April 2011

Braves need to assess roster needs

Regardless of how they fare during the final two games of this week’s series against the Padres, the Braves will return home and have to seriously evaluate the possibility of making multiple adjustments to their roster.

As was proven with last weekend’s sweep in San Francisco, this is a talented club that is capable of matching up against the game’s best.  But there have also been far too many games when it has been apparent that they have obvious weaknesses on their bench and in the bullpen.

Perfect rosters simply don’t exist in the baseball world.   The Braves simply have to feel fortunate that they at least have internal pieces that could help strengthen their bench or bullpen.

Long before Cristhian Martinez surrendered Ryan Ludwick’s walk-off homer in last night’s 5-3 loss to the Padres, the Braves squandered a perfectly good opportunity to claim a series-opening win against a club that has totaled just three runs over its previous four games.

There are no guarantees in the athletic world.  But had the Braves recorded that last out in the seventh inning with their one-run lead intact, you certainly would have felt good about the odds of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel shutting things down in the eighth and ninth innings.

“The most important inning in every single ball game that we play this year is the seventh inning,” Chipper Jones said after last night’s loss.  “If we get through the seventh, we’re fine.  If we don’t get through the seventh, we’re going to get beat.  It changes the whole outlook of the game.”

It’s been said so many times over the past couple days that I’m starting to feel like I’m Peter Moylan’s publicist.  But had Moylan been around for last night’s seventh inning, there’s a pretty good chance the Braves would be entering tonight’s game with a four-game winning streak.

Well actually if he had been available to pitch the seventh inning of last Thursday’s 12-inning loss to the Dodgers, the Braves might be carrying a five-game winning streak into tonight’s game.

Instead the Braves were left to hand the ball to Scott Linebrink in both instances.  Linebrink allowed the Dodgers to hit a go-ahead homer in last Thursday’s seventh inning and allowed the Padres to tie the game after he entered last night’s game with two outs in the seventh.

Some of you were upset that Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez pulled left-handed reliever Eric O’Flaherty after he recorded the first two outs of last night’s seventh inning.   O’Flaherty had thrown 30 pitches while recording two scoreless innings on Sunday and had thrown just 10 pitches Monday night.

Obviously, O’Flaherty could have remained in the game to face right-handed Nick Hundley, who hit .274 in 62 at-bats against left-handed pitchers last year and .242 in 211 at-bats against right-handed pitchers.

Gonzalez has given O’Flaherty multiple opportunities to face right-handed hitters this year and he has proven quite effective, minus when he allowed three singles to right-handers during an April 14 loss.  But this time he handed the ball to Linebrink, who has now allowed right-handers eight hits in 25 at-bats this year.

Linebrink seemed to create some optimism when he displayed an effective split-finger against the Mets in the ninth inning of the second game of a doubleheader on April 16.  But he has provided Gonzalez little reason to confidently use him in tight situations.

Linebrink hasn’t provided many surprises.  As Spring Training progressed and the first weeks of the regular season elapsed, there wasn’t much reason to believe he would play one of the key roles in the bullpen.  But one month into the season, it’s seemingly time to assess whether the Braves have to clear some dead weight out of their bullpen.

Heading into tonight’s game, Gonzalez knows he can confidently turn to Venters and Kimbrel. O’Flaherty also fits in the “highly-dependable” category that Moylan will fall back into once he returns from the disabled list.

With these four relievers, the Braves have the foundation of a solid bullpen.  It would certainly be strengthened if Cory Gearrin is able to continue pitching like he did while tossing two perfect innings in his Major League debut last night.

Most Major League clubs should feel good about having five reliable relievers.  But once Moylan returns (possibly as early as Saturday), the Braves may have to ask whether they should cut ties with either Linebrink or George Sherrill, the left-handed specialist who has made eight appearances this year and just one during the first eight games of this road trip.

Simply put, Gearrin, Jairo Asencio, Juan Abreu and Stephen Marek all seem to be better options.

From an offensive standpoint, the Braves are expected to promote another position player when they return home for this weekend’s series against the Cardinals.  Matt Young was sent to Gwinnett last Friday, when the Braves wisely opted to carry an extra pitcher for this week.

But when it comes time to return to a 12-man pitching staff, the Braves may be better served to promote Jose Constanza, who hit .347 (25-for-72) and been successful with eight of his nine stolen base attempts for Triple-A Gwinnett this year.

The Braves’ bench has also seemingly been weakened as they have spent the season’s first month carrying Brandon Hicks and Brooks Conrad at the same time.  Hicks needs to be around to serve as a backup shortstop and Conrad was Mr. Clutch coming off the bench this year.

