August 2011

Odds and ends: Giants return to Atlanta; Hanson needed extra rest

Coming off Sunday’s disappointing loss, the Braves will open a four-game series tonight against the Giants, who are making their first return to Atlanta since clinching the National League Division Series in October.

The defending world champion Giants come to town having won just five of their previous 16 games.   With Sunday’s victory over the Marlins, they notched a second consecutive win for the first time since beating the Phillies on July 27 and 28.

During this 16-game skid, they have batted .245 and averaged 2.4 runs.   Their pitchers have posted a 3.74 ERA during this short span.

But obviously statistics from small sample sizes really do not matter at this time of year.  Remember that vaunted Giants pitching staff that dominated October.  Well it posted a 4.55 ERA in August last year.

The Braves took three of four from the Giants when they were in Altanta last August.   They could certainly strengthen their postseason hopes if they are able to do the same thing this week.

As Tim Hudson prepares to battle Madison Bumgarner in tonight’s series opener, the Braves own a four-game lead over the Giants in the Wild Card race.   The Cardinals are five games back and there isn’t another NL team within 10 games of the Braves, who had won five straight before losing this weekend’s final two games against the Cubs.

Hudson certainly didn’t mind seeing Carlos Beltran leave the National League East when he wast traded to the Giants a few weeks ago.   Beltran has hit .351 with  four homers and a 1.016 OPS in 74 career at-bats against the Braves veteran hurler.

Fortunately for Hudson, Beltran has been bothered by a strained right hand since he was traded and he has not played since Aug. 7.

As the Braves squandered  four-run lead yesterday, there were obviously a number of things that went wrong.  At the end it was yet another game where you had to question the quality of depth in the bullpen.

Coming fresh off the disabled list without a rehab appearance, Scott Linebrink allowed singles to the only three batters he faced in the sixth inning.  Then showing he can handle the stress of a tight situation, Arodys Vizcaino struck out the only three batters he faced.

In the process, Vizcaino was charged with a wild pitch that Brian McCann was unable to block in the dirt.  This allowed the Cubs to tie the game.  McCann had caught just five innings in the previous 18 days and he was not too familiar with Vizcaino’s sharp curveball.  This proved to be a bad mix.

With that being said, the Braves certainly had reason to be encouraged with what they saw from Vizcaino yesterday after he entered a tight situation for the first time in his career.  Last week, I wondered whether the 20-year-old reliever was ready and there was more reason to wonder after his debut.

But in his past two outings, Vizcaino has impressed and given reason to believe the Braves might be able to rely on him being that reliable extra right-handed reliever they’ve needed for the past couple weeks.

It also looks like Peter Moylan is prepared to show he can fill that need.  Moylan, sidelined since having back surgery in May, threw live batting practice at Turner Field this afternoon.  Check braves.com later today to get his thoughts.

Moylan has told teammates that he has been feeling great.  He’s seemingly nearing that point where he will be cleared to make the Minor League rehab appearances (probably at least three) he will need to make before being activated.

When Randall Delgado takes the mound to start in place of the injured Tommy Hanson tomorrow night, he will likely be much more comfortable than he was in June when he was scratched just before a Minor League start and then made his Major League debut against the Rangers the next night.  Delgado has worked 13 consecutive scoreless since being promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett.

The Braves certainly made the right move giving Hanson a few extra days to rest his shoulder after he was diagnosed with tendinitis for the second time in two months.   In fact there probably should have a possibility of him making Tuesday night’s start.

Before Sunday’s game, Hanson said when he returned from the DL in June to face the Mariners, he was still feeling some tightness.  Thus, the Braves simply need to give him as much time as necessary to make sure he’ll be ready to be a factor down the stretch.

 

 

 

Hanson placed on the disabled list

As expected, the Braves activated Brian McCann from the disabled list Sunday morning.  At the same time, they announced Tommy Hanson has been placed on the 15-day disabled list.

The Braves have not announced who will start Tuesday in place of Hanson, who is experiencing  right shoulder discomfort for the second time this season.  An MRI exam performed last week indicated that he is once again dealing with tendinitis.  This is what he was diagnosed with when he was placed on the disabled list in June.

