NL showdown will feature plenty of good pitching
Exactly one week after securing World Series home-field advantage for the National League, Brian McCann will have an opportunity to help his Braves teammates maximize the number of games played at Turner Field in October.
The Padres enter tonight’s series opener at The Ted with the NL’s best record, one-half game better than the Braves. There was little reason to think these two teams would be in this position when they matched up in early April.
There was certainly reason to believe the Braves would be a postseason contender. But it would have been hard to predict that the Padres pitching staff would enter July 20 with the best ERA (3.25) in the Majors. They ranked 17th during the 2009 season, while having the benefit of having Mat Latos only make 10 starts.
Fortunately for the Braves, they won’t have to see Latos this week. The talented young right-hander is currently on the disabled list because of an aborted sneeze that caused him to strain a muscle in his left side.
Greg Maddux likely isn’t among those who might be surprised to see what kind of pitching staff Bud Black has assembled. When I asked Maddux to name the game’s best pitching coach about eight years ago, he quickly nominated Black.
With this I regress and once again express my belief that Roger McDowell has what it takes to be a successful Major League manager. But it appears that he’ll be happy to remain in his current role under Bobby Cox’s successor (a.k.a. Fredi Gonzalez).
When Jair Jurrjens takes the mound to oppose Wade LeBlanc in tonight’s series opener, he’ll be much different than he was on April 12, when he allowed the Padres eight earned runs in just 3 1/3 innings. His velocity was significantly down that day and only since returning from the disabled list has he admitted that he still was attempting to regain strength in the right shoulder that ailed him at the beginning of camp.
As Jurrjens walked toward the dugout that day and Jo-Jo Reyes took the mound, I turned to Jim Misudek, the new Braves media relations assistant, and said, “It’s about to get a whole lot worse.”
After losing that series opener in San Diego by a count of 17-2, the Braves came back and won the final two games of the series. Of course the next couple of weeks weren’t exactly memorable for Cox’s troops.
But since May 10, the Braves have produced a Major League-best 41-20 record. The 5 1/2-game advantage they hold over the second-place Mets in the National League East race is the largest division lead they’ve held this late in the season since Sept. 27, 2005.
As you know, Nate McLouth is expected to return from the disabled list tonight and resume his role as the club’s primary centerfielder. McLouth didn’t exactly abuse International League competition during his Minor League rehab stint.
But he’s healthy and the Braves need to evaluate him over the course of the next week to see if they are confident in his ability to be a productive piece down the stretch.
It will be interesting to see what Jonny Venters (four games) and Cox (one game) have to say about the suspensions MLB handed them in response to Prince Fielder getting hit with a pitch on Saturday night.
Whether or not you believe Venters was intentionally throwing at Fielder, you can’t dispute the fact that he gave everybody plenty of reason to believe he was throwing at the big first baseman. In the end, MLB had to levy some kind of punishment.