But Conrad hasn’t played the field at any point this year and there are no guarantees he will rekindle the magic he displayed last year.  If the Braves are going to carry somebody who simply serves as a pinch hitter, they might be better off utilizing Mauro Gomez’s power or Wilkin Ramirez’ power-speed talents.

Braves suddenly creating optimism

Like I said within Friday’s blog post, there’s a lot to like about this team right now.   Well, I might have actually said something completely different, or essentially the same thing  many of you were likely feeling before the Braves abruptly turned things around with a three-game sweep of the defending world champion Giants.

Coming off Thursday’s tough 12-inning loss to the Dodgers, things simply didn’t look good for the Braves.  Their offense was lifeless and injuries were depleting their bullpen.  Peter Moylan was in Atlanta with a sore back and Jonny Venters was heading to San Francisco simply hoping that there was no reason to be concerned about the discomfort in his upper left arm.

There certainly didn’t seem to be any concern as Venters needed just 13 pitches to record a scoreless 10th inning Sunday afternoon and secure a three-game sweep that completely altered the mood surrounding this club.  David Ross was singing a little louder in the clubhouse and Jason Heyward’s infectious laugh was reverberating off the clubhouse walls.

Having lost six of their previous nine games, the Braves obviously needed the kind of pick-me-up they gained while beating Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and a solid Giants bullpen (All-Star closer Brian Wilson got the loss Sunday) this weekend.

Friday’s win was a product of Tommy Hanson’s solid start and the ability to take advantage of a pair of Bumgarner walks in a four-run, third inning.   Saturday’s victory was a product of Tim Hudson’s strong start, the  patience shown while Lincecum issued a career-high six walks and the ability to deliver key hits after those walks.

Sunday’s thrilling victory was a product of so many different things.  Brandon Beachy produced a very encouraging start and Jason Heyward did something more than you’d know if you simply looked at the box score and saw that his three-hit performance included a clutch go-ahead three-run, seventh-inning homer.

Heyward started to bail while looking at a 1-1 curveball that left-handed reliever Jeremy Affeldt threw him in the seventh inning.  Three pitches later, the 21-year-old right fielder never flinched before drilling Affeldt’s 1-2 curveball over the right-centerfield wall.

Within Friday’s post, I mentioned that scouts were saying it’s time for Heyward to make adjustments.   While recording seven hits, including a double and homer,  in 12 at-bats this past weekend, he certainly looked much better than he had while hitting .164 (9-for-55) in the 17 games leading up to this series.

After Jairo Asencio provided his best Luis Valdez impersonation and allowed the Giants to erase a three-run deficit with a four-run seventh, Dan Uggla began the eighth with a game-tying home run.   Uggla will soon start to show more consistency at the plate.  But I don’t know if I’ve ever seen somebody deliver so many key hits while batting just .182.

Capping the top offensive contributors from Sunday’s game, Nate McLouth obviously delivered the decisive blow when he sent Wilson’s 3-2 fastball to centerfield for a two-out, two-run single in the ninth.   Last year, McLouth wouldn’t have had a chance in that situation.  This year with the renewed confidence he has shown since returning to Atlanta in late January, he was able to show great patience after getting ahead of Wilson with a 3-0 count.

“With two outs there I wanted to take two strikes and make him throw two consecutive strikes,” McLouth said.  “Luckily, the last one,  I put a pretty good swing on it.”

Recognizing that Wilson had absolutely no room for error, McLouth allowed himself to look at a 3-1 fastball and know that the All-Star closer’s 3-2 delivery would also likely be a heater.

While McLouth was being heralded for the game-winning and Chipper Jones was drawing attention after delivering a pair of big hits on his 39th birthday, Eric O’Flaherty’s performance was being overshadowed.

But out of all the key contributions made Sunday, O’Flaherty’s might have been the most significant.  Proving yet again that he is much more than just a left-handed specialist, the veteran southpaw tossed two scoreless innings and handed the ball to Venters to work the 10th.

At a time when Peter Moylan’s great value is being recognized by his injury-related absence, O’Flaherty shined while allowing just one hit over those two scoreless innings.

Without O’Flaherty’s effort, Jones wouldn’t have been able to sum up the 10-inning win with another of his top-caliber quotes.

“That’s what you live to play for,”  Jones said. “You don’t live to play for the 5-0 shutout.  That game right there, that’s what you live for.  That’s two teams getting after it.  Body shot for body shot and then the knockout blow.”

