April 2012

Braves proving slightly more aggressive and efficient

Like it was far too early to panic back when the Braves lost the first four games of this season, it is still too early to get overly excited about what has transpired through this season’s first 20 games. But with 12 percent of the season complete, this year’s offense has already produced some of the confidence that last year’s version never provided.

The 13-7 record Braves carry into tonight’s matchup against the Pirates puts them five games ahead of last year’s pace and guarantees they will enter May with a winning record for the first time since 2007.   That bunch went 84-78 and the 91-win, 2010 team went 9-14 in April.  Just one of those necessary reminders to keep you grounded on April 28.

Taking a short trip down memory lane, the Braves were 8-12 through the first 20 games of 2011.  Through this span, they produced a slash line of 230/.297/.375,  21 home runs and 3.5 runs per game.

This year’s bunch has scored 5.3 runs per games with an identical 21 home runs and a slash line of  .267/.327/.418.

When the Braves ended their brief relationship with Larry Parrish in September, Braves general manager Frank Wren said that he wanted to see his hitters prove to be “tougher outs” than they had been in 2011.   The Braves led the NL in on-base percentage in 2010 and then produced one of the senior circuit’s worst marks during Parrish’s lone season in Atlanta.

This year’s offense has not necessarily been that much “more disciplined” than last year’s group.  With the current sample size, it seems more appropriate to now label them as being “more  efficient” with their plate appearances.

Here is a comparison of statistics compiled by the 2011 and 2012 teams:

2011:  3.8 pitches per plate appearances,   Pitches taken (53.6 percent) Pitches put in play (18.7 percent),  First pitch swings (29 percent)   Swings put in play (40.2 percent)

2012  3.8 pitches per plate appearances,   Pitches taken (52.9 percent) Pitches put in play (19.2 percent),  First pitch swings (31.2 percent)   Swings put in play (40.8 percent)

These numbers show the Braves have been more aggressive as a whole.  But Martin Prado’s numbers indicate he is actually  showing a little more patience than he did during last year’s frustrating season.

Here is a comparison of Prado’s numbers

2011: 3.74 pitches per plate appearance, Pitches taken (58.1 percent), First pitch swings (11.7 percent), Missed swings (10.5 percent)

2012:  4.19 pitches per plate appearance,  Pitches taken (61 percent), First pitch swings (8.2 percent), Missed swings (10.1 percent)

Prado has batted .267 with a .330 on-base percentage and .400 slugging percentage thus far this season.   His on-base percentage and slugging percentage are better than last year’s marks.  But with the small sample size compiled in 20 games, it’s seemingly more important to look at trends, like the fact that he has walked once every 10.6 plate appearances.  Not an eye-popping number, but an improvement over the once every 17.4 plate appearances pace he set last year.

Heading down to the clubhouse now to check on Brian McCann’s status.  Check braves.com and my Twitter feed @mlbbowman for updates.

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday’s odds and ends

When looking at how Martin Prado has fared in close and late situations over the past few seasons, I was reminded just how frequently Brooks Conrad delivered clutch hits during his days with the Braves.

Looking at how individual Braves players have fared in close and late situations dating back to the start of the 2010 season, Conrad ranks first in home runs (8), second in RBIs (26) and 10th in plate appearances (96).  But this is not a post about the switch-hitting utility player whose short tenure in Atlanta will always be best remembered for the defensive nightmare he lived at the end of the 2010 season.

But this post is not about loyal reader @billreef’s favorite player.  In fact it’s really not about anything in particular.  But Prado’s decisive seven-pitch at-bat against Javy Guerra on Tuesday night led me to look at how many similar situations he has encountered over the years.

If some of you also had the sense that Prado seems to always come to the plate with the game on the line, there is a reason.  He leads the Braves with 308 plate appearances in close and late situations dating back to the start of the 2009 season.  Brian McCann ranks second with 294 plate appearances and Chipper Jones third with 251.

Here’s a look at how these three players have fared in close and late situations dating back to the start of ’09:

Prado:  .260 BA, .319 OBP, .394 SLG ,  7 HR, 35 RBIs, 24 BB, 42 K  12 Go-ahead RBIs, 8 Game-winning RBIs

McCann .200 BA, ..304 OBP, .322 SLG, 7 HR, 32 RBIs, 36 BB, 60 K, 11 Go-ahead RBIs, 10 Game-winning RBIs

Jones:  .265 BA, .414 OBP, .388 SLG, 5 HR, 30 RBIs, 52 BB, 29 K, 10 Go-ahead RBIs, 10 Game-winning RBIs

In case you missed it, here is what Jones had to say about Prado’s at-bat last night.  (Disclaimer: If McCann is not Prado’s biggest fan in the Braves clubhouse, then Chipper is.)

