Simply looking at everything that has transpired dating back to the beginning of the two-game series in Arizona on May 18, it’s even harder to believe the Braves enter Tuesday night’s series opener against the Mets tied with the Brewers and Cardinals for the National League’s second-best winning percentage.
During the 23-game span dating back to May 18, the Braves have placed their entire Opening Day outfield – Jason Heyward, Nate McLouth and Martin Prado — on the disabled list. They have also seen both Scott Proctor and George Sherrill both record one more win than their Opening Day starter Derek Lowe, who has gone 0-2 with a 5.27 ERA during this span.
Before you start getting too concerned about Lowe, you should take account of the fact that Tim Hudson has gone 1-2 with a 7.32 ERA during this span.
Four Major League outfielders (Matt Kemp, Mike Morse, Jay Bruce and Carlos Quentin) have tallied more RBIs than the combined total(22) of all of the Braves’ outfielders dating back to May 18.
And even though he has shown signs of life the past few days, it should be noted that Dan Uggla hit just .143 (11-for-77) with three RBIs during this 23-game stretch.
Still with Tommy Hanson and tonight’s starter Jair Jurrjens keeping the starting rotation solid and Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel anchoring the bullpen, the Braves managed to go 13-10 during this “rough” stretch. They lost just one game to the Phillies in the National League East standings and gained one game in the Wild Card standings.
More importantly as they sit just 2 1/2 games behind the Phillies and are tied for the lead in the Wild Card race, the Braves suddenly find themselves nearing full strength. Heyward began his Minor League rehab assignment with Triple-A Gwinnett Monday night.
Heyward could return within the next couple days and McLouth seems to be nearing the start of what will likely be a rather short rehab assignment. While Prado might miss another couple weeks, the Braves are at least nearing a point where they don’t have to rely so heavily on projected bench players like Eric Hinske and Joe Mather.
Hinske has delivered some clutch power and been invaluable while playing both left field and right field. But as he has batted .213 with a .263 on-base percentage during this span, he has provided the reminder that he is best utilized when he is not playing an everyday role.
With that being said, the best bench players don’t simply deliver while coming off the bench. Instead, they make timely contributions like Hinske has when he has been forced to start on a regular basis during his two years in Atlanta. The Braves have gone 19-10 when he’s in the lineup this year and 19-19 when he is not.
Super Jonny: Jonny Venters leads all Major League relievers in ERA (0.44), appearances (37), innings pitched (40 2/3) and opponents’ OPS (.396). He ranks second in WHIP (0.74), third in strikeouts (43) and fifth in both batting average allowed (.145) and opponents’ on-base percentage (.228).
There is no doubt in my mind that Venters should be a part of this year’s National League All-Star team. Heck if he keeps this up, I might at least entertain that thought shared by those of you who believe he should garner some Cy Young Award consideration.
But I’m still not sold on the belief that the Braves should use Venters as their closer and move Craig Kimbrel into the setup role. From a financial standpoint, it stinks that Venters might not have a bunch of saves on his resume when it comes time for him to go through the arbitration process at the end of the 2012 season.
Right now, it appears Venters will steadily gain more save opportunities. If Kimbrel were to continue to falter, there’s a chance he could be utilized more often in the eighth inning.
The Braves should just continue to feel fortunate that they have Kimbrel and Venters around to take care of the eighth and ninth innings. If the current mix doesn’t work, they have the luxury of giving Venters even more opportunities to close.
But for now, Kimbrel should be given every reason to believe the club still believes he has the potential to be one of the game’s top closers for many years to come.
Freeman joins Heyward: As expected Freddie Freeman has followed Jason Heyward and left Career Sports Management to join forces with agent Casey Close, whose top clients include Derek Jeter and Ryan Howard. Freeman and Heyward developed a bond with Victor Menocal, who left CSM to join Close.
With 100 games remaining this season, the Braves are one game behind the pace they set a year ago. Of course a year ago at this time, they were sitting at the top of the National League East standings and creating plenty of reason for optimism.
While gathering nearly the same results this year, the Braves have not lived up to expectations. Still as they sit just three games behind the Phillies in the National League East standings and one game behind the Brewers in the Wild Card race, there is a sense that this team is capable of making the kind of second-half tear that the Phillies enjoyed last year.
