May 2011

Offensive woes becoming more concerning

If you wish to maintain an optimistic outlook, you could argue the Braves’ offense has only been miserable for the past two weeks.   Given the lineup had shown signs of life during this month’s first two weeks, you might at least have the basis for an argument.

But as Jonny Venters was denied a chance to get two consecutive days of rest and the Braves were extended to extra innings for the eighth time in their past 18 games yesterday, there was reason to wonder just how damaging these two weeks of offensive ineptitude might prove to be as the season unfolds.

A casual observer might quickly look at the situation and say the Braves miss Jason Heyward.  Those who have watched this club throughout the entire season know this club was getting along just fine while Heyward batted .098 (4-for-41)  in the 16 games he recorded a plate appearance this month.

Others might choose to continue to put the blame on Dan Uggla, whose first two months in Atlanta have been worse than even his biggest critics could have imagined.   But other than the fact that he has not delivered the clutch homer like he did on April 24 in San Francisco and on May 15 in Atlanta, he has essentially spent the past two weeks producing the same futility that he has in the other six weeks of the season.

It might be easier to argue the Braves have been more influenced by the fact that the Chipper Jones has seen his batting average drop from .275 to ..250 and his slugging percentage from .465 to .413 since he learned he has a torn meniscus in his right knee.

But while attempting to determine why the offense has been so miserable while the Braves have won just five of their past 11 games, it’s easy to see the futility created has been a group effort.

In the 11 games dating back to the start of the recent seven-game road trip, Martin Prado has batted .209 (9-for-43), Jones has hit .162 (6-for-37) and Uggla has hit a cool .100 (4-f0r-40).

In other words, maybe the Braves should feel lucky to have won at least five of these past 11 games.

Given that the Braves have scored two runs or fewer in 36 percent (20 of 55) of their games, it’s obvious this offense has underperformed for much more than just two weeks.   But it should be noted that seven of these games have occurred within the past 10 games.   In one of those games they went north of two runs, they only did so after being pushed to extra innings.

Prado will be fine.  With Jones saying his right knee is bothering him again, it’s unknown just how productive he will be for the rest of the season.  Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point where there might be even more uncertainty surrounding Uggla.

Multiple times I’ve heard fans and fellow scribes wonder if  “that will be the at-bat that turns thing around for Uggla.”  Well he did bat .306 with three doubles in the nine games he played after hitting the game-tying eighth-inning homer against the Giants on May 24.   But he has hit .119 with a .416 OPS in the 23 games that have followed.

Uggla was roundly praised on May 15, when he hustled around the bases and capped a two-hit performance with a game-winning, eighth-inning homer off Roy Halladay.  But in the 13 games that have followed, he has four hits (all singles) in 47 at-bats.

Among all qualified National League players, Uggla ranks second-to-last in batting average (.178) and on-base percentage (.246).  His .322 slugging percentage ranks as the fifth worst mark, sitting just above the marks posted by  Omar Infante (.312) and Hanley Ramirez (.309).

It was easy to understand when Uggla struggled through the first month in his environment.  But with June now just one day away, there is certainly much more reason for the Braves to be concerned about that five-year, $62 million contract they gave Uggla in January.

What a long strange trip it was:  Now that Jo-Jo Reyes has finally notched a win for the first time in nearly three full years,  it seems appropriate to review the odd events experienced during the road trip that included his previous win in 2008.

Tom Glavine went on the disabled list for the second time in his career and John Smoltz underwent a shoulder surgery that essentially concluded his playing career with the Braves.  After Jair Jurrjens turned his ankle after missing a step while leaving Wrigley Field, Jeff Bennett made an emergency start the next day and broke Alfonso Soriano’s hand with a pitch.

After Tim Hudson was forced to exit the following afternoon’s start because of dehydration,  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s David O’Brien and I enjoyed a relaxing dinner in Chicago.  The following morning the cab taking us to the airport wrecked.

Fortunately we stopped a Super Shuttle van as it was attempting to get around the wreck and made it to Anaheim in plenty of time to watch Reyes beat the Angels on just what happened to be Friday the 13th.