“He’s the consummate professional,” Jones said. “He’s going to stand up there and he’s going to grind out at-bats. That was no easy task right there. That guy has dominant stuff. He had a long at-bat and fouled off some tough pitches until he finally got one. To be honest, I thought he hit it out. But it’s like Yellowstone Park once the sun goes down here.”

Barring a potential playoff matchup, tonight will mark the final time Jones plays at Dodger Stadium.  There will be plenty of final stops this season.  But this one is special for the son of a Vero Beach, Fla. native, who began bleeding Dodger blue during his own childhood.

While Jones might have turned 40 yesterday, he still displayed genuine excitement when current Dodgers broadcaster approached him at his locker.

Jones stood, stuck out his hand and said, “Mr. Monday, you don’t know how many times I used to imitate your swing in the backyard.”

Entering tonight’s series finale, Jones has batted .241 with 13 home runs,  a .342 on-base percentage and .451 slugging percentage in 59 career games at Dodger Stadium.  He had a two-homer game here against Darren Dreifort during his 1999 MVP season and another against a pair of relievers in 2007.

His first at-bat at his historic stadium came against Pedro Astacio on April 28, 1995.  He lined into a double play.

Evan Gattis has looked like the second coming of Babe Ruth while hitting .424 with eight homers and a 1.405 OPS in his first 16 games with Class-A Lynchburg.  When I said this to a scout this morning, he jokingly responded, “well he’s pretty close to Babe Ruth’s age.”

The 25-year-old Gattis has obviously positioned himself for a promotion to Double-A Mississippi. While he may never serve as a catcher in the Majors, he is providing plenty of reason to believe he has a big league bat.  Thus the Braves are going to allow him to spending some time in the outfield.  He made his debut  in left field on Tuesday night and responded with a three-hit performance that included a pair of home runs.

 

 

 

Thoughts about Jurrjens’ future

When Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez removed Jair Jurrjens in the fourth inning of Monday night’s loss to the Dodgers, there was certainly reason to believe that the pitcher was destined to land on the disabled list or in the Minors.  Unfortunately it’s hard to predict when he might return to the Majors and even harder to project whether he’ll ever regain the promise he had before his right knee became a problem.

Before learning that he had been optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett on Monday night  Jurrjens said,  “Right now, I’m not that same guy I used to be.”

Not even close.

Nine months after entering the All-Star break with the National League’s best ERA (1.87), Jurrjens approaches the final five months of his final arbitration-eligible season facing the reality that he could be non-tendered in December.  This is obviously a fate that both he and the Braves would like to avoid.

Barring a drastic turnaround, the Braves are not going to be interested in paying Jurrjens the $7 million he could earn through arbitration for the 2013 season.  But at the same time they do not want to go down the non-tender route and  lose him without getting anything in return.

The Braves proved unsuccessful with their multiple attempts to move Jurrjens this winter.  They thought they were very close to a deal that would have sent him and Jairo Asencio to the Reds in exchange for Chris Heisey and Juan Francisco.  But the potential for that deal was erased when Cincinnati opted instead to send an impressive prospect package to the Padres for Mat Latos.

When talking about the Braves’ attempt to trade Jurrjens this past winter, multiple scouts said, “he’s hurt.”   The baseball world is a small one full of chatter and numbers that supported this belief.

It’s amazing that Jurrjens has posted a 6.87 ERA in the 11 starts he has made since producing a 1.87 ERA in the 16 starts before last year’s All-Star break.  But as many Sabermaticians said at the time, we should have all been amazed that a guy with these kinds of strikeout and fielding independent pitching statistics could have such a low ERA.

Jurrjens’ velocity has significantly declined since right knee discomfort forced him to miss the final two weeks and playoffs of the 2010 season.  According to BrooksBaseball.net’s Pitch f/x data, his four-seam fastball maxed out at 96.3 mph during a Sept. 11, 2009 start in St. Louis and at 95.8 mph in a Aug. 15, 2010 start against the Dodgers.

That might be hard to believe after watching him max out at 91.4 mph during last night’s start against the Dodgers.  But those of you who have watched closely over the past two years know that last night’s results were nothing new.

Here is a look at the average velocity of Jurrjens’ four-seam fastball according to FanGraphs.com’s PITCH f/x data:

2007  91.9

2008 91.8

2009 91.2

2010 91.3

2011 89.1

2012 88.4

Even when Jurrjens found success in his first 16 starts last year, his average velocity of his four-seamer was just 89.4 mph.  That figure dropped to 88.6 mph in the seven starts he made after the All-Star break.  And as the chart above shows, he’s been around that same mark this year.