Now the Braves will attempt to extend the offensive frustrations of the Padres, who have hit .205 and averaged 2.2 runs over their past 14 games.

As he opposes tough-luck Dustin Moseley tonight, Derek Lowe will have a chance to bounce back from last week’s miserable four-inning effort in Los Angeles.   Moseley is 0-3 with a 1.40 ERA.   The Padres have been shutout in three of the four games he’s started and the one run they scored in his last game was plated three innings after he exited.

ODDS and ENDS:  The Braves enter this series against the Padres at 11-12.   They were 9-14 through their first 23 games last year…Fans in the Charlotte area should head to the ballpark tonight to watch Triple-A Gwinnett’s Julio Teheran make his fourth start of the season.  The 20-year-old phenom has gone 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA in his first three starts…Mike Minor was named the International League’s Player of the Week Monday.  In the two starts he made for Gwinnett last week, he posted a 1.42 ERA and recorded 13 strikeouts (12 2/3 innings).

With Jones resting Freeman bats third

With Chipper Jones resting his sore right knee, the Braves entered Saturday afternoon’s matchup against Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum with Freddie Freeman sitting in the third spot of their lineup.

Since experiencing his annual early-season struggles, Freeman has been on a tear.  The 21-year-old first baseman entered Saturday with six hits in his previous 13 at-bats and the confidence that has increased while hitting .349 (15-for-43) over his previous 15 games.

“There’s nothing better than a Major League hitter with confidence and he’s got it,” Jones said.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez put Freeman in the third spot of the lineup and surrounded him with a couple of fellow left-handed hitters  —  Jason Heyward and Brian McCann.   Gonzalez understands this allows Bruce Bochy to potentially  set his top left-handed relievers Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez to face this trio of left-handers in a crucial late-inning situation.

But with this being said, Gonzalez said he likes the plate appearances Heyward, Freeman and obviously McCann have produced against left-handed pitchers.

McCann has hit .217 (5-for-23) against left-handers this year and .265 in his career.   Heyward has hit . 250 (47-for-188) against southpaws in his young career.   The 21-year-old right fielder padded that mark with a pair of singles off Madison Bumgarner in Friday night’s win over the Giants.

Freeman has recorded seven hits, including a double and two homers, in his first 20 at-bats against left-handers this year.

But before worrying about how they could be hurt by Affeldt or Lopez, the Braves will focus their attention on Tim Lincecum, who has gone 6-2 with 2.89 ERA in eight career regular season starts against them.    Or maybe you’d like to hear that he is 1-2 with a 4.42 ERA in his last three starts against them.

Jones thinks there is a chance he’ll be back in the lineup Sunday, when he turns 39.   The veteran third baseman said his right knee has been bothering him for about 10 days and he hasn’t experienced much relief while taking anti-inflammatory medication during this span.

Chipper has hit .419 (18-for-43) with four homers in his career on his birthday.

Before wrapping this up, Gonzalez once again took time Saturday to further explain why he opted to pitch to Matt Kemp with first base open and one out in Thursday’s 12-inning loss to the Dodgers.

With the currently hot Juan Uribe on-deck and the pitcher’s spot to follow, Gonzalez was hoping to get one out, intentionally walk Uribe and force the Dodgers to send a pitcher to the plate with two outs.  They had exhausted all of their position players.

“The pitcher’s spot came after Uribe and they had run out of position players,” Gonzalez said. “The pitcher’s spot was coming up, so I was trying to get one out.  If we would have got an out with Kemp, I would have walked Uribe to face one of their pitchers.”

BRAVES LINEUP

Prado 5

Heyward 9

Freeman 3

McCann 2

Uggla 4

Hinske 7

Gonzalez 6

McLouth 8

Hudson 1

Braves stumble through first 20 games

As yesterday’s game at Dodger Stadium entered the ninth inning, I was wondering what to make of the fact that the Braves were just three outs away from suffering their 11th loss in a span of 16 games.  Once David Ross delivered his go-ahead single with two outs in the ninth, I started thinking Fredi Gonzalez’s club might be three outs away from notching the win that would get them rolling.

Then after Craig Kimbrel experienced his worst inning of the young season and Matt Kemp was given a chance to swing with first base open, it felt like the Braves were staring at their most demoralizing loss of the season.

Such is life in a baseball world where every pitch of every day is scrutinized.  Less than an hour after positioning themselves for what could have been the most inspiring win of the young season, the Braves suffered what has been their most demoralizing loss of this young season.