Long before notching an NL-best 97 victories and winning the NL East by six games last year, the Phillies possessed a 32-30 record. Through this year’s first 62 games, the Braves have gone 34-28.
This isn’t to say the Braves are going to overtake the Phillies, who have overcome many significant injuries to produce the game’s best record so far this season. Instead, this comparison was made to simply remind you that Philadelphia fans were feeling some of the same disappointment you’ve battled as the Braves have struggled to find consistency the past few weeks.
Through their first 62 games this year, the Braves have batted .241 with 60 homers and a .689 OPS. They have averaged 3.8 runs per game. Their pitchers have posted a 2.99 ERA and allowed an average of 3.3 runs per game.
Through their first 62 games last year, they batted.260 with 47 homers and a .741 OPS. They averaged 4.9 runs per game. Their pitchers posted a 3.77 ERA and surrendered 4.0 runs per game at this point last year.
So the pitching staff has proven to be much better and the offense has proven to be much more disappointing. I know you didn’t need this numbers to confirm this.
Nor did you need me to remind you that things would be much different if Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla had not been such non factors during the season’s first nine weeks.
A return to Miami has not seemingly been the remedy Uggla is seeking to end his offensive struggles. He has recorded one hit in his first eight at-bats of this week’s series against the Marlins. Unfortunately while going 1-for-5 in last night’s 10-inning victory, he faced the embarrassing reality that the output was good enough to keep his batting average at .170.
Fortunately, it sounds like Heyward might be able to return by the time next weekend arrives. Freddie Freeman talked to him earlier this week and gained the sense that the young right fielder’s shoulder is feeling much better.
“He’s been pretty down about his shoulder since the start of Spring Training,” Freeman said. “This is the first time I’ve heard something positive come out of his mouth about it since then. I’m encouraged and I think he is. We need him. He’s a force. A healthy Jason Heyward, watch out.” <p>
With a healthy Heyward, some of you might be able to watch games without some of the stress that has been present the past couple weeks. The Braves played their Major League-high 13th extra-inning game while improving to 12-11 in one-run games last night.
Last night was also the seventh extra-inning game the Braves have played in their past 19 games. They have won five of those seven most recent extra-inning contests. <p>
Once Craig Kimbrel blew a two-run lead with two outs in the ninth last night, the Braves rebounded in the 10th inning and manged to score more than two runs for just the eighth time in their past 17 games.
The Braves have scored two runs or fewer 22 times this year, one more than the Phillies. The other NL teams to do so more often are the Padres (28, 3-25), Dodgers (27, 3-24), Giants (23, 5-18) and Nationals (23, 4-19).
Maybe it will help relieve some of the late-inning stress you have felt on a nightly basis to know the Braves have posted the NL’s best winning percentage .272 (6-16) while scoring two runs or fewer this year.
Martin Prado has routinely put up a fight when he has been left out of the starting lineup in the past. But after getting hit on the side of his left knee with a throw as he was stealing second base Tuesday night, Prado returned to Sun Life Stadium Wednesday and knew he needed a day to rest.
“My best indication was when he didn’t put up a fight,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Usually, he’ll come in and say I’m playing, I’m playing. But he didn’t come in today. With guys like that, that’s a pretty good indicator.”
Gonzalez joking said Prado was walking around “like Bobby Cox in the clubhouse.” The valuable left fielder suffered a left knee contusion when Marlins catcher John Buck’s errant throw hit him as he was recording a ninth-inning stolen base.
“When that play happened, I thought they bumped knees,” Gonzalez said of Prado and Marlins shortstop Ozzie Martinez. “If they would have been playing kickball, he would have been out.”
Gonzalez did not think Prado would be available to even serve as a pinch hitter Wednesday night. But he was hoping his veteran outfielder would return for Thursday’s series finale against the Marlins.
Over the past few days there has been a lot of discussion about how some of Jason Heyward’s teammates feel he needs to learn the difference between playing with pain and playing with injury.
With the Braves scuffling in his absence and two MRI exams showing nothing more than inflammation around Heyward’s right shoulder, this is quite honestly an expected reaction.
