September 2010

Braves once again look to get healthy at Turner Field

In observance of the upcoming Ryder Cup, the Braves have taken a gentlemen’s approach and honored the Phillies’ standing as two-time defending National League champs by giving their brothers from Philadelphia a half-game advantage in the NL East standings.
 
Had the Braves simply split the disaster that is also known as the just-completed six-game road trip, they would have returned to Atlanta still holding the same first-place position that had been theirs since Memorial Day.
  
But while laboring to win just twice during this six-game span against the Marlins and Pirates, they squandered what was a seven-game lead on July 22 and created the possibility that they wouldn’t even have home-field advantage during the opening-round of the playoffs.
 
A week ago there was little reason to worry too much about the possibility that the Braves won’t at least find entry into this year’s playoff field.  Yes, there was already reason to wonder if the Phillies would once again reclaim their familiar spot atop the NL East standings.
 
But with a four-game advantage over the Giants, the Braves seemed to  at least have some comfort in the Wild Card standings.  Well the Giants have reduced that comfort to two games and with yet another of their late-season surges, the Rockies now seem very dangerous while sitting 4 games behind the Braves in the WC standings.
 
Maybe it’s only fitting that this club that has habitually managed to deliver decisive hits in their last turn at bat will force Bobby Cox to spend his final 22 regular season games feeling some of the same stress that was present when his club won the first of its 14 consecutive division titles. 

Through the first 130 games of the 1991 season, the Braves were tied game with the Dodgers in the NL West race.  With 22 games left in the 1993 season, they were four games behind the Giants.   At this same point in 1999, 2000 and 2001, they didn’t have a lead greater than 1 games.

The Braves clinched the division during the final weekend of the regular season in ’91, ’93, 2000 and ’01. With the Phillies scheduled to close the regular season in Atlanta, it appears the excitement regarding this year’s final weekend will extend far beyond the tributes paid to Cox. 

Or maybe there truly is reason to be concerned about what transpired since the Braves last played at Turner Field.   Yes they managed to beat top NL Cy Young candidate Josh Johnson and veteran Zach Duke.   But they also lost games started by four pitchers who have combined to post a 5.03 ERA this season. 

The composition of this sentence has been changed since I originally wrote that there has been reason to be concerned about the Braves offense since they slumbered through the four-game series against the Brewers immediately following the All-Star break. 

Upon further review, the Braves have hit .263 with a .762 OPS and averaged 4.8 runs in the 52 games played since the break, In the 52 games leading up to the break, they batted .272 with a .761 OPS and averaged 4.8 runs.

The Braves pitching staff posted a 3.22 ERA in the 52 games leading up to the break.  They have posted a 3.44 ERA in the 52 games that have followed the break. 

While the batting average and ERA aren’t identical, it’s still hard to look at all of these similar numbers and understand how the Braves won 35 of 52 heading into the break and just 28 of 52 since the break.   That’s essentially a difference of a little more than a win per week.  

The 52 games leading into the break included an identical number of home and road games. 
Of course that was back when the Braves were actually able to be productive outside of Atlanta. 

With just nine wins in the 24 road games that have followed the break, the Braves aren’t the same team that won 6 of 11 during an early June road trip that took them to Los Angeles, Phoenix and Minneapolis.   Instead, they’ve looked much more like the club that went to Chicago a little more than a week later and got swept by the then red-hot White Sox. 

Now that they’ve unpacked their suitcases and reintroduced themselves to Atlanta, it’s time for the Braves to rekindle the optimism that existed exactly one week ago when they were bidding to complete a four-game sweep of the Mets.   The loss suffered in that series finale dropped the Braves to 19-9 at home since the break. 

The Braves will return home tonight looking to extend the recent struggles of the Cardinals, who have batted .236 and averaged 3.8 runs while winning just seven of their past 23 games.   Any matchup against Albert Pujols can’t be deemed comfortable.   But Jair Jurrjens can head into this start with confidence that extends beyond the fact that he is 6-0 with a 2.15 ERA in eight home starts this year. 

Coming off the masterpiece he tossed against Johnson Saturday night, Jurrjens will be looking to also further damage Adam Wainwright’s once-strong Cy Young Award candidacy.  The former Braves top prospect went 7-1 with a 1.14 ERA in a nine-start stretch that ran through Aug. 11.  In his past four starts, the lanky right-hander is 0-4 with a 4.88 ERA.  

If tonight’s game was in St. Louis, there would certainly be reason to deem this a prime opportunity for Wainwright to end his recent frustrations.  But now that the Braves are back in Atlanta, it’s seemingly time for them to once again start looking like a first-place team.

Lowe set to start against Pirates Wednesday

We’ll keep this short on this short morning…

Derek Lowe played catch this morning and returned to the clubhouse to confirm that he will make Wednesday’s scheduled start in Pittsburgh.  While there might be some lingering discomfort behind his right elbow, he isn’t dealing with the pain that was present when he allowed the Marlins five earned runs in just three innings last Sunday. 

