May 2013

The struggles endured by Heyward, Uggla and Upton are not similar

As the Braves recorded season highs in runs and hits (16) during Thursday night’s 11-3 win over the Blue Jays, they  utilized a starting lineup that was absent Jason Heyward and their two highest-paid position players —  B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla.

After the game, manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “We’ll see” when asked if he would be tempted to continue using the same lineup.  But by the time he was done with his postgame session, he made sure to say that he is confident Heyward, Upton and Uggla will turn things around and maximize the potential of the Braves’ offense.

“I’m sure that come the end of June or July, or whatever it is, the team that’s supposed to be out there, the guys that are supposed to be out there, will be out there, because you’ve got to believe the back of the baseball cards, and they’re good players,” Gonzalez said. “It may not even be the end of June, it may be the middle of June or five days from now, who knows?”

Or it might be tonight.

While Upton might be given another day to fix the flawed mechanics and approach that have led to his Major League-worst .145 batting average, there is no way Uggla and Heyward will be left out of tonight’s lineup against Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg.   Uggla has hit .478 (11-for-23) with two homers and two doubles in his career against Strasburg.  Heyward has seven hits in 14 career at-bats against the former top overall selection.

Count me among those who have not been overly concerned with what Heyward has done since missing nearly a month after undergoing an appendectomy.  He has batted .195 (8-for-41) with two doubles in the 12 games he has played since coming back from his lengthy absence.  He has also compiled a .353 on-base percentage and hit the ball the opposite way much more frequently than he had before he was forced to undergo the emergency surgery.

Before going hitless in his past 12 at-bats, Heyward had hit .276 in the first 29 at-bats he had recorded since coming off the disabled list.  Like there was little reason to get overly-excited about those 29 at-bats, there is not any reason to get concerned the past 12.  If he continues to hit the ball to all fields and gets on base frequently, his numbers will be there in the end.

About the only thing we have definitely learned about Uggla over the past few years is that it is unwise to predict what to make of one his inspiring surges or extended slumps. Remember this is the guy who hit .173 during his first 86 games with the Braves and then spent the next 33 games setting an Atlanta record hitting streak. After hitting .276 through his first 55 games last year, he batted .185 over the 99 games that followed.

Through his first 22 games this season, Uggla batted .160 with four homers and a .625 OPS.  In the 26 games that have followed, he has batted .207 with six home runs and a .765 OPS.

Uggla does have five home runs in the 61 at-bats has totaled over his past 18 games.  But he has also hit .164 with a .288 on-base percentage during this stretch.

From July 4, 2011 until June 5, 2012, Uggla went through a 131-game stretch in which he hit .289 with 34 homers and a .934 OPS.  In the 147 games that have followed, he has batted .185 with 19 homers and a .664 OPS.

If these struggles continue, the Braves might eventually have to attempt to cut their losses by finding a team that is willing to pay at least a portion of the remainder of Uggla’s five-year, $62 million contract, which runs through the end of the 2015 season.   But now is not the time.  <p>

Uggla has hit 10 home runs this year and he led the National League in walks last year. It is not like he is a complete disaster at the plate.  Just a year ago, he was performing exactly how the Braves envisioned when they gave him the big contract.

The Braves just have to hope this proves to be the third consecutive season in which Uggla’s early-season production contrasts what he does in the season’s second half.

There actually might be reason for the Braves to be even more concerned about Upton, who is just two months into the franchise record five-year, $75.25 million contract he signed in November.  Upton’s .146 batting average and .478 OPS are the lowest marks compiled this season by any qualified Major League player.

Upton has fought frustration for more than a month.  We saw some of it unleashed on Wednesday night, when he bounced his batting helmet off the ground.  But to his credit, he has managed this difficult situation better than many others might have.

Through his first 19 games, Upton hit .160 with three home runs and a .549 OPS.  In the 26 games that have followed he has batted .133 with one home run and 36 strikeouts in 83 at-bats.  <p>

There were some encouraging signs last week when he notched a two-hit game against the Twins and then homered during the next day’s series finale.  But he has played just three games since then and in the process, he has struck out seven times in 10 at-bats.

About halfway through the Grapefruit League season, Justin Upton told his brother how impressed he was with hitting coach Greg Walker.

Now, B.J. can only hope he too will eventually benefit from Walker’s direction.  But like everybody else, he can’t assume everything is going to magically change overnight.






Fredi finally gets the pitcher who became known as “Robert” Wood

Before losing Eric O’Flaherty to a season-ending elbow surgery,  Fredi Gonzalez was already pestering the Braves front office about the possibility of bringing Alex Wood to the Majors.  This was just another example of what a manager does after he gets his first look at some hot shot prospect for the first time during Spring Training.

General manager Frank Wren and assistant GM Bruce Manno repeatedly told Gonzalez to be patient while Wood continued his development as a starting pitcher with Double-A Mississippi.  This was just another example of what a front office does in the best interest of a young prospect’s future.

After Gonzalez’s questions about “Alex Wood” started to near the pestering stage, the Braves front office began referring  to the left-handed pitcher as “Robert Wood”  —  his real name is Robert Alexander Wood  —   in the reports provided to the Major League coaching staff.

It did not take Gonzalez long to figure out this humorous response made by the front office.  While the first name might have been altered, the numbers and words attached provided an accurate description of the young pitcher he was hoping to add to his bullpen.