Teammates have questioned the severity of some of the ailments that have caused Chipper Jones to miss games in the past. It’s simply part of the baseball culture. Now Jones finds himself on the other side of the fence, having talked to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution yesterday about the need for Heyward to realize the value he brings the lineup even when he is not quite 100 percent healthy.
Even though the MRIs showed no structural damage, none of us can truly know exactly how Heyward has felt on some of those mornings when he was woke up and found it hard to simply lift his left arm. He told a friend Tuesday that for the first time since the second week of Spring Training, he can honestly say that he feels at least 80 percent healthy.
Heyward’s choice to remain relatively private has probably hurt him in this situation. If he provided play-by-play of his progress, there might be less reason to doubt the severity of his shoulder injury. But this all part of the live-and-learn process experienced by every 21-year-old kid.
At the end of the day, it should not be forgotten that Heyward is still just 21-years-old. He certainly has plenty to learn and some could argue that he did last year, when he played the season’s final four months with a left thumb injury.
This may have been a product of something he learned in 2009, when Double-A Mississippi manager Phil Wellman sat him down and talked to him about the need to learn how to decipher the difference between pain and injury.
At the same time, Heyward’s decision to get healthy this year and not be the lineup detriment he was in May, might have been a product of what he learned while struggling to consistently produce during last year’s second half.
With and Without Heyward: The Braves averaged 4.2 runs per game through May 10 — the date Heyward’s sore right shoulder became a public issue. They have averaged 3.1 runs per game in the 24 games that have followed.
As mentioned earlier this week, you can point your finger at new hitting coach Larry Parrish if you want. But at the end of the day there isn’t a team that would have continued to produce respectable numbers while getting next to nothing from two of their middle-of-the-lineup threats – Heyward and Dan Uggla.
Heyward produced respectable numbers through the season’s first two weeks and then went on one of his dominant tears near the end of April. But he hit just .098 (4-for-41) with one extra-base hit in the 17 games he played in May.
Odd win with two hits: We obviously saw something unique last night, when the Braves beat the Marlins while recording just two hits – including Martin Prado’s ninth-inning single.
Dating back to the start of 1946 the Braves have been held to two hits or fewer in 131 games. Last night marked just the 17th time they proved victorious in one of these games.
The previous occurrence came during a 1-0 win over the Marlins on Sept. 25, 2004. Mike Hampton earned the win. DeWayne Wise produced the lone RBI and Chris Reitsma earned the save. Obviously that game was unique in more ways than one.
Still after congratulating Tommy Hanson and three relievers last night, there wasn’t much reason for the Braves to feel good about anything else they did last night.
When the Braves recorded just two hits in an April 13 loss to the Marlins, they could understandably tip their caps toward Josh Johnson and simply look forward to the next day. After recording just one hit — Alex Gonzalez’s fourth-inning home run – in the six innings Brad Hand produced in his Major League debut last night, the Braves had nothing but more reason to be concerned about their offense.
Yeah, we often hear about how tough it is to face a young pitcher teams have not seen in the past. But last time I checked, Hand isn’t Julio Teheran and as Teheran has learned this year, debuts usually do not go as smoothly as the one enjoyed by Hand, who had posted a 3.53 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .234 against him while pitching for Double-A Jacksonville this year.
Instead of spending another day talking about Dan Uggla’s struggles or the need for a healthy Jason Heyward to begin contributing, we’ll take a look at some of the most notable sports figures to be drafted by the Braves without you ever knowing.
Yeah, you’re right, that’s just taking the easy way out as many of you sit at your office and find it hard to concentrate on work when Uggla’s batting average sits at .172 — the lowest mark among all qualified Major League players. There are two Major Leaguers (Ryan Raburn and Chone Figgins) with a worse on-base percentage (.240) 13 Major Leaguers with a worse slugging percentage (.312).
Two of the three National Leaguers with a lower slugging percentage are Uggla’s former teammate Hanley Ramirez, who was placed on the disabled list Monday, and Omar Infante, who was part of the package the Braves provided in return for Uggla in November.
But hey it’s too early to worry, right? I mean we’re just two months into that five-year, $62 million commitment the Braves made in January.
A couple of weeks ago some members of the Braves organization were still taking that age-old baseball approach of saying, “His numbers will be where they need to be by the end of the season.”