To add to the oddity of that Friday, that was the night Chipper Jones was hit in the eye by a ball he fouled off the cage during batting practice.

Venters continues to earn widespread respect

As I was exiting the clubhouse after last night’s game, a couple veteran players told me I needed to write a story every day about Jonny Venters.   In some ways they were goofing around.  But after watching Venters exhaust every last bit of energy while completing two scoreless innings last night, they were also kind serious.

Over the past few days, we’ve heard Matt Diaz and Reds manager Dusty Baker praise Venters.  Diaz said his former teammate is the game’s best left-handed reliever and Baker compared him to 1977 American League Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle.

Given that Venters is getting a necessary and much-deserved chance to rest tonight, this seems to be a good time to look at the ridiculous numbers he has posted since joining the Majors last year.

To compensate for Venters’ absence and the fact that Scott Linebrink and Eric O’Flaherty also might not be available, the Braves have promoted Cory Gearrin from Triple-A Gwinnett.  Wilkin Ramirez will likely be sent down to make room for the right-handed reliever.

Venters admitted he had nothing left as he struck out Chris Heisey to end Saturday night’s ninth inning and his fourth two-inning appearance in span of 11 days.  The Braves have gone 3-1 in those games.

While establishing himself as one of the game’s top relievers, Venters has lived up to the “Everyday Jonny” nickname he earned while making 79 appearances last year.    Braves fans have come to expect to hear chopping chants and see Venters on the mound whenever they come to Turner Field.  <p>

These fans have Venters manage to prove even better than he was during last year’s stellar rookie season.  He ranks second among Major League reliever with a .125 opponent’s batting average and sixth with a .216 opponent’s on-base percentage.  His 0.55 ERA ranks second to the .042 mark Pirates right-hander Daniel McCutchen has posted in 18 appearances and 21 1/3 innings.

Venters has made 108 appearances and completed 115 2/3 innings since making his Major League debut last year.   Reds reliever Nick Masset leads the Majors during this span with 109 appearances, which have consisted of 105 innings.

Peter Moylan ranks second among Braves pitchers with the 92 appearances he has made since the start of the 2010 season and Eric O’Flaherty ranks third with 84.   With Moylan likely out until some time in August and O’Flaherty’s back occasionally proving bothersome, Venters could end up combining for at least 30 more appearances than any other Braves pitchers during the 2010 and ’11 seasons.

Venters’ 115 2/3 innings also ranks as the game’s second-highest total among Major League relievers since the start of last year.   Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard lead the Majors with the  118 2/3 innings he has completed in 100 appearances.

Still while leading all Major League relievers with a 5.05 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio and 83.5 percent groundball percentage during this span, Venters has proven to be efficient while on the mound.  The 1,771 pitches during these past two seasons rank fourth among Major League releivers, trailing Clippard (2010), Rockies right-hander Matt Belisle (1,843) and Cubs closer Carlos Marmol 1,808.

Venters leads all Major League relievers with 32 2/3 innings this year and his 29 appearances match Reds right-hander Logan Ondrusek for the game’s most this year.

Still while making two fewer appearances and completing 6 2/3 fewer innings, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel has thrown 22 more pitches than Venters this year.

When Venters arrived for his first big league Spring Training last year, he was an injury-plagued left-handed pitcher who had finally produced some reason for encouragement the previous year.   About 15 months later, the only four Braves to throw more pitches are starting pitchers  Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens.

You probably could have won a lot of money at the start of the 2010 season if you  had you predicted Venters would enter June of 2011 having thrown 300 pitches more than Kenshin Kawakami during this two-season span.

 

 

Braves hoping to extend Reds’ woes

After watching the Braves claim Wednesday afternoon’s 11-inning win, I sat through heavy Pittsburgh traffic, flew back to Atlanta, talked to my wife for a little bit and still had time to watch at least nine innings of the 19-inning loss the Reds suffered in Philadelphia.

Things seemed to be going bad for the Braves Monday, when they were dealing with a rash of injuries (Jason Heyward, Nate McLouth and Tim Hudson) and licking their wounds after winning just one of the first five games of a seven-game trip.  Two wins and four days later, it’s safe to say their recent frustrations have been trumped by those felt by the Reds.