The 8-12 record the Braves possess entering tonight’s series opener in San Francisco equals the mark they had through the first 20 games of last year.    On the way to completing a nine-game losing streak, last year’s Braves actually fell to 8-14.

There wasn’t a whole lot of optimism at this time last year and truthfully, there isn’t a lot to like about this team right now.

The pitching has provided some reason for optimism.  But this has obviously been a rough week for the bullpen, which lost Peter Moylan to a lower back strain last weekend and then spent the past couple days without Jonny Venters, who is dealing with discomfort in his left biceps muscle.

The Braves seem optimistic about Venters, who hasn’t pitched since Tuesday’s 27-pitch appearance.   Multiple sources have said he could be available to pitch tonight.   But it still isn’t comforting to know that this valuable left-handed reliever  is ailing this early in the season, especially at the same time as Moylan, who serves as the bullpen’s other workhorse.

Nor has it been comforting for Braves’ fans to watch their offense at any point this season.   With just 12 percent of the season complete, this is the time of year when folks in the baseball world stress the need to remain patient.

While telling media members and fans to remain patient, the Braves might need to start showing more patience at the plate.  Or at least something similar to the amount they displayed last year.

The Braves led the National League with a .339 on-base percentage last year.   With many of the same players, they have posted an NL-worst .297 on-base percentage this year.

Through the first 20 games of this year, the Braves have batted .230 drawn 61 walks and scored 69 runs.  After 20 games last year, they had batted .228 drawn 98 walks and scored 77 runs.

Every season and situation is different.  But through an equal amount of games the Braves have drawn 37 fewer walks than they did last year.   Oddly, they have also compiled exactly 37 fewer plate appearances than they did through the first 20 games of last year.

I’ve started to hear some rumblings about how some of the guys haven’t clicked with new hitting coach Larry Parrish.  But I discount this like I did many of the criticisms directed toward Terry Pendleton, when he was the hitting coach the past couple of seasons.  (As a reminder, if any of you feel the need you can still issue those apologies to TP at many different  first base boxes throughout the summer).

Most of these guys in the lineup are established Major Leaguers who know what it takes to find success.  With that being said, I think it’s very important that Parrish address some of the mechanical and approach issues that have led Jason Heyward hit just .188 (12-for-64) with four homers this year.

Heyward still has great upside and potentially a tremendous future.  But scouts seemed to have identified some holes that their pitchers are exploiting.  It’s time for Heyward to respond with the necessary adjustments.

While Heyward has struggled, Freddie Freeman has flourished over the past week recording six hits, including a double and three homers in his past 17 at-bats.  The 21-year-old first baseman will be subjected to some more unavoidable rookie struggles.  But this kid seems to be one of those who was born to hit.

Gearrin promoted to aid bullpen

Cory Gearrin has been promoted from Triple-A Gwinnett to strengthen the Braves’  fatigued and injury-depleted bullpen.   To make room for him, the Braves have sent outfielder Matt Young to Gwinnett.

It’s been quite a week for the Braves’ bullpen, which lost Peter Moylan to a back injury last week and spent the past couple days without Jonny Venters.    The Braves seem optimistic about the left biceps discomfort Venters has felt the past couple days.  But there seemed to be reason for concern when they went through yesterday’s 12-inning game without using him.

It was apparent the Braves would need to add another reliever after they were forced to  utilize Cristhian Martinez for a third consecutive day during Thursday’s 12-inning loss to the Dodgers.

Gearrin has posted a 2.61 ERA and worked 10 1/3 innings in six appearances for Gwinnett this year.   He has limited left-handed hitters to a .167 (2-for-12) batting average.   Right-handed hitters have hit .320 (8-for-25) against him.     The 25-year-old right-hander was selected out of Mercer University  in the fourth round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.   <p>

Beachy was bound to experience growing pains

Did you really think the baseball gods were going to allow Fredi Gonzalez to begin his tenure as Bobby Cox’s successor without having to endure the cruel initiation process that has unfolded over the past week.   <p>

Just 10 days ago, you were preparing to watch Derek Lowe battle Brewers ace Yovani Gallardo and feeling pretty good about the fact that the Braves had won three of their first four.   Heck they had even provided some drama the day before with a pair of eighth-inning solo homer off Takashi Saito.

While losing seven of their past nine games, they have struggled at the plate and seen both Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy give away winnable games.   Minor proved he needs more seasoning while allowing Marco Estrada to beat him last week.  Beachy provided similar signs last night as he struggled with his command.

