (5-for-9) and his two ninth-inning homers have been hit with the Braves trailing.  

It’s impressive enough to look at the fact that he has compiled 16 RBIs through the first 13 games of his career.  But while watching ESPN’s SportsCenter this morning, many of us learned that Ted Williams was the only other Major League player under the age of 21 to tally 16 RBIs through the first 13 games of his career.  

Still even with all of these impressive statistics, there’s a way to argue that Heyward’s homer simply added to the improbable events that occurred last night.   Down 3-0 with two outs in the ninth, the Braves needed just nine pitches and four at-bats to create a 4-3, 10-inning victory that put them in a first-place tie with a Phillies club that has navigated a much softer schedule through the season’s first two weeks.  

Troy Glaus came to the plate in the ninth inning hearing the displeasure of fans, who were unhappy about the fact that he’d booted a Ryan Howard grounder in the top of the fourth and then hit into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded and Heyward on deck to end the bottom half.

Or maybe those boos were a product of the fact that he was coming to bat with a .181 batting average.  Or maybe it was because he had produced just one hit in the 10 at-bats that he had previously compiled in either the eighth or ninth innings.  

Whatever the case, those boos quickly turned to cheers when Glaus belted Madson’s fastball over the left-center field wall.  His second homer of the year, set the stage for Heyward, who  came to the plate with just four hits in 27 at-bats with the bases empty.  

Stick with me, this was a night where improbability reigned.  Thus in order to figure out how Heyward fit the story line, I had to take advantage of the opportunity to use this early-season trend that really doesn’t bare a whole lot of significance.  

Heyward’s blast opened the door for Billy Wagner to produce a perfect inning and set the stage for Nate McLouth, who came to the plate to begin the top of the 10th inning hitting just .138 (4-for-29).  His most recent extra-base hit had occurred in the sixth inning of last year’s 15-inning season finale against the Nationals.

But after drawing a 2-2 count, McLouth made his first career at-bat against Jose Contreras a memorable one.  After drilling his game-ender into the right field seats, the Braves center fielder celebrated the first walk-off homer of his career in unique style.  

Finally provided the opportunity to carry through with a plan they devised last year, the Braves players and coaches didn’t rush on the field to celebrate this moment with McLouth.  Instead, they pranked him by going down the dugout stairs and heading toward the clubhouse.

“I looked when I got around second (base) and everybody had gone (toward the clubhouse),” McLouth said.  “I didn’t know what to do when I crossed home and there they were waiting for me in the tunnel.  I kind of did the weird little dance before I got down there.  I didn’t know what to do to be honest with you.   I knew I had to slam the helmet at some point, so I did that when I crossed home.”  <p>  

In case you haven’t seen video of this prank, click here to view it.   You can hear John Smoltz laughing with his broadcast partner Joe Simpson and saying, “That’s perfect.”

Further showing the camaraderie this club seems to have, the Braves certainly concluded an improbable finish in perfect fashion.   Entering the ninth inning, McLouth and Glaus had combined to hit .164 (12-for-73) with one extra-base hit.   

Entering tonight’s game against Roy Halladay, they carry a fresh sense of confidence and the tremendous momentum created by two consecutive walk-off victories.  

While Halladay presents a tremendous challenge, we’ve all quickly learned that anything is possible as long as Mr. Heyward is in the house.  

Braves welcome Phillies and Howard back to The Ted

As much as the Braves might like to make an early statement and exit this week’s three-game series against the Phillies sitting atop the National League East standings, it’s still far too early to put too much importance on what transpires at Turner Field over the course of the next three days.  

Through the first 12 games of the 2009 season, the Braves were 6-6 and five games behind the front-running Marlins in the NL East standings.  The Phillies sat 5 games back of this same Marlins club that ended up finishing six game back when all was said and done.  

Oh yeah and in case you forgot, the Braves won seven of the first nine games played against this Phillies team that sat seven games in front of them when the regular season concluded.