After struggling through the exhibition season and then finding success in his final two starts against a pair of split-squad Astros teams, Jurrjens admitted it took him some time to gain confidence that his right knee was indeed healthy again.  But he still has seemed tentative while pushing off the rubber since the regular season began.

Jurrjens underwent surgery to repair torn meniscus in his right knee after the 2010 season.  Unlike Chipper Jones, who has returned from this surgery in less than three weeks twice in the last year, he had more than three months to regain strength in his leg before the start of Spring Training.

After cooperating through the first 3 1/2 months of the 2011 season, the knee became a problem and the diagnosis was a bone bruise.

Jurrjens has repeatedly said this year that the knee has not been a problem.

Hopefully, Jurrjens does prove to be healthy and capable of regaining his successful form.  But right now, it is impossible to ignore the possibility that he is heading toward a sad end to a career that seemed so promising not too long ago.

Odds and ends: Freeman, Bourn, Kimbrel and Brian Dawkins

Anything happen while I spent some time with the family watching the D-backs series from afar?  Well other than the Braves completing their second five-game winning streak of the young season and Freddie Freeman collecting as many RBIs (9) during a four-day stay in Phoenix as Brian McCann did all of last September.

Unlike that other team that still calls Boston home, the Braves are not entering this week still battling the effects of what transpired last September.  There is something about wining 10 of 12 games that allows a team to distance itself from last year and the struggles that were extended through the first four games of this year.

When the Braves lost the first three games of this season, it was pointed out that it marked the first time since 2003 that they were swept to open a season.  When it was pointed out that the 2003 team won 101 games and set a modern-day record with 907 runs (just two totaled in the first three games) some of you said you can’t compare this team to that one.

Fair enough.  What Chipper, Shef, Andruw, Javy and Co. did that year was quite special.  But so too has the offensive production this year’s Braves bunch has manufactured over the past two weeks.

During the 12 games played dating back to April 10, the Braves have scored a Major League-best 6.75 runs per game.  The Rockies rank second among National League teams with a 5.64 mark and the Cardinals third with a 4.64 mark.  Atlanta’s 16 home runs during this span are four more than any other club’s total.

These past two weeks have provided a glimpse of the value Michael Bourn can bring in the leadoff role.  Bourn has batted .400 (20-for-50) with a .464 on-base percentage in the past 12 games.  His consistent presence on base has provided regular RBI opportunities and allowed the lineup to flow more consistently than it did most of last year.

This past week has only heightened the belief that Freeman could soon reach that 40-homer territory that has not been visited by a Braves player since Andruw Jones in 2006.

The day before this season started, I wrote:  Freddie Freeman spent the past couple weeks showing some of that opposite-field power that creates reason to wonder how many 40-homer seasons could be in this 22-year-old’s future.

At the time, I did not feel this would be the first year he would reach that mark.  Nor would I say this past week has given any more reason to believe he will reach 40 this year.  But it has provided further indication that this 22-year-old first baseman is quickly becoming a man.

Freeman hit .478 (11-for-23) with five doubles, three home runs, a .481 on-base percentage and a 1.087 slugging percentage last week.  Just a quick look at the numbers seems to indicate he is  a virtual lock to be named NL Player of the Week later today.  It’s nice that he will be able to enjoy news of this honor while back here in Southern California with his father, who helped develop that powerful left-handed swing while spending numerous lunch hour breaks throwing batting practice to his son.

Enough about the offense.  It’s time to show some love to the pitching staff.  The starting pitchers have combined to post a 2.93 ERA and work 58 1/3 innings over the past nine games.

Before last week, the Braves had seen their starting pitcher last at least seven innings in three straight games since May 17.  Just for fun, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy and Tommy Hanson opted to turn this trick twice last week.

The Braves bullpen has totaled 21 2/3 innings dating back to April 14 and .  The Phillies are the only other Major League team that has played at least nine games during this span and logged fewer relief innings (17.1 innings).

As his team has continued to win without encountering many save opportunities, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has had to find ways to keep The Untouchables  — Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty — sharp.  Kimbrel allowed a run in a non-save situation on Friday night and then returned on Saturday to team with Venters to strike out the six D-backs that came to the plate in the eighth and ninth innings.

Kimbrel has now struck out the only three batters he has faced while working one inning in a game eight times.  This matches John Smoltz’s mark and leaves him one shy of the total John Rocker notched during his days in Atlanta’s pen.

A quick glance at tonight’s pitching matchup (Jair Jurrjens vs. Chris Capuano) might not generate a lot of optimism.  But Jurrjens has allowed one run or fewer in four of six career starts against the Dodgers.  And last time I checked, there are not any weather-related projections that would force the Braves to return to their hotel to gather their belongings before this showdown against Capuano.