Last night was undoubtedly the worst of the six career starts made by Beachy.  But the fact that he was at least able to get to the sixth inning and keep the Marlins scoreless in his final 2 1/3 innings provided further indication of the kind of poise he has.

Yes, Beachy admitted he allowed himself to get rattled after hanging a curve to Chris Coghlan in the first inning.  And yes, it was easy to see that he repeatedly missed location during the early innings.  But as he continues to serve as the fifth starter, the Braves will have to expect to witness some growing pains.

With 35 starts at the professional level under his belt, Minor has shown that he could benefit from more time at the Minor League level.   His development will continue to be aided by the fact that he pitched in crucial situations in international competitions and spent his collegiate days facing SEC talent as Vanderbilt’s ace.

Before being signed by the Braves as an undrafted free agent out of the Virginia Valley Summer League in 2008, Beachy’s development included some time as Indiana Wesleyan’s closer.  He made eight Minor League starts in 2009 and 13 more before being called out of the Instructional League to make his first three Major League starts in the heart of a pennant race last year.

Last night’s start was the 27th Beachy has made at the professional level.  Thus he will have a few more nights like last night.  But he has still shownhe can provide some value in the fifth spot of the rotation.

The Braves will promote Minor when he proves that he’s ready.  But until then, they need to allow him to develop with the hope that he will show why the gave him $2.4 million after taking him with the seventh overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.

Fredi’s choice to stick with O’Flaherty:  I’m sure some of you have a differing opinion, but I too would have kept left-handed reliever Eric O’Flaherty on the mound to face the right-handed batters that came to the plate in last night’s decisive seventh inning.    The Marlins preserved the lead they gained after O’Flaherty singles to three consecutive right-handed hitters  —  Gaby Sanchez, pinch hitter Wes Helms and John Buck.

Given a choice between right-handed reliever Scott Linebrink and O’Flaherty, I’m sticking with the southpaw, who is equally effective against right-handed and left-handed hitters.   Right-handed hitters batted .229 (19-for-83) against him last year and left-handers hit .231 (18-for-78).   Entering last night, he had allowed just one hit in eight at-bats against right-handed batters this year.

The inning might have transpired the same exact way.  But  you have to wonder if  things might have proven different if the Braves had opted to promote Stephen Marek or another right-handed reliever instead of opting to carry a third catcher after optioning Minor to Triple-A Gwinnett last week.

They opted to carry the third catcher to provide more pinch-hit opportunities to David Ross, who hasn’t notched a plate appearance since tallying his only three of the season on April 4.

The tide should turn for Lowe:  As long as the weather cooperates, Derek Lowe should at least get a little more offensive support than he has his past two starts.   Well, we at least know that he won’t get any less.

Lowe has allowed three runs this year and suffered two losses.  The only two runs the Braves have plated for him this year came during his victorious Opening Day effort against the Nationals.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the Braves tally at least one tonight against Mets starter D.J. Carasco, who is making his first start of the year and second since 2005.   He has allowed seven hits, issued three walks and surrendered three runs in 6 2/3 innings of relief this year.

Just four Braves have faced Carrasco in the past. Eric Hinske (3-for-6 with two homers) and Alex Gonzalez (1-for-2) are the only ones who have tallied more than two plate appearances against him.  Tim Hudson and Nate McLouth have both recorded a hitless plate appearance against him.

Yesterday, Gonzalez said Hinske would likely start tomorrow’s game against Mike Pelfrey.

According to the most recent weather reports, it looks like the game will start on time and there’s a chance they could play a full game before the heavy stuff arrives.  There is a 40 percent chance of rain from 8 p.m. ET-midnight.

Offensive woes and frustration mounting

The Braves were spared being on the wrong end of history again last night.  But they still endured a rarity that has proven to be too common over the last 10 days.

While flirting with a no-hitter into the eighth inning last night, Marlins ace Josh Johnson further frustrated a Braves offense that has been a disappointment during the first two weeks of this season.  There’s no shame in being dominated by Johnson.  But Fredi Gonzalez’s boys have been doing a little too much hat tipping during the season’s first 12 games.

Courtesy of Chipper Jones’ ninth-inning solo homer off Randy Choate, the Braves were spared being shut out for the third time in a span of eight games.  Jones’ solo shot and Freddie Freeman’s one-out double off Johnson in the eighth inning, accounted for the two hits registered by the Braves in the 5-1 loss.

This marked the 85th time since moving to Atlanta in 1966 that the Braves have tallied two hits or fewer in a game.  To break that down further, it has happened in just 1.2 percent of the games they’ve played during that span.