The only three-game series against the Phillies that the Braves necessarily want to deem as “important” is the one that will be staged at Turner Field during the final weekend of the regular season (Oct.  1-3).

With this being said, in order to be in position to end Philadelphia’s three-year run as the NL East champs, the Braves certainly could benefit from the opportunity to make a statement against the injury-depleted Phillies club that is in town this week.  

Yes Roy Halladay will toe the rubber during Wednesday night’s game.  But in the other two games this week, the Braves will be challenged by Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer.  

Kendrick has posted a 17.47 ERA and completed just 5 2/3 innings in his first two starts of the season.  The 47-year-old Moyer has split a pair a decisions and surrendered five earned runs in six innings during both of his first two starts.

The Phillies will also be without the leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins, who is on the disabled list with a strained right calf.  Of course seeing how Rollins hit .205 with a .250 on-base percentage through the first 70 games last year, it’s obvious that the Phillies can survive without him serving as a catalyst at the top of the lineup.  

Looking back at how the Braves managed to win seven of the first nine games played against the Phillies last year, Rollins’ early-season struggles obviously played a part.  But so too did the fact that the Atlanta pitchers managed to limit Ryan Howard to a .250 batting average and ZERO homers.  

While losing six of their last nine games against the Phillies, the Braves saw Howard hit .438 (14-for-32) with eight homers, 14 RBIs, eight strikeouts, two walks (one intentional) and a 1.776 OPS.

Despite his early struggles, Howard still hit more homers (8) and  collected more RBIs (16) than any other player against the Braves last year.  Among those who registered at least 20 plate appearances, his .794 slugging percentage ranked fourth behind Jay Bruce (1.000), Ryan Braun (.833) and Andre Ethier (.800).

During their final six wins against the Braves this year, the Phillies totaled 27 runs.  Howard drove in 11 of those runs and each of these RBIs came courtesy of home runs.

Tommy Hanson, who surrendered one of those eight homers drilled by Howard, will take the hill for the Braves during tonight’s series opener.   Hanson lost just twice in his final 11 starts last year and both of those setbacks came during rain-interrupted outings against the Phillies.  
When Hanson took the mound at Turner Field last year, he was serenaded by Green Day’s “Know Your Enemy.”  

As I mentioned in October,  I suggest the Braves to provide a friendly reminder to their pitchers by playing this song whenever Howard strolls to the plate.  Or maybe they should just cut to the chase and play Aerosmith/Run DMC’s  “Walk This Way”.  

Braves manager Bobby Cox has Matt Diaz back in the leadoff spot for tonight’s series opener against the Phillies.  Diaz has three hits in four career at-bats against Kendrick, who has surrendered a pair of homers to both Chipper Jones and Nate McLouth.

Cox has also moved Heyward up to the sixth spot today and dropped the slumping Yunel Escobar to the seventh spot.  Escobar has tallied just three RBIs since his five-RBI performance on Opening Day. 

BRAVES LINEUP for 4/20 vs. Phillies

Diaz 7
Prado 4
Chipper 5
McCann 2
Glaus 3
Heyward 9
Escobar 6
McLouth 8
Hanson 1

Braves attempting to cure no-hitter hangover

After Ubaldo Jimenez completed his masterpiece at Turner Field last night, Chipper Jones walked through the Braves clubhouse and said, “No batting practice, 13 hits, batting practice and we get no hits.”

Jones was playfully referencing the fact that the Braves opted not to take batting practice on the field on Friday and then erupted for 13 hits in the series opener against the Rockies.  Then after going back to their regular pregame routine on Saturday they were saddled with the frustration of Jimenez’s no-hitter. 

As was mentioned in today’s game story, Jones and a handful of other players and coaches have said “a loss is a loss.”   While I think they’re trying to soothe the mood following Jimenez’s gem, Saturday’s loss certainly didn’t prove to be as frustrating as the one the Braves suffered on April 9, when they blew a two-run lead with one out in the ninth. 