For those who might have erased this from their memory, nearly half of the Braves players returned to their Manhattan hotel on the afternoon of Aug. 26 to gather their suitcases because the approaching Hurricane Irene had postponed the final two games of that series against the Mets.  After Capuano fired a two-hit shutout that night, things were never the same for the 2011 Braves.

Capuano came to Turner Field three weeks later and allowed two runs over five innings in a victorious five-inning effort.

The past couple weeks have provided indication Capuano will be facing a little different Braves lineup tonight.  The Braves can only hope Jurrjens will also prove to be a little different than he has been during his first three starts of the season.

News of former All Pro Safety Brian Dawkins’ retirement conjured memories of him visiting Spring Training to watch the Braves take batting practice just a few weeks after he had helped the Eagles advance to Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005.

After watching intently and taking his own batting practice swings, Dawkins said, “I’ve been a Braves fan for a long time, but we’ve got to keep that down because of the Philadelphia thing, you know.”

Relaying some “old” jokes and info about Chipper’s knee

With Chipper Jones’ 40th birthday less than a week away Jamie Moyer notching a historical win for the aged on Tuesday night, the Braves clubhouse was a popular place for “old” jokes on Wednesday morning.

After reminiscing about the “comfortable 0-for-3″ he experienced while facing Moyer during a 1993 Minor League game, Jones kind of smiled when reminded that he was preparing for his freshman year in high school when Moyer made his Major League debut on June 16, 1986.

“And I’m old as (heck), just ask (Eric) Hinske, he’ll tell you,” Jones said.

Abiding in the adjacent locker, Hinske jumped into the conversation seconds after Jones was told Steve Carlton was the opposing pitcher during Moyer’s debut.

“You faced Steve Carlton,Chip?” Hinske said.

As Jones laughed, Hinske said, “Ha, ha, that was funny.”

Jones replied with, “No but I faced Fernando (Valenzuela).”

With his back turned from the conversation as he sat on the couch watching television, David Ross concluded the conversation in fitting fashion with, Chipper turns 40 in a couple days, huh?

If Jones forgot he will turn 40 on Tuesday, his body reminded him when he awoke on Wednesday feeling the effects of playing three straight games for the first time this year.  Before returning from the disabled list last Tuesday, he had not played nine innings in a game since last September.

Thus it was easy to understand why Jones is feeling what he describes to be “normal soreness” with his groin and upper leg muscles.  The veteran third baseman just hopes his surgically-repaired left knee begins to feel a little more comfortable over the next few days and weeks.

“I’m obviously still concerned about the knee blowing up and still hurting,” Jones said.  “But the leg soreness and all of that, that’s normal.  I played two games and took a day or two off. Now I just played three straight and I get today off.  So hopefully today’s day off will give me some relief tomorrow.”

Jones rested during Wednesday afternoon’s series finale against the Mets and planned to wrap his left knee during Wednesday night’s flight to Arizona.  He is attempting to avoid a repeat of last week, when some fluid developed around his knee during the flight from Houston to Atlanta. His hope is to be ready to return to the lineup for Thursday night’s series opener against the D-backs.

 

 

 

Quick review of the season’s first 10 games and curveballs

So the Braves have a .500 record (5-5) through the first 10 games of this season.  This is a record you certainly would have accepted exactly a week ago facing the reality that they were 0-4 for the first time since 1988.  This is also a record that should not be deemed all too surprising considering where the club stood entering the season.

Sure, there was little reason to predict the Braves would hit just .152 and total eight runs while losing each of the first four games played against the Mets this year.  But it also seems safe to say we might have been short-changing what Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey and Co. are capable of doing.  Having gone through their rotation twice, the Mets do not have a starting pitcher with an ERA higher than 3.09.  <p>

Of course that 3.09 ERA would belong to Mike Pelfrey, the one Mets pitcher the Braves will not see this month.

One of the primary reasons you might have expected the Braves to experience some early struggles coming out of camp centered around the uncertainty surrounding their starting rotation.  The two starters who exited Spring Training with the fewest concerns were Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy, who entered this year with a combined total of 51 Major League starts.

Fortunately for the Braves, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson both provided some reason for encouragement during their most recent starts.  While the results might not indicated improvement, both seemed to be nearing the normalcy they displayed before injuries wrecked them after last year’s All-Star break.

The Braves and Hanson left themselves open to some second guessing when he threw one too many curveballs to Ike Davis last night.  The choice to feed Davis a heavy dose of soft offspeed pitches made sense. That’s what the book calls for and the book had been good to the Braves, who had limited the Mets first baseman to a .184 (14-for-76) batting average before he hit his decisive three-run homer in the sixth inning.