The Reds have batted just .222 with seven homers while winning just one of their previous nine games.   Still they lead the National League with 57 homers and rank third with a .260 batting average.  Without surprise most of their damage has been done at Great American (offensively-friendly) Ballpark.

During their 26 home games, the Reds have hit .282 with 34 homers and an .808 OPS.   They have hit .239 with 23 homers and a .673 OPS in 25 road games.

Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens will attempt to extend the Reds’ recent offensive struggles this weekend.   Hanson will take the mound tonight, when the Braves attempt to steal the first game against Mike Leake.  Given the situation, I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that last sentence was a cheap shot.  In the spirit of southern hospitality, we’ll go with low blow.

This has been a trying year for Leake, who was charged with attempting to shoplift six t-shirts from a downtown Cincinnatit department store last month.  Since revealing he was attempting to make an improper exchange, he has pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge and entered a court-sponsored diversion program for first-time offenders.

Leake, who was taken with the eighth overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, has spent the past couple weeks as a first time Minor Leaguer.  When he made Cincinnati’s Opening Day 2010 roster, he had never previously played at the professional level.

When the Reds sent Edinson Voquez back to the Minors earlier this week, they opened a rotation spot for Leake, who allowed 12 hits and eight earned runs in the 7 1/3 innings he threw for Triple-A Louisville over the past two weeks.   The 23-year-old right-hander was 3-1 with a 5.77 ERA in the six starts he made for Cincinnati earlier this year.

Speaking of judicial matters, Lowe will take the mound Saturday night for the first time since DUI and reckless driving charges were dropped against him.  He’ll be opposing former Red Sox teammate Bronson Arroyo, who allowed nine earned runs and 10 hits in 2 2/3 innings against the Phillies Monday night.

After battling a stiff back during that start in Philadelphia, Arroyo returned to Cincinnati this week to undergo an MRI exam that showed no structural damage.

Now you have a better understanding about why it’s easy to surmise the Braves’ recent problems pale in comparison to those experienced by the Reds.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that after playing Wednesday night’s 19-inning game, they received just four innings from starting pitcher Homer Bailey on Thursday afternoon.  He injured his shoulder while swinging the bat.

The Reds bullpen has totaled 25 innings since Monday.   The Braves have played at least 11 innings four times since May 17.  Still during this eight game stretch, their relievers have totaled just 30 2/3 innings.

The Reds might have been able to win Wednesday night’s game in the 11th inning had Brandon Phillips not opted to converse with Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins as he took his lead off second base.   He got picked off by J.C. Romero and later apologized via his Twitter account (@DatDudeBP).

Reds manager Dusty Baker seemed to provide a logical and comical response to the situation.

“There are certain guys who are social on purpose,” Baker said. “If you want to be social, keep your foot on the bag while being social.”

BENCH POWER:  There will be power on the benches during this weekend’s series.  Courtesy of Conrad’s game-winning blast Wednesday, the Braves have hit more pinch-hit homers (14) than any other Major League club since the start of 2010.  The Reds rank second with 13 and the Phillies third with nine.

Eric Hinske and Reds backup outfielder Chris Heisey lead the Majors with five pinch-hit homers during this same span.  Conrad ranks second with four.

Hinske (5), Conrad (4) and Brian McCann (2) have accounted for most of the pinch-hit homers hit by the Braves since the start of last year.  Can you name the other three players who have accounted for the other three?   (Answer below)

Honoring the military:  In celebration of Memorial Day weekend, the Braves are offering free tickets to all active military personnel for each of the next four games played through Monday afternoon.  After showing their ID at the Turner Field box office windows, the military members will receive a free Upper Box ticket.  Their family members can buy additional tickets for half price.

Eric Hinske and Brooks Conrad (right) have been two of the game's top power threats off the bench the past two seasons.

ANSWER:  Along with Hinske, Conrad and McCann, the other Braves to hit pinch-hit homers since the start of last year were Freddie Freeman, Matt Diaz and Diory Hernandez.