Talked to Derek Lowe about the no-hitter that he threw for the Red Sox back in 2002.  He had gone seven years without watching footage of that game before the Braves video coordinator gave him a DVD copy to view on Saturday.

“What are the odds,” Lowe said. 

Well the odds are pretty good that the Braves will tally at least one hit against Greg Smith today.  Here is the lineup that Bobby Cox has assembled for this afternoon’s series finale.

Matt Diaz 7
Martin Prado 4
Chipper Jones 5
Brian McCann 2
Troy Glaus 3
Yunel Escobar 6
Jason Heyward 9
Melky Cabrera 8
Jair Jurrjens 1
 

Odds and ends on a Saturday night at The Ted

As I started to compose this new blog to refresh the outdated one that was sent before we returned to pollen heaven, some guy dressed in Jason Heyward’s uniform struck out against Ubaldo Jimenez.  My guess is that this was an imposter standing in for the real Heyward, who was summoned to Philips Arena after the Bucks cut the Hawks lead to 10 tonight. 

Just going to throw some odds and ends at you tonight:

Jair Jurrjens continues to say that his shoulder is fine and that his drop in velocity on Monday was likely more a mechanical issue.   He completed a 30-minute bullpen session with Roger McDowell on Thursday and will go into Sunday’s start looking to slow his delivery toward the plate. 

Since Jurrjens was cleared to start pitching in early March, we’ve heard him say that he’s rushing himself toward the plate and consequently altering his command.  Obviously this could affect his velocity.  But this is something that tends to be overlooked until a pitcher struggles over a long stretch or experiences a horrific outing like the one Jurrjens experienced in San Diego. 

As expected, the Braves brought Jonny Venters up to the Majors today and sent Mike Dunn back to Triple-A Gwinnett.  Bobby Cox said he wanted a guy like Venters, who would be available to serve as a long reliever. 

Yeah, Kris Medlen is around to serve in this role.  But while utilizing Medlen in five of the first 10 games this year, the Braves have proven that he’s much more than a guy who will be called upon to clean up messes like the one that Jo-Jo Reyes turned into a disaster on Monday.

Medlen, who has recorded nine strikeouts and issued just one walk in 7 1/3 innings this year, provide two very valuable scoreless innings during Friday night’s win over the Rockies.  His ability to finish the game allowed Cox to provide each of his three top relievers  –  Peter Moylan, Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner  –  a chance to sit back and enjoy a night of rest. 

Moylan, Saito and Wagner had each appeared in games the previous two days.

While we’re talking about the bullpen, Phillies might be sad to know that Medlen will no longer be carrying the “My Little Pony” backpack that he was assigned when he joined the Atlanta bullpen as the least-tenured member last year.  If Venters sticks around until at least May 7, he will draw the wrath of the Phillies fans. 

Before Saturday’s game, Medlen got rid of his backpack, stopped at Target and bought a Hannah Montana backpack that has already been presented to Venters. 

These bags contain drinks, candy and a variety of other things that veteran relievers request to be brought to the bullpen.  Before Medlen told us today, I never knew that he used to carry smelling salts that Mike Gonzalez used to use while warming up.

Seeing how the Orioles have slumbered through the season’s first two weeks,  I’m guessing that Gonzalez and his teammates wouldn’t have to worry if smelling salts were suddenly placed on the banned substance list.   

Courtesy of the Braves game notes
:  The Braves entered Saturday with a 4.03 ERA, which ranked 14th in the Majors and sixth in the NL.   Take away the 17 earned runs they allowed in eight innings on Monday, they would have a Major League-best 2.58 ERA.   

Diaz back in the leadoff role for series finale

If it ain’t broke, then don’t try to fix it. 

Braves manager Bobby Cox won Wednesday night’s game with Matt Diaz at the top of the lineup and thus it makes sense for him to place the unconventional leadoff hitter back in that same role for this afternoon’s series finale against the Padres.