But the choice to throw him seven straight and nine within the 10 pitches he saw from Hanson seems to at least leave some room to debate pitch sequence.   He has thrown Davis 21 pitches this year and 17 of them have been curveballs.

Of course, it should be noted that none of the first 16 curveballs left the infield in fair territory.  Davis entered that sixth-inning plate appearance with two hits in 14 career at-bats against Hanson.

After last night’s game, Davis talked about how the Braves have fed him a plethora of offspeed pitches during his young career.

“The Braves really throw me a lot of off-speed most of the time,” Davis said. “I think in the first series I saw three fastballs in the whole series, so obviously they think I’m a fastball hitter. And I haven’t had great success against them because they’ve thrown pitcher’s pitches with their off-speed pitches.”

Throwing a curve into this discussion, it’s time to look at the encouragement Hanson produced through the first five innings.  He had surrendered just one hit before Ruben Tejada fueled the sixth inning with a one-out double.  It also seemed like his fastball had more life as I mentioned in last night’s game story.

But according to BrooksBaseball.net, the velocity readings were nearly identical to those he had registered in Houston last week.  In his April 10 start against the Astros, the average velocity of his four-seam fastball was 89.89 mph.  Last night’s average was actually a tick lower, 89.78 mph.  His max velocity in both of these games registered at 92.2 mph.

Still there is reason to believe Hanson could continue to gain a little more life on his fastball.  The February concussion prevented him from making his first exhibition start until March 11 and we can’t forget he missed the final two months of last season dealing with a sore shoulder.  It might take a few more weeks for him to regain all of his arm strength.

Heyward of 2010: Before Monday’s game, Freddie Freeman said we’re starting to see the Jason Heyward that he has known dating back to the Minor League days they shared together.   Over the past week, some of you have likely said something like, “Heyward is playing like he did in 2010.”

Well just for fun, let’s compare his current stats with those he possessed at a similar point in 2010:

2010:   .303 (10-for-33) batting average,  .410 OBP  .667 SLG   3 HR   12 RBI, 6 BB, 12 K

2012:  .375 (12-for-32) batting average, .444 OBP .656 SLG    2 HR, 5 RBI   4 BB 7 K

Bo Jackson will throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Mets. The former All-Star outfielder and Pro Bowl running back is promoting his upcoming Bo Bikes Bama,  300-mile bike journey that will travel through tornado ravaged communities to raise money for the Alabama Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund.

Bo Jackson will throw out the first pitch to promote his upcoming Bo Bikes Bama:  a 300-mile bike journey that begins on April 24 in Henagar, Alabama and ends April 28 in Tuscaloosa.  Jackson will travel through tornado ravaged communities of Alabama to raise money for the Alabama Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund.  Lance Armstrong and Ken Griffey Jr. are scheduled to help with this charitable effort.

To donate or register to ride with Bo visit www.bobikesbama.com or text “BOBIKES” to 50555 to immediately donate $10 to Bo Bikes Bama.

 

 

Many of Atlanta’s home openers have proven to be special

There was the first one that featured six future Hall of Famers (Joe Torre included) and left Tony Cloninger feeling dejected after pitching 13 strong innings.   Then there was the one played eight years later when Hank Aaron created one of baseball’s most historical moments with a fourth-inning shot that made him baseball’s true home run king.

There was the one played in 1997, when a young third baseman named Chipper Jones collected the first game-winning RBI  in Turner Field history. Three years later, Andres Galarraga returned from a season lost to cancer and teamed with Andruw Jones to hit decisive back-to-back seventh-inning home runs in a 2-1 Opening Day win over the Rockies at The Ted.

Then of course there was that beautiful, sunny afternoon just two years ago, when Jason Heyward added to his legend by electrifying his hometown crowd with a home run on the first swing of his Major League career.

This accounts for just some of the great moments in the history of Atlanta’s home openers.   Another could be created tonight, when Jones experiences the last home opener in his storied career.

Jones’ first home opener back in 1995 proved both memorable and nearly disastrous courtesy of the collision he shared with Greg Maddux while chasing a pop fly near the mound

Maddux was anything but entertained when he was cleated and violently knocked to the ground by a hard-charging Jones, who was beginning his era as Atlanta’s third baseman.

With his flip-down glasses in his mouth, Jones looked over at Maddux and immediately thought, “I killed the $15 million dollar man.”

“He cussed me for four innings,” Jones said. “Every time I threw the ball back at him, he just dogged me. It taught me a lesson to play the game under control and not try to do too much.”