Braves can overcome this rash of injuries

Anything interesting happen since I was last with the team.  Everything seemed quite peachy when Brian McCann hit a couple clutch homers just before I began last week’s short break.   Well I guess this past week has reaffirmed the fact that momentum is a fickle thing in the baseball world.

As you know the Braves have lost much more than simply four of the first five games of this road trip.  Over the past few days they have disabled two-thirds of their starting outfield (Jason Heyward and Nate McLouth) and revealed that Mike Minor will start Wednesday afternoon in place of Tim Hudson, who can only hope his back discomfort does not linger.

Things seemed much simpler last week, when the primary concerns were Chipper Jones’ right knee and the possibility that the primary relievers would be overburdened.

Now as the Phillies are getting healthy, the Braves have to simply hope they can essentially do what the Phillies have done the past seven weeks, while playing without Chase Utley and some of their other top contributors.

If Hudson’s back discomfort lingers and he is not able to make next Monday’s start against the Padres, there will be greater reason for concern in Atlanta.   Brandon Beachy has been cleared to begin playing catch again.  But he still could be sidelined for three more weeks.

With Minor, Julio Teheran and Rodrigo Lopez, the Braves have depth in the starting pitching department.  But they would rather not go a couple weeks with two of their regular starters sidelined.

More importantly, they certainly would like to soon get a sense that Hudson’s back won’t prove to be a lingering problem throughout the season.

While the Braves would certainly be hurt if Hudson misses significant time, they can seemingly get by for a few weeks without both McLouth and Heyward.   In fact, these two outfielders have been nothing but a burden to the lineup over the past couple weeks.

McLouth has shown promise and glimpses that he has escaped last year’s horrific struggles.  But in the 16  games played before straining his left oblique muscle Sunday, he hit .143 with a .226 on-base percentage.  Now that he has been given the opportunitiy Jordan Schafer is certainly capable of providing more consistency at the plate and more speed on the base paths.

The Braves have placed Heyward on the disabled list because of the sore right shoulder he says has bothered him dating back to Spring Training.    Fortunately everything in his shoulder appears structurally sound, or at least more sound than his swing and approach at the plate.

When the Braves ended their first homestand in mid-April, scouts were talking about the holes in Heyward’s swing.  This was mentioned in this blog after the 21-year-old right fielder went hitless in his next 14 at-bats in Los Angeles.

Then when the Giants and Padres pitchers gave him opportunities to extend his arms and hit some pitches out over the plate, he hit .419 with three homers over the next six games.   That short successful stint led Heyward to continue keeping his shoulder discomfort a relative secret.

In addition, it simply halted the struggles that displayed  as he has hit .098 with a .229 on-base percentage and one extra-base hit (a double) in the 17 games played this month.    He struck out in 15 of his past 41 at-bats.

Heyward may need a couple days to rest his ailing shoulder.  But once it starts proving less bothersome, he is seemingly more in need of spending time with the club’s hitting guru Lee Elia.   It may benefit the club to allow them to spend some time together at the Spring Training complex, where Heyward could get as much attention as necessary in a relatively stress-free environment.

Without Heyward and McLouth, the Braves will provide opportunities to Schafer, Wilkin Ramirez and Joe Mather, who has certainly shown his value while recording 11 hits, including three doubles and a homer, in his past 21 at-bats.

With Schafer and Ramirez, the Braves have a pair of talented athletes who can run.  Of course this will only help if they prove that they can also consistently get on base.

I do apologize that this blog had not been updated since Wednesday afternoon.  This marked the first time in the past 10 years that I was not present for five consecutive Braves games.   Still I wouldn’t have traded the opportunity that I had this past weekend to proudly watch my stepdaughter graduate from Norcross’ Wesleyan School. 

Looking back on McCann’s historic day

Attempting to digest what Brian McCann did during Tuesday’s 3-1, 11-inning win over the Astros,  one could only wonder if they had witnessed history.  It’s not every day that you see somebody come off  the bench to hit a game-tying two-out homer in the ninth.  Nor do you have the chance to see an extra-inning, walk-off homer with great regularity.