Unfortunately for Gonzalez, his club has already tallied two hits or fewer in 16 percent (2 of 12) of this year’s games.  Or for you masochists who don’t care about the meaningless of numbers produced by even smaller sample sizes, the Braves have notched two hits or fewer in 25 percent of their past eight games.

This is just the third time in Atlanta Braves history that they have recorded two hits or fewer in two April games.  The most recent instance had been  April 10, 1989 at Houston and April 15, 1989 at San Francisco.

Any of you who currently feel that you might have been too rough on Terry Pendleton over the past couple seasons can simply give him a wave when you’re at the park and near the first base box.   He’s a forgiving soul.

These offensive problems are not a product of Pendleton’s teachings or those of new hitting coach Larry Parrish.  In fact right now, you could argue that a number of factors have led the Braves to produce a National League-worst .280 on-base percentage and hit just .222 (the NL’s second-worst mark).

There isn’t reason to panic just two weeks into the season.  But if this third week proves to be as frustrating as the second week was, the Braves might find themselves in a hole at a time when they were supposed to be separating themselves from the injury-riddled Phillies.

Many of you have said you want Nate McLouth removed from the two hole.  Given that he has hit .220 and gotten on base at a .289 clip, that might happen.

I think Jason Heyward is best served in the middle of the lineup where he can consistently draw RBI opportunities.  But if McLouth isn’t in the two hole, Heyward might be the best option by default.

Freddie Freeman is showing signs that he’s ready to go on an offensive tear and I don’t think he would be fazed if he was batting second.  But this would just add one more speed-challenged body to the top of this order.

While hitting .249 with a .292 on-base percentage since the start of the 2010 season, Alex Gonzalez doesn’t appear to be a prime candidate.

Thus if these offensive woes continue, Gonzalez might have no other choice to put Heyward back in the two hole.

With all of this being said, McLouth’s presence in the two hole certainly hasn’t been the primary reason this offense has proven to be subpar during the season’s first two weeks.

Jones has done his job hitting .310 with four doubles and a homer in the three hole.  But it’s definitely concerning that his extra-base hits total (5) is greater than the combined total (4) of Dan Uggla (two homers and a hustle double) and Brian McCann (one homer).

McCann and Uggla will eventually generate the kind of production expected in the middle of the lineup.   But for now, their lack of power has served as just one of the many variables that has made the first two weeks of the season frustrating for the Braves and their fans.

Hanson provided much-needed encouragement

Chipper Jones produced a couple key plate appearances and then solidified his role as the King of Quotes  when he  exited last night’s 5-0 win over the Marlins and said, “tonight was as perfect of a nine-inning game as we’ve played yet.”

It was certainly encouraging to see the Braves show some signs of life at the plate and dazzle with the glove.  But the most important development centered around the fact that Tommy Hanson pitched with confidence and quite simply looked like the same Tommy Hanson the Braves were expecting to see entering this season.

Hanson wasn’t good during his season debut in Washington and he was only marginally better last week in Milwaukee.  But when he returned to the mound to face the Marlins last night, he commanded each at-bat by consistently getting ahead in the count and confidently complementing his fastball with his changeup and slider —  the breaking pitch he lacked against the Brewers last week.

There are times when first-pitch strike stats are meaningless.  As a pitcher, you certainly don’t want to develop a detectable pattern.  But at the same time, you can’t dispute the age old fact that a pitcher is at his best when he is consistently ahead in the count.

With this being said, Hanson needed to do what he did last night, when he threw first-pitch strikes to seven of the 11 batters he faced in the first three innings.   The three strikeouts he posted after facing just five batters matched his combined total from his first two starts.

After tossing his seven scoreless innings against the Marlins, Hanson returned to the clubhouse and spoke with the confident tone that he lacked after his previous two starts.

With Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson off to great starts and Jair Jurrjens ready to make his season debut Saturday, Hanson seems to have righted himself just in time.  It will be interesting to see how the Braves perform now that their starting rotation is at full strength.

Coming off Friday’s win over the Phillies and Cliff Lee, Hudson will try to improve to 3-0  tonight while facing the Marlins and Josh Johnson, who stands as one of the game’s most talented starters.

Opening Day starter Derek Lowe has been opposed by Livan Hernandez, Yovani Gallardo and Cole Hamels this year.   After tonight Hudson’s first three mound opponents will  have been Jordan Zimmerman, Lee and Johnson.

The Braves have totaled two runs in Lowe’s three starts and they were both tallied during his Opening Day victory.   The 37-year-old hurler has allowed a total of three runs while losing his past two starts.