Regardless of how the Braves fare against Mat Latos and the Padres this afternoon, many of you are going to look back on this road trip with the belief that it should have included one or two more wins (Friday and Sunday’s games).   There’s nothing wrong with that.  Debates are what make the baseball world go round.

Still when you consider how that this trip started with a cross-country flight after a night game in Atlanta that was followed by an emotionally-draining 13-inning loss on Friday,  you have to agree the Braves will have to feel lucky if they are able to complete this California swing with a 3-3 record.

And if that isn’t enough to convince you, how about throwing in the fact that they waited through a 4-hour, 9-minute rain delay only to draw the challenge that Tim Lincecum presented during Sunday afternoon’s loss? 

Regardless of how you assess this trip, a win today keeps the Braves in pretty good position as they head home on Friday to begin a tough six-game stretch against the Rockies and Phillies.

BRAVES LINEUP vs. Padres 4/15

Diaz 7
Prado 4
Jones 5
McCann 2
Glaus 3
Escobar 6
Heyward 9
McLouth 8
Hudson 1      

Chipper returns to the lineup

When Chipper Jones said that he experienced some back spasms on Sunday afternoon, there was little reason to think he could return to the Braves lineup just 24 hours later.  But after taking some swings and grounders during batting practice on Monday afternoon, the veteran third baseman told manager Bobby Cox that he was ready to resume playing. 

Jones was back in the lineup for Monday afternoon’s game against the Padres at PETCO Park.  He had been sidelined since he exited Thursday night’s game against the Cubs with a strained right oblique muscle. 

When Jones arrived at the park on Monday morning, he took some pain-free swings in the indoor batting cages.  A couple hours later, he went through his normal batting practice exercises and determined that his back and oblique were strong enough for him to begin playing again. 

Jones, who received a cortisone shot on Thursday night, said after Sunday afternoon’s loss to the Giants that he felt the need to return to the lineup as soon as possible.  The Braves had lost three of four dating back to Thursday.

McLouth returns to the top of the lineup

After playing the entirety of Friday afternoon’s 13-inning loss, Melky Cabrera returned to the clubhouse on Saturday afternoon and learned that he was getting a chance to rest. 

Braves manager Bobby Cox has Nate McLouth starting in center and handling the leadoff role for tonight’s contest against Giants right-hander Todd Wellemeyer.  If McLouth can show some consistency at the plate, he could find allow Cox to utilize his original plan to have him in the leadoff spot on a daily basis. 

Obviously many of you will be interested to see if Jason Heyward can escape his mini-funk tonight.  While going 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts since Opening Day, the young phenom hasn’t looked like the same disciplined hitter that we saw in Spring Training. 

But while the strikeout total might be somewhat alarming, there really isn’t any reason to panic or start making any comparisons to Jordan Schafer.  This is a 20-year-old kid who shares the same mortal flaws as the legendary figures who couldn’t avoid the rude initiation this game presents. 

Ken Griffey Jr. recorded one hit in the 15 at-bats he tallied through the first four games of his career and the great Hank Aaron had three hits (two doubles) in the 15 at-bats that he carried into the fifth game of his career.

Those four strikeouts that Heyward registered on Friday afternoon could have been a product of his desire to drive a ball into the bay.  Or quite simply, he might have simply been showing some fatigue after making the first cross-country trip of his professional career. 

Whatever the case, there isn’t much reason to currently worry about Heyward.  In fact, if he’s able to end this mini-slump quickly, you’ll have more reason to understand why his demeanor is just as much of an asset as his tremendous physical skills. 

Before I head down to the clubhouse, I wanted to let you know that Scott Proctor recorded two strikeouts and worked  perfect inning in his debut for Triple-A Gwinnett on Friday night.  I’m still thinking the veteran reliever could join the Atlanta bullpen at some point next weekend.

BRAVES LINEUP
McLouth 8
Prado 5
McCann 2
Glaus 3
Escobar 6
Heyward 9
Diaz 7
Infante 4
Lowe 1 

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