Hanson returned from the disabled list in late June and made three strong starts before the All-Star break.  But he has posted an 8.10 ERA in his five starts since the break.

The Braves also announced right-handed reliever Scott Linebrink has been activated from the disabled list and right-handed reliever Anthony Varvaro has been optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett.

Looking at Vizcaino’s arrival and Proctor’s departure

Once Scott Proctor nearly cost the Braves a game within which he did not even throw a pitch, it was obvious that it was time to finally cut ties with the veteran reliever.   Thus there wasn’t any reason for surprise this morning when it was revealed Proctor had been given his unconditional release.

However it was somewhat surprising to learn his roster spot would be filled by Arodys Vizcaino, who is considered the organization’s second-best prospect.   The 20-year-old right-hander’s ascension to the Majors  has understandably generated excitement among Braves fans.

Those who have seen him display his above-average fastball and knee-buckling curveball understand why he is considered to have so much potential.  Those who have simply seen that he has recorded 100 strikeouts and issued just 28 walks in 97 innings this year are looking forward to getting their first glimpse of how he will fare at the Major League level.

Vizcaino is every bit as impressive as Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado, the organization’s other prized young pitching prospects and there is little doubt that he has a bright future as a starter or reliever (I’m sticking with reliever) at the Major League level.   He certainly has the stuff to serve as  closer or top setup man.

But there’s still reason to wonder if he has been rushed to the Majors.   He began this season in Class-A Advanced Myrtle Beach’s rotation and did not start working in Double-A Mississippi’s bullpen until about a month ago.   He was promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett about a week later and two more weeks later he finds himself at the Major League level.

It won’t surprise me if Vizcaino proves to be a key ingredient and the valuable extra right-handed reliever the Braves have needed for more than a month.  But given that he has made just 17 appearances (nine as  reliever) and completed 56 2/3 innings above the Class A level is he ready for the Majors?

The answer will be revealed over the next couple weeks.  Regardless,  the Braves definitely needed to add another fresh arm for tonight’s series finale against the Marlins.  Craig Kimbrel will be unavailable and if possible manager Fredi Gonzalez wouldn’t mind having a chance to stay away from using Jonny Venters.

Of course Gonzalez likely wouldn’t have as many concerns about his bullpen had Proctor simply cruised while trying to protect a five-run lead in the ninth-inning of Monday’s series opener.  Once he allowed the Marlins to cut the deficit to three runs, Gonzalez had to call upon Kimbrel to record the final two outs.

This led Gonzalez to want to stay away Kimbrel Tuesday night and use Eric O’Flaherty and Venters in the final two innings.  Thus he asked Anthony Varvaro to get the final out of the seventh inning and paid the price when the rookie reliever allowed a game-tying three-run homer that eventually forced Kimbrel to return for a third straight day in the 11th inning.

Proctor proved effective during his first month with the Braves this year.  But he struggled in almost each of the final 18 appearances he made dating back to June 16.  He posted a 9.16 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .329 with a .422 on-base percentage during this span.

Proctor’s finest moments with the Braves came July 26, when he tossed three scoreless innings and produced the decisive grounder that ended a 19-inning win over the Pirates in controversial fashion.

It’s unknown what the future holds for Proctor.  But I think you can guarantee he won’t be getting any sympathy cards from veteran umpire Jerry Meals any time soon.

Braves promote Vizcaino and release Proctor

MIAMI  —   Arodys Vizcaino has strengthened his position as one of the Braves’ top prospects and over the remainder of this season he will have the opportunity to strengthen Atlanta’s bullpen.
Vizcaino has received his first call to the Majors and is expected to be in the bullpen for Wednesday night’s series finale against the Marlins.  To create a roster spot for the hard-throwing right-hander, the Braves have released Scott Proctor.

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding Vizcaino since he impressed during this year’s Futures Game.  MLB.com ranks him as the Braves’ second-best prospect.   The 20-year-old right-hander was acquired in the Dec. 2009 trade that sent Javier Vazquez to the Yankees.

Blessed with an above average fastball and a curveball that has impressed many scouts and opponents, Vizcaino has recorded 100 strikeouts and issued 28 walks while combining for 97 innings with Class A-Advanced Lynchburg, Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett this year.  He spent the first half of the season as a starting pitcher with Lynchburg and Mississippi.

