Braves taking advantage of a friendly stretch
As this baseball season entered June, it appeared the National League East race might be one of the game’s tightest this year. At that point, there was still reason to believe the Phillies might get healthy in time to win a sixth consecutive division title. But as we enter August, we’re looking at a two-team race in the NL East and the strong possibility that the Phillies will become just the sixth team in Major League history to follow a 100-win season with a losing record.
The Braves significantly altered the division race this past weekend when they completed a three-game sweep of the Phillies, who have since traded both Shane Victorino (Dodgers) and Hunter Pence (Giants). It’s safe to say the final nine games scheduled against the Phillies this year suddenly appear a little less daunting.
With this being said, the Nationals are scheduled to play the depleted Phillies 11 more times this season. Of course, not having to deal with Victorino or Pence did not necessarily help Washington’s Stephen Strasburg as he allowed six runs in four innings of Tuesday night’s loss to the Phillies.
The Braves have won seven in a row and sit just 2 1/2 games behind the Nationals in the division race. The third-place Mets are four games under .500 and 9 1/2 games (sorry, that number just continues to appear) behind the Braves. As for the fourth-place Marlins, well Carlos Lee can obviously think of worse teams to be a part of.
Since ending a four-game series against the Nationals on July 22, the Braves have been taking advantage of a friendly part of their schedule. They are eight games into a stretch of 20 consecutive games against teams with a losing record. Once they get done with what is left of the Marlins, they will begin a three-game series against the Astros, who have won three of their last 30 games. (Think about that the next time you’re having a bad day.)
As a welcoming gift to Atlanta, newly-acquired left-hander Paul Maholm will make his Braves debut on Saturday against the Astros. He limited the Astros to four hits in 8 1/3 scoreless innings on June 29 and has a 1.89 ERA in his last 14 starts against the Astros dating back to June 5, 2008.
Some of you may not like pointing out what a pitcher has done against a team over a five-season span because that team has likely taken on a couple different looks during that time. If you fit in this category, I also apologize for pointing out what Maholm did against the group of players that once made up the Astros just one month ago.
Reed Johnson, the other player acquired with Maholm from the Cubs on Monday night, will make his Braves debut tonight. The versatile outfielder is expected to start in place of left fielder Martin Prado or center fielder Michael Bourn, both of whom are in need of a break. Since the All-Star break that he did not get, Bourn has hit .210 with a .247 on-base percentage.
Unfortunately for the Braves, Dan Uggla’s numbers over the past two months look much worse than those produced by Bourn over the past two weeks. Uggla has batted .116 with a .184 slugging percentage in the 45 games he has played dating back to June 6. Tyler Pastornicky has been taking some ground balls at second base during batting practice and there is no doubt Uggla could benefit from a chance to clear his head for a few days. But for now, it appears manager Fredi Gonzalez plans to keep putting Uggla in his lineup with the hope he suddenly catches fire.
Brian McCann ended up hitting nine home runs in his final 64 at-bats during the month of July. This marked the first time he has hit nine home runs in a month. Just to point out how hot McCann has been in this short stretch and to give you a reason to discuss the Steroid Era again, let’s point out that McCann has homered once every 7.22 at-bats dating back to July 5. Barry Bonds homered once every 6.52 at-bats when he hit 73 home runs in 2001. Mark McGwire homered once every 7.27 at-bats when he hit 70 home runs in 1998.
When the Braves acquired Juan Francisco from the Reds at the end of Spring Training, the book on him was that he was a physically gifted player who was unmotivated. As June neared its end, an influential member of the Braves organization got in Francisco’s ear and seemingly motivated him to put in the extra hours that he has over the past couple weeks with hitting coach Greg Walker.
Francisco has reaped the benefits as he has recorded a multi-hit game in each of his past two starts and a three-hit performance in both of his past two starts. He has 11 hits, including three home runs, and nine RBIs in his past 26 at-bats.