Seventeen years later, Jones enters the final season of his career destined to savor the same Hall of Fame enshrinement that awaits Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and their former manager Bobby Cox.

Cox will be in attendance tonight, 34 years after making his debut as a Major League manager.  So too will the Hall of Fame pitchers — Don Sutton and Phil Niekro  — who opposed each other when the beginning of that legendary managerial career began during the 1978 Opening Day game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

They say you can see something pretty special during a home opener without knowing it was special at the time.  Just trying to make Yogi Berra proud.

Instead of aiming to do something special, Jair Jurrjens should simply attempt to do something that provides the Braves some confidence they will be able to rely on him over the next few weeks and months.  The concerns he created during his first four Grapefruit League games were slightly minimized when he ended the exhibition season with two strong efforts against a couple less-than-imposing Astros split-squad lineups.

But Jurrjens was less than impressive while lasting just 4 1/3 innings against the Mets during last weekend’s season debut.  He needed 42 pitches to record his final four outs and according to Brooks Baseball, the average velocity of his fastball was below 88 mph.  The 26-year-old vet thought the chilly conditions prevented him from getting a good feel for his secondary pitches.

In fairness, Mets starter R.A. Dickey also said he found difficulty getting a consistent feel for his knuckleball that afternoon.  But regardless the Braves need Jurrjens to start proving that he will not forever be bothered by the bothersome right knee that prevented him from pitching down the stretch both of the past two seasons.

As Spring Training concluded, Jurrjens admitted that his struggles early in the exhibition season were a product of his fear to push off the rubber with normal aggression.  Now, he must prove he truly has overcome those fears.

Jurrjens will be opposed tonight by Randy Wolf, who is 5-12 with a 5.24 ERA in 26 career starts against the Braves.   Jones has batted .377 (20-for-53) with seven doubles and four homers against Wolf.  Other Braves with some success against the veteran southpaw include Brian McCann (5-for-12 with a homer and a double) and Matt Diaz (7-for-19 with seven singles).

It is amazing to think Wolf will be the fifth left-handed pitcher the Braves have seen through the season’s first seven games.  At this rate, they will face 115 left-handed starters this year and Michael Bourn will not have a single hit against any of them.

Bourn has gone hitless with four strikeouts and no walks in his first 15 plate appearances of the season against left-handed pitchers.    It’s far too early to draw any conclusions from this year’s stats.  But this early trend is not too surprising.   The veteran leadoff hitter combined to  bat .254 with a .294 on-base percentage against left-handed pitchers during the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

Brian McCann (1-for-9 with three strikeouts) and Dan Uggla (1-for-9 with four strikeouts) have also experienced some early trouble against left-handed pitchers.  But Jason Heyward (3-for-9), Martin Prado (3-for-10) and Freddie Freeman (3-for-13) have allowed the Braves to enjoy some success against southpaws.

That will do it for today.  Get down to the stadium early tonight to enjoy all of the pregame festivities.  And if you don’t have a parking pass, take MARTA…It’s Smarta.

 

Chipper adds to the memories created in Houston

If Tuesday night’s season debut was a foreshadowing of things to come, Chipper Jones will complete his legendary career in fitting fashion.   Two weeks shy of his 40th birthday, the most successful professional athlete in Atlanta history showed us he still has the incredible natural talent that allows him to defy logic.

Admittedly, I did not understand Jones’ reasoning for not playing at least one Minor League rehab game.  Other than taking some swings against Randall Delgado in a live batting practice session on Friday, he had not seen live pitching since March 20.

But given what Jones did last night, I think he could have asked The Rock to comment on my thought:

Exactly three weeks after last playing in a game, Jones directed the second pitch he saw on Tuesday night back up the middle for a single.  One inning later, he looked at a pitch out of the strike zone and then drilled Kyle Weiland’s 1-0 slider over the right field wall for a two-run home run that inflated the Braves every bit as muchl as Juan Francisco’s defensive blunders had deflated them one night earlier.

Having looked unimpressive while losing each of their first four games, the Braves needed this spark provided by the man who had compiled just 25 Spring Training at-bats before undergoing surgery on March 26 to repair torn meniscus in his left knee.

Two weeks after surgery and three weeks since last seeing a pitch from an opposing player, Jones recorded hits in his first two at-bats and gave his fellow position players even more reason to believe Spring Training is too long.

When Jones returned to his locker last night, I told him he had given more players reason to believe they do not need four weeks worth of games during Spring Training.  Standing within earshot, Freddie Freeman said, “Like me.”

With his John Wayne-like cool, Jones smirked and replied to Freeman with, “Yeah, you do.”