Speaking of tough-luck, Johnson has gone 4-3 with a 2.60 ERA in 14 career starts against the Braves.  He hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any of these outings.

Johnson allowed three earned runs in three consecutive starts against the Braves from Sept. 1, 2008-Aug. 31, 2009. In the four starts he has since made against Atlanta, he has gone 0-1 with a 1.57 ERA  (4 ER, 23 IP).

 

(AP Photo/John Amis)

Chipper Jones has hit .300 (9-for-30) with a double and seven strikeouts in his career against Johnson.  The veteran third baseman needs just one more RBI to join Eddie Murray as the only switch hitters in Major League history to total 2500 hits and 1500 RBIs in a career.

It won’t be long before Jones joins both Murray and Mickey Mantle, the two most inspiring figures of his youth, in Cooperstown.

Eddie Murray during his Hall of Fame Induction Weekend in 2003.

 

By the way, if you haven’t seen Jason Heyward’s long homer,  some of last night’s impressive defense, or post-game comments from Fredi Gonzalez, Chipper and Hanson, click here.

Quick bullpen thoughts: Scott Linebrink’s scoreless ninth inning was another of the encouraging developments last night.  His ability to get through the inning clean allowed both Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters to enjoy another night to rest.

Linebrink isn’t the dominant reliever he was just a few years ago.  But if he can prove reliable enough to eat some innings here and there, the Braves can afford to continue keeping his valuable veteran guidance in their bullpen.

If the Braves reach a point where they need to make changes in their bullpen, Stephen Marek, Juan Abreu, Jairo Asencio, Cory Gearrin and Scott Proctor are all ready to make the jump from Triple-A Gwinnett.  Marek has impressed during the early portion of this season, allowing just one hit and recording four strikeouts in three innings.

Proctor isn’t eligible to join the Braves at the big league level until May 15.  But the Braves will keep a close eye on the veteran reliever, whose fastball has sat at 94 mph during recent appearances for Gwinnett.

 

Uggla looks to get going against former club

This picture would have looked quite odd if we had been given a sneak preview a year ago.  Yeah, most of assumed the guy on the far right would be named Bobby Cox’s successor.  But there was little reason to believe the Marlins were going to allow Braves to enter this season with this Uggla dude too.

Of course you all know the story about how this ended up proving true.   Five months after being fired by the Marlins and one month after being hired by the Braves, Fredi Gonzalez received a text from Braves GM Frank Wren, who wanted his manager’s thoughts on acquiring Uggla in exchange for Omar Infante and left-handed reliever Mike Dunn.

The deal was quickly completed once it was confirmed Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest wasn’t seeking any more than the two guys (Infante and Dunn) on the napkin he exchanged during a morning meeting of the first day of the general manager meetings.

It’s easy to assume that the Marlins will regret not getting something more in return for Uggla.  Yes, the power-hitting second baseman gave them every reason to believe they wouldn’t reach agreement on a contract extension.   But shouldn’t they have at least waited a little longer to see if they could get a greater return for a second baseman who had hit the sixth-most homers in the National League over the previous five seasons?

This is something that could be debated throughout a significant portion of the five-year, $62 million contract extension the Braves gave Uggla in January.

But as Uggla and Gonzalez get ready to meet their old team for the first time tonight at Turner Field, they’re certainly not going to be consumed by thoughts about who got the better end of the deal.  The Braves have lost five of their last six and scored two runs or fewer in six of their first 10 games.

“The beginning of every season is always tough,” said  Uggla, who is hitting .158 (6-for-58).  “You either get off to a really hot start or a slow start.  This year, so far for us it’s been either really hot or really slow.  That’s the way it goes in April and you just try to fight through it until everything levels off.”

Marlins pitchers have been happy with the defense Infante has provided at second base.  The Braves would like to see Uggla provide something more than the solid defense that he has during the early portion of this season.

Of course without that fence scraper he hit off Takashi Saito last week in Milwaukee, the Braves might be entering this series with just three victories.  Two of their four wins have been notched while scoring just two runs.

Still unless an ace and three-hole hitter has already been lost to injury, there is absolutely no reason to ever panic just 10 games into the season.    We’ve completed just six percent of this season.   Making conclusions now is as ridiculous as taking the belief that you are just a step slower than Usain Bolt because he’s just a step in front of you six meters into the 100-meter dash.