Lowe says he has spent most of the past decade pitching with a bone chip in his elbow. The Braves just need him to make at least five more starts this year while battling whatever discomfort it causes.  

If he needs to rest when October arrives, the Braves could easily keep him off the Division Series roster and throw him on the National League Championship Series roster if necessary.

  • Troy Glaus will bat fifth and start at first base today.  He says he hasn’t forgotten how to play first base over the course of the past three weeks.  The Braves are simply hoping that he remembers how to hit like he did three months ago.
  • “It is what it is” is one of the most worthless phrases in the English language.  But I really don’t know if there is any other way to react to the fact that the Marlins have chosen to become the only Major League club that won’t honor Bobby Cox in some way during his final trip to their city.  

In case you forgot, this was Cox’s response to the Marlins decision to fire his good friend and likely successor Fredi Gonzalez in June.

“I know (Marlins owner Jeffery Loria) is unpredictable. But everything that [Gonzalez]
has done for that guy, are [you] kidding me? Every year, they’ve played
their [butts] off. That guy didn’t appreciate anything. He’s one of
those guys that thinks you change [just to change]. He’s always wanting
to fire the coaches. Always. That’s his history. He lost a good one
there.”
  

Kawakami has at least been as effective as Lowe

When Derek Lowe was drawing significant run support and Kenshin Kawakami couldn’t buy a win during the early portion of the season, it was easy to argue that Kawakami had actually been more effective during his starts. 

Now that Lowe is sidelined with discomfort behind his right elbow, I’ve heard many people ask what can the Braves expect out of Kawakami while he fills in for the injured sinkerballer. 

The simple answer is, “basically the same thing that they could expect from Lowe.” It’s been a flip of the coin whenever either of these two hurlers have taken the mound this year. 

In the 15 starts he made before being sent to the bullpen and then Triple-A Gwinnett, Kawakami was 1-9 with a 4.48 ERA.  Opponents hit .271 against him and compiled a .326 on-base percentage.

In the 15 starts Lowe had made before his right arm was essentially “worthless” (stole that description from Lowe),  he was 3-8 with a 4.25 ERA.  Opponents hit .271 and compiled a .336 on-base percentage during this span.

Before being sent to the bullpen, Kawakami was showing occasional signs of improvement.  He allowed three earned runs or fewer in eight of his last 11 starts.  

During Kawakami’s last eight starts, he went 1-3 with a 3.40 ERA.  Opponents hit .254 against him and reached base at a .313 clip. 

In the eight starts Lowe made before his hand went numb Sunday, he was 2-4 with a 4.27 ERA.  Opponents hit .286 during this stretch and compiled a .330 on-base percentage. 

So even while throwing out the five earned runs that Lowe allowed in three innings against the Marlins last Sunday, it’s apparent that you can still argue that Kawakami has been the more effective payroll eyesore this year. 

There’s little reason to be encouraged about the fact that Kawakami allowed 26 hits, including five homers, in the 21 innings that he completed for Triple-A Gwinnett in August. 

But since I provided some generosity when accounting for Lowe’s numbers, I figure I should provide the reminder that he had been essentially idle for six weeks before heading to the Minors to stretch out his arm and develop a secondary pitch (slider) that he can throw for strikes.

Kawakami didn’t begin throwing this slider until the final week of June.  Thus it might not be smart for him to test it against Dan Uggla, who has four hits, including a homer and a double, in nine at-bats against the Japanese right-hander.

I also wouldn’t suggest Kawakami doing anything to infuriate Gaby Sanchez.  The Marlins first baseman is in the lineup tonight.  Thus I’m going to have to assume he has appealed the the three-game suspension in response to the Bill Goldberg clothesline that he delivered to Nyjer Morgan Wednesday night.

When the Braves pounded Ricky Nolasco for six runs in just two innings Saturday, it was apparent that something might not be right.  The Marlins right-hander had notched a 16-strikeout performance and an  11-strikeout performance in two of his three previous starts against Atlanta.  

With Nolasco sidelined by a torn meniscus in his right knee, the Marlins will send Andrew Miller to the mound for tonight’s series opener.  The once highly-regarded left-hander will be making just his second Major League start this season.  He went 1-8 with a 6.01 ERA in 18 starts with Double-A Jacksonville this year. 

Add the one win Miller notched for Class A-Advanced Jupiter and we now at least have three combined wins between tonight’s starting pitchers.  The Braves and Marlins might light up the scoreboard like the University of Miami did last night on this severely damaged turf. 

Wait until you see the dead grass (especially behind second base) on television tonight.  You’ll see what I’m talking about.

 
   

Santana appears to be heading toward more tough luck

It’s hard to believe Johan Santana arrived at Turner Field this afternoon with a whole lot of confidence.  His Mets teammates, who have scored two runs or fewer in four of their past six games, will draw the challenge of solving Tim Hudson, who has allowed one earned run or less in nine of his past 14 starts and six of his past eight.  