Recognizing that Vizcaino could aid their Major League bullpen, the Braves had him start serving as a reliever in July.  A short time later, they promoted him to Gwinnett, where he allowed one earned run and seven hits in seven innings.   In the process, he registered eight strikeouts and did not issue a walk.

Proctor has struggled throughout this season, posting a 6.44 ERA and allowing opponents to produce a .383 on-base percentage in 31 appearances.  The patience the Braves showed the 34-year-old right-hander was exhausted Monday night, when he recorded just one out while allowing two runs and issuing two walks in the process of attempting to protect a five-run ninth-inning lead.

Because Proctor was unable to get through that inning clean, the Braves had to call upon closer Craig Kimbrel to work a second straight day and for the third time in four games.   Wanting to give Kimbrel a day off Tuesday, the Braves opted to hold top setup men Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters back for the final two innings.

This led the Braves  to call upon rookie Anthony Varvaro, who allowed a game-tying three-run homer after entering the seventh inning with two outs.  Kimbrel ended up being forced to work after the Braves reclaimed the lead for good in the 11th inning.

Lowe has been here before

Derek Lowe seemed relieved after halting his recent woes with a win at Sun Life Stadium Monday night.  Given seven of the first 11 Marlins he faced reached safely, his six-inning effort was anything but picture perfect.  But the fact that he surrendered just two runs provided some much-needed confidence to the Braves’ 38-year-old hurler.

Six days earlier, Lowe had surrendered seven earned runs in four innings against the Nationals and fallen to 3-6 with a 6.54 over his previous 10 starts.  His troubles were magnified as both Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson lost their Cy Young Award candidacy with their own might struggles since the All-Star break.

Now with Jurrjens on the disabled list and Hanson seemingly battling some kind of ailment (likely shoulder), Lowe needs to step up and justify some of his $15 million salary.  A postseason contender should not feel real good about the possibility of gaining much value from a guy who has gone 7-10 with a 4.78 ERA in his first 25 starts of the season.

Recent history shows, Lowe is not exactly in uncharted waters.  For those Braves fans who already remember how he finished each of the past three seasons, I understand why you are having a tough time determining whether this should make you feel good or more discouraged.

Through his first 25 starts last year, Lowe was 11-10 with a 4.29 ERA.   He proved mediocre in the next three outings before skipping a start to deal with right elbow discomfort.  Then out of nowhere Captain Surprise went 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in five September starts.

The conclusion was not anywhere near as magical but last year’s dramatic turnaround conjured memories of 2004, when  Lowe was removed from the starting rotation during the season’s final week and then went 3-0 with a 1.86 ERA in four postseason appearances (three starts) for the Red Sox.   Each of his three wins that October came in series clinchers.

Like Red Sox fans four years earlier, Dodgers fans were down on Lowe when he was 9-10 with a 4.11 ERA through his first 25 starts of 2008.   Then out of nowhere, he went 5-1 with a 0.94 ERA  in his final nine starts and served as the club’s Game 1 starter in both the Division Series and League Championship Series.

Lowe’s late-season charge in 2008 helped him land his four-year, $60 million contract in Atlanta.

After going 12-7 with a 4.08 ERA in his first 25 starts with the Braves in 2009, Lowe proceeded to go 3-3 with a 6.65 ERA in his final nine starts.

So after careful analysis, it has been concluded that Lowe is only capable of finishing a season strong whenever his ERA is above 4.10 after 25 starts.

Not sure that kind of deductive reasoning is going to provide charter membership to any kind of Saber club.  But those who have watched Lowe over the years have come to realize it would be easier to get a hit off him than it would be to predict what he will do.

Uggla Watch:   Dan Uggla will attempt to extend his Major League-best hitting streak to 30 games while facing his close friend Clay Hensley and the Marlins tonight.   Uggla went hitless in his first two at-bats against Hensley on July 29 and then extended his streak with a game-winning, three-run homer in the seventh inning.

Uggla pushed the streak to 29 games with a fifth-inning infield single in Monday night’s win over the Marlins.  According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he has had eight infield hits during his hitting streak and only had six in the 86 games he had played before it began.