With this being said, we might be nearing a time when Gonzalez does need to tinker with his lineup.  Still, I’m sticking with my belief that he has to keep McLouth in the second spot of the lineup.   If McLouth struggles through the remainder of this homestand, then there might be a need to move him to the seventh or eighth spot.

Freddie Freeman’s slow start (6-for-32 w/ a double) has also influenced the Braves’ slow start.   Still Freeman provided some reason for optimism when he singled in his first at-bats on Friday and Saturday against Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt, respectively.

Showing he’s not fazed by the Major League scene, Freeman recorded a hit in his first career plate appearances against Roy Halladay, Lee and Oswalt.

Before wrapping this entry and heading to The Ted to see Tommy Hanson oppose Chris Volstad, I’ll leave you with this comparison of  Uggla and Infante that  Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez gave  <i>The South Florida  Sun Sentinel </i>.

“(Infante) plays hard every single day, just like Uggla did,”  fSanchez said. “Uggla was great. I loved Uggla, but I don’t feel like we lost anything going with Infante. A great two-hole guy with great contact. One of the better swings I’ve ever seen.

“Uggla didn’t take a pitch off or an inning off, and [neither] does Infante. You’re getting the same guy. Of course, they’re two different ballplayers. Dan Uggla is more of a power guy. Defensively, he was getting a lot better. You saw it in him. Infante I think is one of the better defensive second basemen in the game. Yeah, he might not hit 30 home runs, but he’s going to hit for average. He’s going to score runs, and that’s what we need.”

 

 

 

 

Braves have to keep McLouth in the two hole…for now

Those of you wanting Jason Heyward to bat higher in the lineup probably weren’t surprised to see the Braves score two runs or fewer in four of their first seven games.

His presence in the sixth spot led Martin Prado to hit .233 and Dan Uggla just .222 during the 3-4 road trip that concluded Thursday night.   If Heyward had hit in the second, third or fourth spots, Mike Minor wouldn’t have experienced his control problems or proven that he isn’t quite ready for the Majors.

What had the makings to be a good first week evolved into a an early-season stretch the Braves would like to soon forget.  But the root of the Braves’ offensive struggles certainly weren’t a product of the fact that Heyward batted either fifth or sixth in those seven games.

Before going any further, I don’t think anybody will be surprised if Heyward starts hitting a little higher in the lineup soon.  But right now, I have to ask, who is going to bat sixth, if you take him out of that spot right now?

Most of the exasperation has to do with Nate McLouth’s presence in the second spot of the lineup.  And it certainly hasn’t helped that McLouth has hit just .217 (5-for-23) during the season’s first week.

Of course if he sneaks two singles through the infield and legs out a bunt single while going 3-for-3 tonight, there will be some waking up tomorrow talking about how encouraging it is to see McLouth hitting over .300.

Obviously it’s far too early to make evaluations on McLouth or any of the other Braves.  Thus I don’t think Fredi Gonzalez has any other choice than to leave the veteran centerfielder in the two hole with the hope that he will take advantage of the array of fastballs he’ll get sitting in front of Chipper Jones.

When this season began, the Braves put McLouth in the second spot because they felt he could provide value with his speed and occasional power.  At the same time, they were hopeful that he would be able to consistently move Prado over.

With Prado only getting on base in just a quarter of his plate appearances so far, McLouth hasn’t had many opportunities to move him with a bunt or a grounder to the right side.

The always-reliable Prado will soon start hitting like he always has.  Whether McLouth then proves his value in the second spot remains to be seen.

But for now, I think the Braves have to give McLouth every chance to prove productive near the top of the lineup.  If you move him, are you going to feel comfortable with him, Alex Gonzalez and Freeman sitting in some order in the sixth, seventh and eighth spots?

Remember when Garret Anderson, Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson were all struggling early in the 2009 season?   Some Braves were saying they essentially had six innings (when the top five hitters in their lineup were batting) to score every night.

The Braves gave you plenty of reason to be frustrated during the season’s first week.  But at the same time, I think many of you should have been encouraged when Gonzalez said he will not be afraid to alter his lineup when necessary.

“My philosophy with the lineup is that I pick it for the first 10-12 games and then I think the players pick it,” Gonzalez said while explaining that performance will determine the makeup of his lineup.

In other words, Gonzalez will make changes once his players have been given enough time to prove themselves.   Unfortunately, this might mean some of you will have to spend at least a few more days having your patience tested.

BRAVES LINEUP for Friday’s home opener vs. Phils

Prado 7

McLouth 8

Chipper 5

McCann 2

Uggla 4

Heyward 9

Gonzalez 6

Freeman 8

Hudson 1

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,030 other followers