While it has been an absolute pleasure to watch Jones play on a daily basis, it has been every bit as much fun talking to him before and after games.

Jones’ presence on Tuesday night was first felt in the bottom of the first when Jordan Schafer produced a nice bunt to the third base side of plate.

Expecting to see his former teammate bunt at some point during the game, Jones quickly barehanded the baseball and threw a perfect strike that beat Schafer to first base.  Immediately it was apparent this was going to lead to some good-natured trash talk.

When Schafer reached third base late in the game, he said, “It’s my job.”

Jones replied, “It’s my job to take it away from you and  I see you didn’t come back down there the rest of the night.”

It was also cool to see the excitement Chipper’s father (the man wearing the blue shirt in this video) showed when the third-inning homer cleared the wall.  One of the primary reasons, the veteran third baseman has always enjoyed playing in Houston is the fact that his parents have been able to make the six-hour drive from the family’s Double Dime ranch, which is located near the Mexican border, to watch him play.

Jones has experienced many memorable moments playing in Houston.  One of his greatest memories is of Walt Weiss’ game-saving, diving stab of Tony Eusebio’s hot shot that bounced off the Astrodome’s turf and seemed destined to land in center field for what would have been a game-winning single in Game 3 of the 1999 National League Division Series.

There was also the crushing 18-inning loss in Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS and the defensive gem Jones completed as he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament on Aug. 10, 2010.

“There’s been a lot of good and bad things that have happened here,” Jones said.  “It’s been an interesting place to play.  Back when the Killer Bees were here, I think we went 10 or 12 games in a row with one-run games.  They were just really close, really well-pitched games that two playoff-type teams often play against each other. That’s what I’ll remember when I’m done.”

Tonight will mark the last time that Jones plays in Houston.  He has batted .336 with 13 homers and a 1.014 OPS in 66 career games in this city. But do not fear.  If he has another child, I think it’s safe to assume the kid will not be named Minute Maid.

Hanson has a chance to end another nine-game skid

There was a sense of anticipation as the Braves prepared to play the Nationals on the afternoon of Sept. 24.  Their win combined with a Cardinals loss the previous night had whittled the magic number for clinching the Wild Card to three.

In case you forgot, there were a number of encouraging scenarios bouncing around in your head at the time.  Even if  the Braves won just one of their final five games, the Cardinals would have to win each of their final five games to clinch the Wild Card spot.

More than six months later, the Braves are still searching for that next win.  Meanwhile the reigning World Series champion Cardinals have since notched 19 victories.

Officially, the Braves will carry a four-game losing streak into tonight’s game against the Astros.  But given that I’m starting to believe in the power of the hangover created by last year’s collapse, we’ll call it a nine-game losing streak.

Here’s where we attempt to remove you from the misery you have felt since learning this is the first time the Braves have started 0-4 since the woeful 1988 club started 0-10.

The last time the Braves lost nine consecutive games was April 21-29, 2010.  That’s right.  We’re just two years removed from the last time many of you were ready to write off a season in April.  That playoff team snapped the troubling early-season skid with a three-game sweep of the Astros.

The man who helped put an end to those miseries was Tommy Hanson, who limited the Astros to two runs and four hits in eight innings on April 30, 2010.  And of course, the baseball gods are going to provide Hanson yet another opportunity to snap a nine-game losing streak and extend his dominance of the Astros tonight.

Hanson is 3-0 with a 1.97 ERA in five career starts against the Astros and 1-0 with a 0.41 ERA in three career starts at Minute Maid Park.

Feel any better yet?  OK, we’ll throw in the reminder that Chipper Jones’ return from the disabled list tonight means you will not have to watch Juan Francisco play third base for at least a few more days.

In fairness to Francisco, his defensive abilities should not be solely judged by what we saw as he totaled three errors (two on one play) last night.  But when you have committed 39 errors like he did while playing for Double-A Carolina and Triple-A Louisville last year, it’s tough to get the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe Francisco will eventually provide the kind of high reward an out-of-options player can give a cash-strapped team like the Braves.  His acquisition was certainly never as questionable as the signing of Chad Durbin, who has surrendered a home run in each of his first two appearances.  (If you’re still keeping score, Yohan Flande has extended his exhibition season success by not allowing a run in his first four innings with Triple-A Gwinnett.)

But Francisco is not the right-handed hitter the Braves needed to add to their already left-handed heavy roster.  And his left-handed hitting presence combined with that of Jose Constanza has certainly not helped the Braves as they have faced three left-handed starters in their first four games.

Based on your comments, some of you will be happy to hear Constanza was optioned to Gwinnett to make room for Jones on the 25-man roster today.