Odds and ends: The Braves were still thinking about skipping Tommy Hanson’s next scheduled turn Friday and having him return  with five extra days’ of rest next Tuesday.  With Thursday’s offday, each of the other rotation members would make their next start with regular rest.

Last night marked just the eighth time in 24 games since the All-Star break that a Braves starting pitcher allowed two earned runs or fewer.   Tim Hudson has accounted for four of those starts and Brandon Beachy has accounted for two.

Braves starting pitchers have gone with a 5.35 ERA since the All-Star break.  They were 39-25 with a 3.23 ERA before the break.

Veteran umpire Hunter Wendelstedt tossed both Fredi Gonzalez and Freddie Freeman during Monday night’s game.  Freeman said it was the first time he had ever been ejected from a sporting event in his life.

According to umpireejections.blogspot.com Wendelstedt’s only two previous ejections this year came July 31, when he had to toss Angels manager Mike Scioscia and Jared Weaver after Weaver threw at Tigers catcher Alex Avila.    This was part of the Buntgate madness that developed while Justin Verlander was throwing a no-hitter.

 

Uggla has consistently impressed with his character

When Dan Uggla last visited his friends down here in Miami, he was conjuring up memories of both Mario Mendoza and Dave Kingman.  Now as he carries a Major League-best 28-game hitting streak,  he just looks a lot more like that guy who played second base for the Marlins the past five seasons and won a Silver Slugger Award last year.

But Uggla has shown consistency this year with his actions, which have lived up to the expectations gained when Fredi Gonzalez and Frank Wren were discussing his makeup after he was acquired from the Marlins in November.

It’s long been said that you don’t truly know the character of a person until you see how they react to both adversity and success.  Well in the span of his first four months with the Braves,  Uggla has experienced some of the roughest days of his career and more recently some of the more enjoyable ones.

When the Braves acquired Uggla, Gonzalez described him as a guy who would leave everything he had on the field on a daily basis and prove to be accountable.   There was never any reason to dispute this while the second baseman hit .173 through his first 86 games.

Uggla never answered questions about his struggles in a terse manner.  Nor did he prove to be one of those players who conveniently hides from the media when things are not going well.   He simply owned up to the results he was producing on the field.

Now instead of fearing superstition or distraction, Uggla is simply having fun with this 28-game hitting streak that has brought him to the halfway mark of the hallowed 56-game streak Joe DiMaggio constructed in 1941.

“There’s no way you can’t think about it,” Uggla said. “ It’s fun.  I want it to continue just like everybody else does.”

That’s the kind of stuff you want to hear.  If the streak ends tonight or sometime next week, nobody is going to be distraught.   But if Uggla took this streak too seriously, he would be denying himself an opportunity to enjoy something he may never experience again.

The only two players in Atlanta Braves’ history with longer streaks are Rico Carty (31 in 1970) and Rowland Office (29 in 1976).  Before Sunday, no other Brave had constructed a 28-game streak since Marquis Grissom in 1996.

If Uggla gets a hit in tonight’s series opener against the Marlins, he’ll enter Tuesday with a chance to become just the 46th Major League player since 1900 to record a hitting streak of at least 30 games.

This is pretty remarkable territory for a guy who recorded hits in a total of 25 games in May and June combined.

During this 28-game streak, Uggla has proven to be as dangerous as the Braves envisioned when they gave him a five-year, $62 million contract extension in January.   Within this stretch, he has batted .355 with 12 homers,  a .413 on-base percentage and a .727 slugging percentage.

Yeah, his batting average will never match the .263 career mark he carried into this season.  But the Braves didn’t give him that contract to concern himself with trivial things like batting average.   His role is to clear outfield walls and provide instant offense like he has over the past month.

Uggla leads the Majors with the seven homers and .727 slugging percentage produced since the streak started on July 5.  In other words, he’s proving to be the powerful threat most of you envisioned.  Within the world of sports where results trump all else, that is really all that matters.

But in the process of struggling to find consistency and constructing this 28-game streak, Uggla has proven equally impressive with a sense of accountability that only strengthens the belief that he is indeed the man Gonzalez and Wren touted him to be during the offseason.