Defying significant odds Tuesday afternoon at Turner Field, McCann experienced the thrill of hitting both the ninth-inning game-tying shot and walk-off, extra-inning blast.  The Braves All-Star catcher tied the game by hitting Mark Melancon’s 1-2 curveball over the left-centerfield wall with two outs in the ninth.   He ended it with his two-run, 11th-inning blast off Jeff Fulchino.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau,  McCann became just the second player to hit a pinch-hit, game-tying homer in the ninth inning and then end an extra-inning game with another homer.  The only other player to do this was Jeff Heath for the Boston Braves in a Aug. 27, 1949 win over the Reds.

It’s somewhat odd that a pair of Braves are the only players to ever do this in Major League history.  But I think I was more surprised to see McCann’s historic day came exactly 40 years  after Ralph Garr did something similar across the street at old Atlanta-Fulton Stadium.

Prior to McCann, the last Braves’ player to homer in the ninth inning (or later) to tie the game, and then homer again to win the game in extra innings was Garr, who did so in a May 17, 1971 win over the Mets.   Garr homered in the 10th inning off Tom Seaver and then won the game with a 12th-inning walk-off homer against Ron Taylor.

Makes you wonder what will happen when the Braves play on May 17, 2051.

Chipper and Heyward return

For the first time in a week, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was able to put both Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward in the same lineup.  Now he can only hope Jones exits Tuesday afternoon’s game confident that he will not need to undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair the small meniscus tear in his right knee.

“Two days ago, I was 50 percent,” Jones said. “Yesterday was probably 80 and I’m better than I was yesterday.  Feeling good today, I would rather go out and test it against a lefty today as opposed to going on the road out to the west coast and finding out it’s not OK and having fly all the way back and have surgery.”

Jones was skeptical when Braves doctors told him he might be able to avoid undergoing the surgery.  The 39-year-old third baseman said Sunday and Monday that he feared he might be delaying the inevitable by simply trying to medicate the ailment with the cortisone injections he received after Sunday’s MRI exam showed the small meniscus tear.

Thus before the Braves embarked on a seven-game road trip  that includes stops in Arizona, Anaheim and Pittsburgh, Jones felt it was best to test the knee.

Jones also thought it was best to test the knee while batting from the right side against Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez today.  Most of the discomfort he has felt over the past three weeks has been felt while batting from the right side.

While Jones missed just two games, Heyward missed six starts after leaving last Tuesday’s game against the Nationals.   Having had nearly a week to rest his sore right shoulder, Heyward returned confident it would not prove to be a problem.

“It feels the way it should,” Heyward said.

TODAY’S LINEUP

Prado 7

Heyward 9

Chipper 5

Uggla 4

Hinske 3

Ross 2

Gonzalez 6

McLouth 8

Lowe 1

Braves attempt to keep rolling without Chipper

Now that the Braves have finally pinned a loss on Philadelphia’s new ace, they’ll return to Turner Field tonight to attempt to beat the guy considered the Phillies’ ace not so long ago.

Based on the way he’s pitched lately, Brett Myers could also be considered the Astros’ former ace.  Myers has gone 0-3 with a 7.88 ERA in his past four starts.  It should be noted that this span included back-to-back starts against both the Brewers and the Reds.

So now that we’ve pointed out that Myers has struggled against the Reds and Brewers both at home and on the road, I’ll attempt to further heighten the optimism of Braves fans by pointing out that he is 4-9 with a 4.46 ERA in 22 career starts against the Braves.  He has split six decisions and posted a 4.94 ERA in nine career starts at Turner Field.

When Myers last beat the Braves on Aug. 7, 2006, the Braves had Willy Aybar batting leadoff and playing third base.  There’s seemingly a good chance Martin Prado will be batting leadoff and playing third base for the Braves tonight.

It was certainly a surprise to see Chipper Jones limp to his locker about an hour after yesterday’s game and reveal that he has a small meniscus tear in his right knee.  We knew his right knee was bothering him.  But as he kept playing through the pain, he showed the kind of youthful energy that was displayed during Saturday’s seventh inning, when he aggressively went from first to third base without knowing Eric Hinske’s double had bounced out of play.