It will be interesting to see where Hanson’s velocity stands tonight.  According to Fangraphs.com, his fastball averaged 88.7 mph during Thursday’s Opening Day outing against the Mets.  His average fastball velocity dropped from 92.7 mph to 91.2. mph last year.

Hanson has been toying with a two-seam fastball grip that is similar to the one used by Kris Medlen.  When asked about this, Medlen said Brian McCann had told him it seemed Hanson’s “two-seam” fastball has seemed to be thrown harder than his “four-seam.”  This might be explained by the fact that two Major League scouts said Hanson’s ball showed very little sink on Thursday.

The good news is that Hanson does not seemed to be bothered by the right shoulder discomfort that plagued him the past two years.  But it will be interesting to see if can truly regain some of the velocity that helped him find success during his first few big league seasons.

Interesting tidbit:  The first win the Braves recorded during that miserable 106-loss campaign in 1988 came against a 43-year-old Dodgers pitcher named Don Sutton. one year later, Sutton began his role as a Braves broadcaster.

After unpredictable start Braves look to rebound

Going to have to guess some of you went to bed on Sunday night wishing you had never wished the Braves could be just like the Yankees and Red Sox.   <p>

Three weeks after Ohio University, Norfolk State, South Florida and Lehigh created hysteria in the NCAA Tournament, we enter baseball’s first full week with the Yankees, Red Sox, Braves and Giants all sitting with 0-3 records.

Meanwhile, the Mets and Orioles remain two of baseball’s undefeated teams.

Welcome to early April Madness.

Imagine the odds Vegas would have put on each of these six teams entering Monday with these records.   The winnings would have likely equaled those of a Superfecta ticket that only included horses that went off at 15-to-1 or higher.

Heck, you probably would have gained a decent return by simply betting either the Mets or Orioles would escape Opening Weekend unscathed.

Still while it’s nice to see the excitement created this weekend in Baltimore and Queens, it still seems pretty safe to assume the Mets and Orioles are still bound to finish at or near the bottom of their respective divisions.

Since learning the Braves ended up winning 101 games, the last time they lost their first three games of the season, some of you have said, “You can’t compare this team to the 2003 team.”

Understood.  That team proved special as Javy Lopez, Gary Sheffield all hit more than 35 homers while Russ Ortiz notched a 21-win season that surprised everybody involved. Memories of that team center around the offense, which was also fueled by Marcus Giles’ 49 doubles and Chipper Jones’ 106 RBIs.

But these developments certainly were not predictable when the team totaled two runs and suffered two shutout losses in its first three games.

OK, enough of all of the comparisons.  By now, you’ve heard all you want about how the 1998 Yankees and 2007 Phillies also lost the first three games of their respective seasons.  Really the only thing most of you wondering is if the Braves will follow a similar path or the one that they traveled this past weekend in New York.

There were obviously very few encouraging signs from the offense this weekend.  Jason Heyward recorded a double and a triple.  But at the same time, there are still going to be times when he is going to have trouble catching up to the fastball.  Remember, he’s still a work in progress.

Tyler Pastornicky showed some patience in the eighth spot of the lineup during his fifth inning plate appearance on Thursday.  After falling behind with an 0-2 count, he worked a walk.  At the time, it seemed he had aided the Braves by turning the lineup over.

But things got interesting when Johan Santana then walked Tommy Hanson to load the bases and push his pitch count to a point where he was unable to return for the sixth.

Setting the tone for the remainder of the weekend, the Braves were not able to take advantage.  Michael Bourn struck out to kill the fifth inning threat and the Mets bullpen completed seven scoreless innings during the first two games of the series.

The Braves offense will try to get on track tonight against J.A. Happ, who just happens to be 2-0 with a 1.72 ERA in six career starts against the Atlanta.  If you are looking for the bright side of this picture, each of these starts was made with the Phillies.

Stay Hot.  Or would it be more fitting here to say “Stay Cold.”

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez does not have Heyward in tonight’s lineup. Instead, he is playing left-handed hitting third baseman Juan Francisco and using Matt Diaz in right field.   Diaz has eight hits, including two doubles and a homer, in 15 at-bats against Happ.

Heyward and Francisco have never batted against the left-hander.

Really not sure why Heyward is not in tonight’s lineup. Check braves.com and my Twitter page for updates.

Keep an eye on Brandon Beachy during the early innings as he makes his first start for the Braves tonight.  Beachy struggled during the early innings of his final two exhibition starts and then found a groove in both outings.

BRAVES LINEUP (4/9/12)

Bourn  8

Prado 7

McCann 2

Uggla 4

Freeman 3

Diaz 9

Francisco 5

Pastornicky 6

Beachy 1

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