Unless some of Enron’s former accountants are now employed at Elias, it’s not going to happen. There’s certainly still a chance Uggla hit another 23 homers over the final 102 games and end up with a fifth consecutive 30-homer season. But he has just two homers in his past 133 at-bats.
It seems we’ve reached that point where the Braves should do whatever they can to make Uggla believe they do not care what his statistics read at the end of the year. Right now, they can only hope that he proves to be much more like the .263 career hitter he was entering this season.
Yes, it’s important for Uggla to provide the timely power that allowed the Braves claim wins over the Brewers (April 4), Giants (April 24) and Phillies (May 15). But at the same time, the Braves need him to provide at least a hint of consistency in the middle of their lineup.
Uggla is now hitting .111 (6-for-54) with runners in scoring position. Until he starts cashing in on these opportunities more consistently, the Braves are going to struggle like they did most of this past weekend.
The Braves scored 10 runs during this past weekend’s series and just two of them were plated before the eighth inning. Before Diory Hernandez hit his three-run, ninth-inning homer Sunday night, the Braves were flirting with scoring two runs or fewer for the ninth time in a span of 15 games.
They have scored two runs or fewer in 21 of their first 60 games. That equates to 35 percent. They scored two runs or fewer in 45 (27.8 percent) of their 162 games last year.
As mentioned in April, the Braves had some trouble connecting with new hitting coach Larry Parrish. Of course a few hours after this was written in this forum, the Braves began a three-game sweep of the Giants in San Francisco.
But there is absolutely no reason to blame Parrish right now. With Uggla providing nothing more than a couple clutch homers and Jason Heyward proving productive for what amounted to just a week, the Braves simpy have to feel fortunate to be within 3 1/2 games of the top spot in the NL East standings.
LOOKING BACK ON PAST DRAFTS: The Braves’ only pick in tonight’s First-Year Player Draft will be the 28th overall selection. I’m guessing they go for a left-handed pitcher. Over the next couple days, they’ll make a flurry of picks. Some of the players might prove recognizable immediately and others you might not recognize until many years later.
Here is a look at some successful sports personalities who were once drafted by the Braves without many of you ever knowing:
Kevin Towers (1981 — 12th round) The Padres drafted him the following season and later employed him as their general manager from 1995-2009. He is currently serving in that role for the D-backs.
Randy Johnson (1982 — 4th round) After not signing with the Braves out of high school, Johnson enjoyed a successful career at the University of Southern California, where he played with Mark McGwire. The Expos took him in the second round of the 1985 Draft. His 303-win career included a perfect game at Turner Field.
Urban Meyer (13th round of 1982) – Long after hitting .182 in two Rookie Level seasons with the Braves, he won two national championships as the head football coach at the University of Florida.
Ben McDonald (1986 — 27th round) After not signing with the Braves out of high school, McDonald produced a stellar career at Louisiana State University and was taken by the Orioles as the first overall selection in the 1989 Draft.
Mark Brunell (1992 – 44th round) After the Braves took a flyer on him, Brunell served as Brett Favre’s understudy in Green Bay and then became a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback in Jacksonville.
Dallas Braden (2001 — 46th round) — Braden went the college route and was selected by the A’s in the 24th round of the 2004 Draft. Last year, he became the 19th of the 20 pitchers in Major League history to toss a perfect game.
This year’s speed-challenged Braves have managed to make the stolen base attempt the equivalent of what the football world recognizes as the Hail Mary pass.
The Braves have been successful with just 11 of their first 27 stolen base attempts this season. That equates to a 40.7 percent success rate. The Marlins (55.8 percent) and White Sox (50 percent) are the only other clubs with a success percentage below the 65.2 mark posted by the Cubs entering Sunday.
The Orioles (22-for-28), Twins (27-for-35) and Cubs (15-for-23) are the only other clubs other than the Braves to have registered fewer than 40 stolen base attempts this year. As the numbers show, these clubs have been much more successful in the art of picking their spots, or knowing when to keep the driver in the golf bag.
The worst stolen base percentage posted by a Braves team dating back to 1980 was the 55 percent mark (93-for-169) posted by the 1986 club.