Chipper on the Phils:  Before delivering yet another dagger in the hearts of Mets fans yesterday, Chipper Jones gave this year’s Phillies bunch some lofty praise after he was asked how they ranked against some of the great Braves teams he played for in the late 1990s.

“The Phillies are as good as any team I’ve  seen,” Jones said.  “I’d put them up against any of those Yankees clubs of the late 90s and early 2000s.   That club has got it going on and they are flat out playing like it, day in and day out.”  <p>

Given the way they’ve overcome numerous injuries and put themselves on pace for 105 victories, it’s hard to dispute Jones’ assessment.  Sure you might think the 1998 Yankees were better.  But the fact that this year’s Phillies club is even being mentioned in that same category shows you the respect they have earned over this year.

The Braves likely aren’t going to erase the 8 1/2-game deficit  they face in the division standings with just 47 games remaining, but they are in good position with a 3 1/2-game lead in the Wild Card and have already shown they can compete with the Phillies.

While splitting 12 games against the Braves this year, the Phillies have accounted for six of the 34 losses they have suffered against National League opponents this year.   They have gone 59-28 and produced a.678 winning percentage against other NL teams this season.

In other words, there isn’t much reason for you to be expecting the Braves to get much help in the division race during the season’s final seven weeks.

Odds and ends:  Freddie Freeman bid adieu to his 20-game hitting streak during Sunday’s finale.   In the process, he continued to show why his teammates are touting him as a Gold Glove teammate with this catch.

Thanks to the loyal readers who made this blog the most visited of the ones composed by MLB.com writers  during the month of July.   It might be the last time something Braves-centric finishes ahead of something Phillies-centric this season.

 

Minor to start in place of an injured Jurrjens Sunday

Jair Jurrjens will have to wait a couple more weeks before attempting to halt the struggles he has experienced since the All-Star break.   The Braves have placed him on the 15-day disabled list with a right knee strain.
Mike Minor has been recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett to start in Jurrjens’ place Sunday afternoon against the Mets.
Jurrjens entered the All-Star break with a National League-best 1.87 ERA.   The 25-year-old right-hander has posted a 6.26 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .281 against him in his four starts since the All-Star break.
Jurrjens missed the final two weeks of the 2010 season because of a torn meniscus in his right knee.  He underwent arthroscopic surgery in October and had never previously indicated his knee has bothered him this year.

 

McCann itching to return

Chipper Jones will return to the Braves’ lineup tonight and as he was exiting the clubhouse after Friday night’s win over the Mets, Brian McCann said he believes he will be ready to play when he is eligible to be activated from the disabled list this upcoming Friday.

But as much as McCann might believe he’ll be ready, there is little reason to believe he will be playing in next weekend’s series against the Cubs.  First and foremost, the Braves are going to be very protective of their six-time All-Star catcher and will not activate him until it is obvious he is no longer bothered by the left oblique muscle he pulled during the July 26, 19-inning game against the Pirates.

History has shown most players need at least three weeks before returning from an oblique strain.  With this in mind, it might even be a bit optimistic to think he could return during this month’s series against Giants (Aug. 15-18).  But with all this being said, the Braves have to be encouraged that McCann had no problem hitting off of a tee Friday.  He hopes to take batting practice before today’s game against the Mets.

Another factor weighing against McCann’s desire to make a quick return is the fact that the Braves have not realized encouraging results when Jason Heyward and Jones returned after abbreviated Minor League rehab stints.

After undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair torn meniscus in his right knee on July 9, Jones played portions of two games with Class A Rome and then returned to Atlanta’s lineup July 25.  Six innings into his return game the veteran third baseman suffered a right hamstring strain that limited him to pinch-hit duties over the past 10 games.

Heyward battled right shoulder discomfort during the early portion of the season and recorded just 13 at-bats between May 13-21.  The 21-year-old (turns 22 Tuesday) outfielder went on the disabled list the following day and played just two rehab games on June 13 and 14 before returning.

Call it hindsight or whatever you want, but you have to wonder if Heyward would currently be more productive had he had more time to work on his swing, which appeared broken before he went on the disabled list.   In the 41 games played since returning in June, Heyward has hit .227 with a .310 on-base percentage and a .380 slugging percentage.