Over the next couple days we’ll likely learn whether Jones can avoid undergoing an arthroscopic surgical procedure that would sideline him for a couple weeks.  It seems the Braves want to simply medicate the ailment in the manner they did Sunday afternoon, when they injected his right knee.

When asked if he had been injected with cortisone, Chipper said, “You’re going to have to ask (Dr. Marvin Royster) what he put in there.  I was too busy cringing.”

For now Jones is hoping to miss just a couple of days.  In his absence, Prado, Brooks Conrad or even Joe Mather could play third base.  With this upcoming weekend’s series against the Angels being played in Anaheim, Chipper could lessen the stress on his knees while serving as the designated hitter.

Most of you probably already know Jason Heyward said yesterday that he will likely wait one more day before returning to the lineup.  Thus instead of playing tonight, he may play tomorrow afternoon in the finale of a two-game set against the Astros.

Hinske has taken advantage of the chance to get some starts while Heyward has missed five straight starts with a sore right shoulder.   If Prado plays third base in Jones’ absence, Hinske will likely continue to find himself in the starting lineup.

Like last year, Hinske has impressed since enduring a slow start.   He delivered two key singles against Roy Halladay yesterday and has batted .385 (15-for-39) with four homers in his past 19 games.

Craig Kimbrel’s inability to preserve a two-run lead against the Nationals last Wednesday prevented Tommy Hanson from winning a fourth consecutive start for the first time since he did so twice in his rookie season.   His first such span began with his second career start.

Anyhow, Hanson will take the mound tonight looking to win his fourth straight decision.  He is 1-0 with an 0.78 ERA in three career starts against the Astros.

Teheran stands as candidate to replace injured Beachy

As Brandon Beachy strolled through the Braves clubhouse Saturday morning, it was confirmed that he is destined for the disabled list.  But the Braves are going to wait at least one more day before announcing who they will promote from Triple-A Gwinnett to take his spot in the rotation.

Beachy tweaked his left oblique muscle while swinging and missing a Cole Hamels pitch in the second inning of Friday night’s loss to the Phillies.  Once he was unable to complete his warmup pitches in the third inning, there was reason to wonder whether the Braves will promote Mike Minor, Julio Teheran or Rodrigo Lopez.

Lopez has gone 5-0 with a 1.79 ERA in seven starts for Gwinnett.  But if the Braves were to promote him, they would have to start paying him a $1 million salary.

With Beachy’s next scheduled turn coming Wednesday, some might think it makes the most sense to recall Teheran, who would be pitching with just one extra day of rest.  The 20-year-old phenom certainly had nothing to be ashamed of while  making last weekend’s spot start in Philadelphia.

Beachy is probably going to be sidelined at least three weeks and possibly longer.  But with the way the some offdays fall on the scheduled over the next week, the Braves might again be able to bring Teheran up to make Wednesday’s spot start and then send him back down.

After Wednesday, the Braves could go with a four-man rotation until May 31.    At that time, they would be able to once again choose whether to promote Teheran or Minor.

Given  that he has still thrown just 82 1/3 innings at the Double-A Minor League level or above, Teheran still needs time to develop.  But if it’s just for a start or two, I could see the club allowing him to fill Beachy’s spot.

During his spot start in Milwaukee on April 6, Minor proved that he needed more time to develop and the Braves have probably hoped they could allow him stay in the Minors a little longer.   While going  2-1 with a 1.86 ERA in six starts for Gwinnett he certainly seems to be moving in the right direction.

Minor’s regular turn to throw is Sunday.  Thus by tomorrow morning, we’ll likely know whether he or Teheran will be filling Beachy’s spot.

Looking back on Friday night: Without surprise, many of the Braves returned to Turner Field Saturday still upset about some of the calls Minor League umpire David Rackley made behind the plate Friday night.  He seemed to miss a 1-1 pitch to Ryan Howard in the first inning.  Instead of being ahead with a 1-2 count, Beachy found behind and kicking himself after allowing the big first baseman to his a 2-1 fastball about 470 feet for a three-run homer.