Many of the Braves’ unsuccessful attempts have come at the end of unsuccessful hit-and-run attempts. Most of these botched attempts have affected Martin Prado, who has been successful with just one of his six stolen base attempts.
Meanwhile opponents have been successful with 72.4 percent (42-for-58) of their stolen base attempts against the Braves this year. It’s no surprise that they have been successful with 16 of the 18 attempts made against Tommy Hanson, who saw opponents prove successful with 89.1 percent (33-for-37) of their attempts last year.
But it has been surprising that opponents have been successful with nine of their first 10 attempts against tonight’s starting pitcher Tim Hudson. Last year, Hudson limited opponents to a 50 percent (11-for-22) success rate.
While the Braves certainly defend the running game better with David Ross behind the plate, Brian McCann did throw out six of the 14 opponents who attempted to steal while he was serving as Hudson’s catcher last year.
This year, McCann has been behind the plate for each of the 10 stolen base attempts made with Hudson on the mound.
As mentioned Friday, McCann will get the day off Tuesday and Chipper Jones will rest for tonight’s series finale against the Mets.
Two days after fouling a pitch off the right side of his face, Jordan Schafer is back in tonight’s lineup. He ran in the outfield this afternoon and headed toward the clubhouse with a smile on his face.
Schafer was very fortunate to simply suffer a non-displaced sinus fracture when Jonathon Niese’s fastball hit off the handle of his bat and hit his square on the right side of the face Friday night. He didn’t lose any teeth and simply had a very small bruise under his right eye when he returned to the park Saturday.
Still when asked if he would take a picture to show the fans how little damage he had incurred, Schafer smiled and said, “I can’t let the ladies see me like this.”
Speaking of Chipper, many of you asked how far his eighth-inning homer against Niese traveled Friday night. The Mets did not provide an estimate, but many of the media members polled said it was one of the few balls they have seen travel to the second deck since Citi Field opened in 2009.
The folks at hittrackeronline.com estimated the home run’s true distance to be 412 feet and its standard distance (factors out the influence of wind, temperature and altitude) to be 422 feet.
According to this website, three of the other four homers Jones has hit this year have actually traveled further than the one he hit Friday night. His longest shot by their estimates was the one he hit against the Nationals’ Jordan Zimmerman on May 12 at Turner Field. Its true distance was estimated at 437 feet and its standard distance was estimated at 432.
Here is a Dan Uggla-free smorgasbord of thoughts to digest before, during and after tonight’s series opener against the Mets at Citi Field:
Jair Jurrjens admits it will feel a little odd when he is warming up before Saturday night’s start against the Mets. This will mark the first time he has entered the visitor’s bullpen at Citi Field since Sept. 17, when he began feeling knee discomfort during a side session. He later learned he had a torn meniscus and was unable to to pitch in the playoffs last year.
Jurrjens has said the inability to participate in the postseason served as great motivation as he prepared for this season. So far, his efforts have made him a strong All-Star candidate and one of the very early favorites for a Cy Young Award.
When Jurrjens faces the Mets Saturday, he’ll be attempting to join Ubaldo Jimenez as the only pitchers in Major League history to allow two earned runs or fewer and last at least six innings in their first 10 starts of the season. Jimenez set the record when he did so in his first 12 starts last year.
Jurrjens, Randy Johnson (2000) and Lefty Gomez (1937) are the only pitchers to do this in their first nine starts of a season.
Catcher protection: With Giants general manager Brian Sabean taking time during his radio show to blast Marlins’ outfielder Scott Cousins, there is still plenty of debate about what MLB should do in the wake of Giants catcher Buster Posey breaking his leg courtesy of his collision with Cousins last week.
A’s general manager Billy Beane told his catcher Kurt Suzuki that he does not want him blocking the plate when there is a chance for a big collision. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he would never ask his Brian McCann to do this.
“You can’t worry that kind of stuff,” Gonzalez said. “People have gotten hurt coming down steps. You can’t worry about that kind of stuff. I don’t think you can tell an athlete or competitor, don’t do that because I don’t want you to hurt yourself.
“I want (McCann) to give us an opportunity to win a game. If that’s by blocking the plate, then I want him to block the plate. I think athletes understand that. I don’t think you can tell athletes to go 50 percent. He’s got to look at the other 24 guys in that locker room.”