With Jones returning tonight, Martin Prado will return to left field for at least a day.  Jones will rest again during Sunday’s series finale against the Mets.

Prado’s return to the outfield creates reason to wonder how the Braves will utilize Jose Constanza, who has impressed with his speed since making his Major League debut last week.   His teammates are calling him “Georgie” in reference to the popular Seinfeld character George Costanza.  (I’m going to try to get a picture of the Second Spitter Roger McDowell introducing himself to the new Constanza across the street from the Shea Stadium crime.)

After last night’s game, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Constanza has at least led him and his coaches to wonder if they should keep him in the lineup. But while it’s fun to watch the 27-year-old rookie run, the fact remains he should be viewed as nothing more than a role player who can assist on the bases and occasionally spell an outfielder.

In other words, Constanza is basically that same player he was envisioned to be back when the Braves instead opted to carry Joe Mather for a couple weeks.

Braves struggling to find consistency since the break

When the Braves last visited New York City during the first week of June, Dan Uggla was hitting .172 and many of you were wondering if the Braves’ key offseason addition was ever going to live up to expectations.

One month later as you celebrated the Fourth of July and Uggla was hitting .173, many of you were probably cursing him even louder and wondering just how good the Braves could be if their second baseman ever started making consistent offensive contributions.

Well as the Braves prepare to begin a three-game series against the Mets at Citi Field tonight, Uggla is in the midst of a 25-game hitting streak and the Braves look like they did when they were nothing more than mediocre during the season’s first three weeks.

While Uggla has batted .354 with 11 homers and a 1.171 OPS during his 25-game hitting streak, the Braves’ starting pitchers have stumbled and their hitters have nearly perfected the art of squandering scoring opportunities.

In the process of splitting their first 20 games since the All-Star break, the Braves have won one 19-inning affair and claimed three victories in games that they trailed by at least three runs.

Instead of crediting the fight they have shown to win these games, it’s seemingly more important to focus on what they must do to make sure they don’t completely squander the five-game lead they possessed in the National League Wild Card chase heading into the All-Star break.

It’s obvious the Braves need their MVP Brian McCann back in the middle of their lineup as soon as possible.  At the same time, the past couple weeks have proven just have valuable Chipper Jones was as he spent the season’s first three months serving as a consistent run producer.

At the same time, the Braves have to pitch much better than they have while posting a 4.27 ERA since the All-Star break.  Their starters have gone 6-8 with  a 5.28 ERA during this span.   The Braves entered the All-Star break with a 3.11 team ERA and their starting pitchers posted a 3.23 ERA during this stretch.

Since entering the All-Star break with an NL-best 1.87 ERA, Jair Jurrjens has made four starts and posted a 6.26 ERA.  Tommy Hanson’s ERA has risen from 2.44 to 3.20 as he has struggled during the early innings of three of his past four starts.

While Jurrjens likely won’t match his first-half dominance, he is quite capable of turning things around quickly.  At the same time, as long as Hanson’s inconsistencies aren’t a product of a sore shoulder, there should be limited concerns about his ability to soon regain his successful form.

As long as Jurrjens and Hanson turn things around like Tim Hudson has over the past two months, the Braves shouldn’t have to concern themselves with the hope Derek Lowe matches the dominance he displayed last September.

Getting Jurrjens and Hanson back on track seems to be the Braves’ greatest concern.  General manager Frank Wren upgraded his lineup with the addition of Michael Bourn.   Now he simply needs some of his position players to remember what it’s like to consistently produce timely hits.

The Braves hit .271 with runners in scoring position before the All-Star break and .252 w/ RISP in their 20 games leading up to the break.  As much as it seems they have squandered too many scoring opportunities recently, they have hit .257 w/ RISP in their first 20 games since the break.

Most of the frustration has built while they have hit just .224 with runners in scoring position over their past 12 games.

Jones is hoping to return to the lineup tonight and if he remains healthy enough to be a consistent part of the lineup, the frustrations surrounding this offense could significantly decrease.    He has hit .397 with runners in scoring position this year.

Over the next couple weeks, the Braves should be able to once again begin constructing lineups that include both Jones and McCann.  Once they do, Bourn’s value will be better realized and that disgust many of you have been feeling the past couple weeks should subside.

 

 

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