Braves-Nats Part II
Remember the concern some of you expressed when the Braves recorded one hit in their Grapefruit League opener and then won just two of their first 14 exhibition games. Seemed pretty ridiculous at the time and even more so when the Braves scored the most runs in the National League through their first 35 games and had the NL’s second-best record through their first 43 games.
How about when they started off 0-4? The panic felt during the early days of the regular season evaporated as they won 13 of their next 16 games and 26 of their next 38.
Then of course we had the recent eight-game losing streak that included being swept at home last weekend by the first-place Nationals. By the time Bryce Harper and his guardians left town late Sunday, the Braves were four games out and many of you had come to the conclusion your Memorial Day weekend had been ruined.
Well five days later, the Braves are in Washington D.C. preparing for yet another three-game series against the Nationals while standing just two games back in the National League East standings. They are just one game further back than they were entering last weekend’s series against the Nats.
As bad as the eight-game losing streak might have seemed, it was nowhere near as destructive it likely felt.
While there is a chance the Braves could be in first place by the end of this weekend, this is not necessarily the place for them to complete a sweep. Dating back to when they helped open the park at the start of the 2008 season, the Braves are 14-22 at Nationals Park. They did complete a sweep to keep the final week of the 2009 season interesting.
But far too often, this place has been a house of horrors for the Braves. They have won just seven of the past 18 games played in D.C.
The Braves’ latest win at Nationals Park came against Stephen Strasburg, who just happens to be toeing the rubber tonight for a Nationals team that just got swept by the Marlins this past week.
Beyond the presence of a small sample size, the fact that Strasburg is 1-2 with a 5.28 ERA in three starts against the Braves does not mean much. One of those losses came in the fifth start of his career and the other came in the fourth start he made while returning from Tommy John surgery. The win came last weekend when he allowed four runs and six hits in five innings.
Last weekend Chipper Jones showered Strasburg with praise, saying he has the “best repertoire” of any pitcher he has ever seen. While this might be true, the 23-year-old right-hander is still prone to making the occasional mistake. His mistakes have been fewer and far less costly than the ones recently committed by Mike Minor.
But both are still enduring some growing pains.
Taken six picks after the Nationals grabbed Strasburg with the top overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Minor will take the mound tonight looking to avoid the critical mistakes that have destroyed him over the past five weeks. He has allowed 12 home runs in the six starts he has made dating back to April 30.
Philadelphia’s Joe Blanton ranks second in the NL with nine home runs allowed during this span. Tommy Hanson ranks second among Braves’ pitchers with five home runs allowed since April 30.
Before concluding last Saturday’s matchup against the Nationals with three scoreless innings, Minor endured a costly three-run second inning. After retiring the first two batters he faced in the inning, the southpaw surrendered consecutive singles to Jesus Flores and Strasburg, who had padded his current .389 (7-for-18) batting average with a home run in his previous start.
Danny Espinosa followed with a three-run homer to extend the struggles for Minor, who has posted a 9.95 ERA in his past six starts.
Minor’s past two starts have been doomed by that stretch of three batters and the four solo homers he allowed America’s Great Home Run Park. The most encouraging part of this stretch has been the fact that he has continued to be accountable and confident that he can turn things around. Obviously we’re nearing a point where it does not matter how he reacts to this adversity. If the results do not improve he obviously will not remain in the rotation.
But just a hunch, I think the Braves will benefit from the patience they have continued to show in Minor.
Minor will have the benefit of having slick-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons playing behind him tonight. Simmons will be making his much-anticipated Major League debut and looking to prove he is indeed capable of handling himself at the Major League level.
By now you’ve heard about how Simmons has soft hands, a rocket arm and all of the other intangibles you would expect from a guy many scouts considered to have been the best defensive shortstop in the Minors. Now you’re going to get a chance to see for yourself why some members of the Braves organization wanted him to make the jump from the Class A Advanced Minor League level to the Majors at the start of this season.
From a developmental standpoint, the Braves made the right choice by starting Simmons at Double-A Mississippi, where he hit . 292 with a.794 OPS in 43 games. He may not show some of the patience Tyler Pastornicky displayed while accepting the challenge of hitting eighth in a National League lineup.
But Simmons will provide Braves pitchers the confidence they could not possess with Pastornicky playing behind them. At the same time, I do not think the athletic product of Curacao will embarrass himself at the plate.
Like with any young player, there might be some growing pains after scouts have some time to evaluate him. But this is not the first time his offensive skills were questioned. The Braves saw him more as a pitcher than a position player when they drafted him two years ago. Last year, he won the Carolina League batting title.
When he exited Spring Training this year, some wondered if he could handle the challenge of Double-A pitching. Having passed that test, he will have a chance to prove what he can do at the Major League level. But regardless of the results at the plate, the Braves are a better team with the added range and dependability he brings as their shortstop.