Then of course they were still surprised Rackley didn’t ring Shane Victorino up on an 0-2, pitch in the seventh inning.  Catcher Brian McCann and Eric O’Flaherty were walking toward the dugout before they knew a ball had been called.  Two pitches later, Victorino produced a game-tying single.

To his credit, Rackley did allow McCann to release his frustrations by berating him after Victorino’s single.

At the end of the day, Beachy and O’Flaherty should have made better pitches and the Braves certainly needed to capitalize on the bases-loaded one-out situation that went unrewarded in the bottom of the seventh.

There’s also reason to point out that balls and strikes can be debated all day long throughout every season.  Victorino certainly had a legit beef just five days earlier when he got rung up while facing Braves closer Craig Kimbrel in Philadelphia.

But with Rackley simply coming up to fill in, should he have been behind the plate during a series like this one?  It just seems one of the other three veteran umpires present should have been the ones sitting behind the plate this weekend.

Throwback unis: As Major League Baseball celebrates  Civil Rights Weekend in Atlanta, the Braves and Phillies will wear throwback uniforms during the final two games of this series.  The Braves will wear the old Atlanta Black Crackers uniforms Saturday.  Then in honor of Hank Aaron, both clubs will wear their 1974 uniforms for Sunday’s series finale.

Random thoughts on a Friday

Had Martin Prado not produced his tremendous 10-pitch at-bat that concluded with the game-winning grand slam that gave Brian McCann a chance to deliver the walk-off single that gave the Braves a 10-inning win last night, many of you would have woke up in a foul mood this morning and I would have found myself writing something about Dan Uggla or Alex Gonzalez or maybe Derek Lowe.

But instead of being swept by the Nationals, the Braves posted a memorable comeback victory that obviously overshadowed Uggla’s fourth-inning defensive struggles and Gonzalez’s lack of hustle that led to him getting thrown out as he slid into second base with what should have been a sure-fire ninth-inning double.

Prado’s grand slam, McCann’s single and stellar work from the bullpen, prevented Lowe from having to analyze why he looked so shaky while allowing five earned runs in six innings.  Just six days earlier he had been masterful in Philadelphia until a right foot blister forced him to exit and perform a subdued Kevin Brown impersonation on his locker at Citizens Bank Park.

Last night’s start and the one he had a few weeks ago in Los Angeles were the only truly bad starts Lowe has produced since pitching coach Roger McDowell sat down with him and altered his approach last September.  Quite simply, he reminded the sinkerballer that he is allowed to throw more than simply the sinker.

Speaking of McDowell, he will return this afternoon.  In fact he will address the media at 2 p.m. at Turner Field.  So we’ll keep this one rather brief.

Here are a couple random thoughts:

1) Brian McCann still hasn’t displayed his regular power.  But after collecting three extra-base hits in April, he already has four (all doubles) in May.   He’s hitting .310 with and owns a .500 (14-for-28)  batting average with runners in scoring position.   This is about the time he got hot each of the past two years, after dealing with vision problems.

2) Craig Kimbrel epitomized the definition of filthy last night.  Three strikeouts in a span of 13 pitches is quite impressive.  But the most encouraging product of that appearance was the fact that he responded in the manner that he did about 24 hours after blowing a two-run ninth-inning lead.  The kid is going to be fine and has the chance to be truly special in that closer’s role.

3) Brandon Beachy makes his 11th career start tonight and fourth against the Phillies.   Many of you know how he left the Instructional League last year and then made a sudden Major League debut in front of a raucous Philadelphia crowd late last year.  Well he ended up making three of his first five starts against the Phils and ended up losing all three.

When I noticed he wasn’t going to be pitching against them last weekend in Philadelphia, I mentioned it to him and watched him remain stone faced before saying,  “I want to get those guys.  I really do and I will.”

Kimbrel creating reason to wonder if Venters should close

It’s not time for Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez to flip-flop the roles of Craig Kimbrel and Jonnny Venters.  But we’re obviously getting very close to that point.

