Braves look to surge out of the break
While preparing for last Sunday’s TBS telecast, John Smoltz talked about how the tone for the season’s second half is often dictated by what transpires in the first couple weeks coming out of the break. He cited how the Braves won 15 of their first 20 games coming out of the break in 1993 and then eventually erased the 9 1/2-game division deficit they faced when they entered the break.
Obviously that incredible run through October’s earliest days was aided by the July 18 acquisition of Fred McGriff. But instead of evaluating the impact trade acquisitions can make down the stretch, let’s stick with how the tone for the second half can be set by what transpires during the earliest days and weeks coming out of the break.
While watching the Braves come out of last year’s break to split a four-game set against the Brewers and take two of three from the Padres, it just didn’t feel like they were the same team that had won 39 of their previous 57 games entering the break.
The road became more challenging when Chipper Jones was lost in early August and by the time Sept. 15 arrived the Braves had won just 31 of their first 59 games coming out of the break. Thanks to a final-week sweep of the Marlins and a couple productive days for the Cubs in San Diego, Braves fans will always regard last year as memorable. In other words, they probably won’t remember the club was just four games above .500 (39-35) after the break.
As the Braves prepare to come out of this year’s break tonight to host the Nationals, they are in good position — leading the National League Wild Card by five games and trailing the first-place Phillies by just 3 1/2 games in the NL East.
The Phillies faced a four-game deficit in the division standings entering the break last year and finished six games in front of the Braves. So it goes without saying that the Braves could find entry to this year’s postseason via either the Wild Card or a division crown.
Given what they’ve had to deal with on the injury front, it’s incredible that the Phillies have compiled the game’s best record. You’re not going to find many arguments when it’s suggested they are baseball’s best team right now. But at the same time, it would be hard to argue against the fact that this year’s Braves team belongs in that same elite class that also possesses the Yankees and Red Sox.
While recording the NL’s second-best record this year, the Braves have also overcome a plethora of adversity. They just spent the past six weeks without last year’s team MVP Martin Prado and got all of seven appearances from their top middle reliever, Peter Moylan, before he underwent back surgery.
Well Moylan began playing catch again yesterday and Prado will return tonight to strengthen the lineup and also occupy third base until Chipper Jones returns around July 25 with a surgically-repaired right knee.
Oh yeah, in case you forgot over the past four days, the Braves also persevered through the season’s first half while both Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward stood as liabilities in the lineup.
Uggla provided some sign for encouragement while hitting .241 with five homers, three doubles, a .349 on-base percentage and a .574 slugging percentage during his final 15 games before the break.
As bad as things have gone for Uggla, he’s more than likely going to his 30-plus homers for a fifth consecutive year. And if he simply maintains the pace he set in these previous 15 games just imagine how much more productive the Braves’ lineup will be in the season’s second half.
Heyward has hit .244 with two homers, eight doubles, a .313 on-base percentage and a .400 slugging percentage in the 24 games he has played since returning from the three-week stint he spent on the disabled list with a sore right shoulder. But the 21-year-old right fielder has hit just .216 (8-for-37) with two homers, three doubles, a .256 on-base percentage and .459 slugging percentage in 10 games this month. Five of his eight hits were compiled over the course of two games during this stretch.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he spent his 20-year-old season at the Triple-A level, but at this stage of their careers, Freddie Freeman has proven to be the one more capable of quickly making the necessary adjustments at the plate.
When Heyward was sent to Florida in late May, the Braves wanted him to test his ailing shoulder. But at the same time, it seemed they were hoping he would be able to fix a flawed swing that has made him very susceptible to the inside heater. So far, it still appears to be a work in progress.
Meanwhile Freeman struck out 23 times in a span of 48 at-bats from June 8-21 and has struck out just 12 times in the 61 at-bats that have followed.
While hitting .298 with six homers and a 1.043 OPS in his past 16 games, Freeman has helped Brian McCann carry the offensive load and led me to wonder just how soon he might enjoy a 40-homer season. His ability to hit for power to all fields is quite impressive. I thought it might take a few more years before he developed the man muscles needed to consistently drop balls over the left-centerfield wall.
Before we wrap this up, I’ll feed you a few bits of news:
- Tim Hudson will take the mound tonight and to give Jair Jurrjens an extra day to to rest after competing in Tuesday’s All-Star Game, Tommy Hanson will start Saturday’s game. Not sure if you heard, but Hanson didn’t make the NL’s All-Star team.
- Look I understand many of you were upset Hanson didn’t earn one of this year’s 10,000 All-Star selections. But I didn’t understand those of you who were upset when Bruce Bochy said he would use Brian Wilson to close Tuesday’s game. Did you really expect him to tell Wilson, “Hey, I’ve got better options tonight, but for these next 75 games, you’re my guy again.”
- Speaking of 10,000, the Braves need one more win to become the fourth Major League franchise to record the 10,000th win in franchise history. They are also eight losses away from joining the Phillies as the only franchises to ever lose 10,000 games.
- The Braves have agreed to terms of a $1.134 (right at slot) million signing bonus with their top selection Sean Gilmartin, who was taken with the 28th overall pick in this year’s Draft. Gilmartin, a 21-year-old left-hander from Florida State, began a throwing program at the club’s Spring Training complex today.