Oh yeah, Santana will be also be staring at the Tomahawk-chested club that has frustrated him throughout his career.   In 11 career starts against the Braves, his teammates have never tallied more than two runs while he’s still been in the game.   This should better explain why he’s gone 2-6 with a 2.31 ERA in these outings.  

And to add to Santana’s woes, he’ll once again be facing an Atlanta lineup that includes Matt Diaz.   After striking out in his final two at-bats of an Aug. 2 matchup, Diaz enters tonight’s game with a .533 career batting average against the former Cy Young Award winner.  

The Braves will be looking to complete their first four-game sweep against the Mets since May 22, 2008.   In case you were wondering, Hudson provided eight solid innings that evening and beat Santana, who was charged with three earned runs. 

Before allowing four earned runs during his Aug. 2 matchup against Hudson, Santana had never allowed more than three earned runs against the Braves.   In fact, he’s allowed two earned runs or less in eight of his 11 career outings against them. 

Hudson hasn’t allowed more than two earned runs in any of his four previous starts against the Mets.  The lone earned run he’s allowed them in 13 innings this year came of an RBI double produced by Carlos Beltran. 

I haven’t seen the Mets lineup yet.  But I’m going to guess that Beltran will be playing.  He has hit .381 (24-for-63) with four homers in his career against Hudson. 

BRAVES LINEUP:

Infante 4
Heyward 9
Prado 5
Lee 3
McCann 2
Diaz 7
Gonzalez 6
Cabrera 8
Hudson 1 

Braves pacing toward franchise-best home record

While saying goodbye to Altanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1996, the Braves set a franchise record with 56 home victories.  Before bidding adieu to Bobby Cox at the end of this year, they will could easily  surpass this total.

With a Major League-best 48  home wins (four more than any other club) and 15 more games remaining at Turner Field, the Braves are certainly on pace to better the record 56 home wins that were posted by the 1996, ’98 and ’99 clubs.  

Since losing their only home series of the year to the Phillies in April, the Braves have  gone 43-14 at The Ted.  They have batted .277, slugged .438 and posted a 3.01 ERA during this 57-game span that began with an April 30 win over the Astros.  

During this same span, which accounts for everything that occurred after April’s nine-game losing streak, the Braves have gone 26-27 on the road.   They have batted .256, recorded a .409 slugging percentage and posted a 3.80 ERA in these games.

So, is it good that the Braves will spend half of their remaining 30 games at home?  Or bad that half of these games will be contested outside of Atlanta?  

Heading into tonight’s game against the Mets, the Braves own a three-game lead in the National League East race and stand 4 games in front of the Giants, who sit directly behind the front-running Phillies by a 1 in the Wild Card standings.  

With the remainder of this season essentially consisting of one more month, there’s still plenty of time for anything to happen.  But as things currently stand, it appears the Reds, Padres, Phillies, Giants and Braves will serve as the primary contenders to fight for the makeup of the NL’s four playoff spots.

The slumping Cardinals sit four games back in the Wild Card standings (seven games behind the Braves) and the surging Rockies are 4 games back in the battle to determine the NL’s last playoff entrant.
 
In other words, Braves fans should be every bit as interested in what the Giants do as they are in the Phillies results.

According to Baseball Prospectus, the Braves have an 85 percent chance to win their division and a 96 percent chance to gain a playoff spot.  

NFL legend Al Davis coined the phrase “Just Win Baby.”  As the Marlins have twice proven, the baseball world’s mantra can simply be “Just Get In Baby.”  

Freeman’s arrival:  With Freddie Freeman joining the Major League roster tonight, there is reason to wonder what kind of role the highly-regarded prospect will play over the course of the next couple of weeks.   For now, we can only expect that he’ll come off the bench for some at-bats and maybe get a couple of starts at first base.

That first start will come tonight.  Cox doesn’t mess around. When he wants to see a new player in the lineup, he throws him in there immediately and lets him show what he can do.

As Derrek Lee talked to us after his three-hit performance last night, you have to wonder if his ailing back will open the door for Troy Glaus and/or Freeman to make more than just a couple of starts at first base.  

When asked about his back, Lee said “It feels alright” and gave every indication that he really wanted to say, “It hurts like hell.”  

When Glaus returned to the clubhouse yesterday, he said he would be disappointed if he doesn’t get regular playing time over the course of the next few weeks.  I can understand that every player in his position would share this feeling.
 
But I can’t understand where he thinks he’s going to get regular playing time.  Martin Prado has proven to be steady at third base and there’s obviously no reason to take Omar Infante’s bat out of the lineup.
 
There may be some opportunities for Glaus to spell Lee at first base.  But my gut feeling is that Cox would be tempted to provide Freeman those opportunities.
 
LaRoche’s humor:  Check out Kelly Johnson’s reaction to the music that greeted him before a couple of plate appearances during last night’s win over the Padres.   Adam LaRoche served as the mastermind for this prank.

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