Odds and ends: Center fielder Jordan Schafer said he was still feeling a little sore after running into the wall while ending Wednesday night’s win over the Padres. With the catch giving him his 16th save, Craig Kimbrel said he owes Schafer dinner…Trying to take advantage of Monday’s offday, Gonzalez plans to rest Chipper Jones Sunday night and McCann Tuesday. This would give both a chance to have two consecutive days of rest.
It’s never nice to pile on, especially when they are not around to defend themselves. . But after reviewing all of the facts, Kenshin Kawakami has to bear the blame for the Roy Halladay hex the Braves have now battled for two straight seasons.
Of course, had Dan Uggla not hustled around the bases and then hit the game-winning, eighth-inning homer when the Braves beat Halladay for the first time ever on May 15, these past two weeks might not have been nearly as frustrating as the nine-game losing streak that began when Halladay beat the Braves on April 21 of last year.
With Kawakami out of the picture, maybe the blame should be pointed solely in Uggla’s direction. But instead of piling on the new second baseman, it seems more appropriate to look at the history of this Halladay hex.
After earning a no-decision while Kawakami helped the Braves claim a 1-0 win over the Blue Jays on May 22, 2009, Halladay gained reason to seek vengeance during any future trips to Atlanta. Given what has transpired in the days following his only two subsequent starts at Turner Field, it seems he has succeeded.
Last year’s unforgettable nine-game losing streak began with Halladay tossing a five-hit shutout. The Braves hit .223 and averaged 1.9 runs during that futile nine-game stretch.
Given that the Braves have hit .245 averaged 2.8 runs and split the 14 games played since they last saw Halladay, it might not seem appropriate to compare these two spans. But those of you who have watched the Braves hit just .192 with runners in scoring position during this stretch may at least agree that the resulting frustration has at least been comparable.
Given how May concluded, it might be hard to remember that the Braves were much more productive than they were during the season’s first month. <p>
When the Braves went 13-15 in April, they were six games behind the Phillies in the National League East race and 4 1/2 games behind the Marlins for the top spot in the Wild Card race.
After going 17-11 in May, they enter June trailing the Phillies by 4 1/2 games and the Marlins by just 2 1/2 games.
Still even while gaining ground, the Braves seemed to lose the great opportunity they possessed after winning 10 of the first 14 games in May. Included in that stretch were a pair of series victories against the Phillies.
Two days after beating Halladay, the Braves were energized by Brian McCann’s incredible late-inning heroics. It would have seemed McCann created a great spark when he hit a two-out ninth-inning pinch hit homer and 11th inning walk-off homer to complete a two-game sweep of the Astros on May 17.
But two weeks later, it’s more appropriate to say he just blurred the offensive struggles which started to mount during that two-game series.
While winning 10 of the first 14 games played in May, the Braves hit .272 with a .342 on-base percentage and .433 slugging percentage. They scored 4.8 runs per game (fifth-most in the Majors) while hitting .268 with runners in scoring position during this span.
While splitting their final 14 games of the month, they batted .245 with a .310 on-base percentage and .346 slugging percentage. They scored 2.8 runs per game (second-worst in the Majors) while hitting just .192 with runners in scoring position during this span.
Fortunately, the Braves know they have the ability to hit the clutch. They exited their May 15 matchup with Halladay with a .301 batting average with runners in scoring position — the game’s third-best mark through the season’s first six weeks.
Even with all of the opportunities they have squandered over the past two weeks, the Braves still rank sixth in the Majors with a .273 (108-for-396) batting average with runners in scoring position.
With a pair of late-inning RBI singles in Tuesday night’s loss, Chipper Jones improved his team-leading batting average with runners in scoring position to .429 (18-for-42). Brian McCann has found nearly equal success hitting .381 (16-for-42) in these situations.
Further proving that clutch situations always seem to find the wrong guy in the lineup, Uggla has recorded 51 at-bats with runners in scoring position — seven more than any other Braves player. And he has hit just .118 (6-for-51) in these situations.
Fortunately for the Braves, the calendar has turned to June and there is no chance of Halladay pitching in Atlanta again until the final three days of the regular season arrive.