While Venters has continued to be the same reliable filthy setup man, doubt has centered around Kimbrel courtesy of the fact he has been charged with a loss and three blown saves in his past 11 appearances.  The 22-year-old reliever has obviously proven to be mortal.

But as Kimbrel spoke after blowing a two-run ninth-inning lead in last night’s 11-inning loss, I didn’t get the sense that young kid was bewildered like Chris Reitsma and Dan Kolb were back when they were squandering ninth-inning leads.   Instead, I’d say he was just ticked off and determined to get his next save opportunity as soon as possible.

In other words, Kimbrel had the reaction closers are supposed to have.  Of course you have to wonder if things might have been different if he had pitched the entire ninth with the tenacity he displayed when he ended the inning with consecutive strikeouts of Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth.

This is all part of the learning curve Kimbrel has traveled while spending the past couple weeks not proving as dominant as he was in September and during the first couple weeks of this season.

During Kimbrel’s first six appearances of the season, he converted each of his four save opportunities, issued one walk and struck out 10 of the 20 batters he faced.  Opponents recorded three hits in 19 at-bats.    64 23 11

Over the course of his past 11 appearances, Kimbrel has issued seven walks and struck out 15 of the 48 batters he has faced.   Opponents have recorded nine hits in 40 at-bats at-bats during this span.

“I’m leaving some balls over the plate and the good hitters are going to hit it,” Kimbrel said Wednesday night.

As much as we attempt to find numbers to explain things in the baseball world, sometimes the explanation is as simple as the one that Kimbrel provided.  The numbers prove that opponents have a good chance to record hits when he’s not tallying impressive strikeout ratios and providing them pitches they can put in play.

Opponents have produced a .343  BAbip (Batting average balls in play) against Kimbrel this season.  Over his past seven appearances that mark stands at .471.

These are all very small sample sizes, but it’s clear Kimbrel doesn’t have the same overwhelming stuff he had at the end of last year.   While striking out 23 of the 42 batters he faced during last year’s final month, his BAbip stood at a respectable .286.

To provide reference, Billy Wagner’s BAbip was .252 last year and Venters’ mark was .291.

Even as Venters struggled through Sunday’s eighth inning in Philadelphia, it still felt like he was going to surrender just the one run that he did.  When Kimbrel allowed the Phillies to put runners at first and second base with just one out in the ninth, the same confidence wasn’t present.

Kimbrel notched that save without incurring any further damage and he will have more opportunities to bounce back from Wednesday’s outing.  But the Braves are at least fortunate to know that Venters is waiting in the wings if there is a need to change closers.

What to do with Linebrink:   Dating back to the earliest days of the season, there was reason to wonder how long the Braves could hold on to Scott Linebrink.   He struggled through Spring Training and hasn’t done anything during the regular season to give Fredi Gonzalez reason to use him unless necessary in clutch situations.

With Cristhian Martinez having pitched three innings Tuesday night, Linebrink was the last legitimate option remaining in the bullpen last night.    He entered and ended the 10th inning with a strikeout.  But after retiring the first batter he faced in the decisive 11th inning, he hit Pudge Rodriguez with a 1-2 slider and then allowed three consecutive hits.

Game over.

Now the Braves have to decide whether the Linebrink experiment is over.   Unlike left-handed specialist George Sherrill, Linebrink shown recent improvement.

Linebrink has allowed opponents to produce a .346 batting average and .404 on-base percentage in his 17 appearances this year.    When the Braves acquired him from the White Sox and agreed to pay $2 million of his $5.5 million salary, it’s obvious they were hoping for better results.

It’s also seemingly obvious that they didn’t envision Cory Gearrin would be making the appearances in situations that were initially targeted for Linebrink.

When Scott Proctor is eligible to be promoted from Triple-A Gwinnett Sunday, it will be interesting to see if the Braves are willing to cut their losses and release Linebrink.

After tweeting that Proctor could help the bullpen, I received multiple responses from fans who didn’t share my opinion. Now I’ll better explain mine while given more than 140 characters to utilize.

Would you have rather had Proctor or Linebrink to pitch last night’s 11th inning.  For that matter, would you like to have had Jairo Asencio or Juan Abreu instead of Linebrink last night?

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