When it was learned O’Flaherty would need to undergo Tommy John surgery, Wren indicated Wood would not be rushed to Atlanta to fix the bullpen.  Instead the plan would be to allow the young southpaw to continue developing as a starting pitcher in Double-A Mississippi’s rotation.

It seemed to be the right thing to do.  It would also be a challenge to stick with this plan while crossing fingers and stressing through late-inning situations that O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Jordan Walden were not available to handle.

Incredibly, the undermanned and injury-depleted bullpen has cost the Braves just one of the past 11 games.  But things could have been much different if Evan Gattis, Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman not provided some clutch hits that calmed the enhanced stress Gonzalez has been feeling during the late innings the past couple of weeks.

When a comebacker off his left calf limited Kris Medlen to just two innings in last night’s loss to the Blue Jays, the Braves were forced to tax their undermanned bullpen.  This led to a postgame meeting, which in turn led to the revelation that Robert Alexander Wood will be in Atlanta’s bullpen tonight.

By now, most of you have likely heard about Wood’s unorthodox delivery which leads opposing batters to see a whole lot of knees and elbows while attempting to pick up the southpaw’s mid-90s fastball that has impressive sink.

Wood has gone 4-2 with a 1.26 ERA in 10 starts with Double-A Mississippi this year.  The 22-year-old left-hander has recorded 57 strikeouts and issued 15 walks in 57 innings.  He has limited opponents to a .195 batting average and produce a 1.63 groundball-to-flyball ratio.

Not bad for a guy who was concluding his successful collegiate career at the University of Georgia around this time last year.


Braves return to Atlanta feeling fortunate

Still two games shy of completing the first third of this year’s schedule, it might be a little too early to make much of the frequency in which some of the Braves are hitting a home runs.  But it does not hurt to at least point out the pace that Evan Gattis and Justin Upton have set through the season’s first two months.

Entering the United States portion of this week’s four-game stretch against the Blue Jays, Gattis has homered once every 11.08 at-bats and Upton has gone deep once every 12.57 at-bats.  Even though his sample size is much smaller, we’ll still mention that with Tuesday’s two-homer game, Brian McCann has homered once every 9.50 at-bats.

Among qualified players, Chris Davis (10.59) and Bryce Harper (12.50) are the only Major Leaguers who have homered more frequently per at-bat than Upton.  Gattis falls approximately 10 plate appearances shy of being listed among the qualified players. His figure would place him right behind Davis’ league-leading percentage.

A list of the top five HR/AB ratios produced by Braves players in a season:

Hank Aaron (10.53)  1971

Andruw Jones (11.49) 2005

Eddie Mathews (11.90) 1954

Joe Adcock (11.95) 1956

Mathews (12.17) 1955

There have already been a number of noteworthy 10-game stretches this season.  There was the perfect 10-game stretch that helped the Braves begin this season with a 12-1 record.  Then there were the two disappointing 10-game road trips that followed.  But on the heels of that last 10-game journey out west has been a remarkable 10-game stretch in which the Braves miraculously were not doomed by their injury-depleted, short-handed bullpen.

The Braves have won eight of their last 10 games and the only game their bullpen blew during this stretch came during Sunday night’s loss to the Mets.  Sure the offense has led the way with a number of late-inning home runs that have erased deficits.  But the bullpen has done its part.  Or maybe more appropriately, it has done much more than could have been envisioned while going through a 10-game stretch without Eric O’Flaherty and Jordan Walden.

When the Braves announced they were going to a six-man pen on May 17, they did so by revealing Walden was going on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.  One day later, they learned O’Flaherty would likely need to undergo the Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgical procedure that was indeed performed a few days later.

With potential disaster staring them in the face, the Braves opted to stick with the six-man bullpen as opposed to make a much tougher roster decisions.  Many of the options were the same as they had been a few weeks earlier when it was time to begin evaluating how to make room for Jason Heyward to return from the disabled list.

But the Braves definitely aren’t sending Gattis to the Minors now and it still does not seem like they have any desire to trade Reed Johnson.  If they can get a valuable reliever in return, there is still a chance they could deal Gerald Laird.  But the club understands the tremendous value Laird has brought as a mentor to Julio Teheran and Gattis.  There has been plenty of indication they would like him back to serve as Gattis’ backup next year.

If Laird and Johnson do indeed stick around once the Braves return to a seven-man pen, there is always a chance a roster space could be opened for Walden by placing a position player on the disabled list.  Then of course, the Braves will have to make another tough roster decision when Brandon Beachy is ready to return from Tommy John surgery in a couple of weeks.

The decision regarding Beachy will obviously be influenced by how they make room for him in the starting rotation.  Right now we can ask all of the questions: Could Tim Hudson benefit from a rest while on the DL? Would it make sense to move Kris Medlen to the pen?  Will they try to regulate Julio Teheran’s workload?  Could they look to trade Paul Maholm?

While there is a chance Beachy could return to the rotation in a little more than two weeks, it is still too early to know exactly what the Braves will do to make room for him.

But like these recent roster decisions regarding going from and back to a seven-man bullpen, this is another good problem to have.







Minor has established himself as one of the game’s top starting pitchers

After Mike Minor produced his latest pitching gem in Saturday night’s win over the Mets, a fan asked if I agreed with his assessment that Mike Minor has been one of Major League Baseball’s top 15 pitchers since last year’s All-Star break?

My Twitter response was, “that is short-changing” what Minor has done over the course of the past 11 months.  In fact, the results provide every reason to argue the left-hander has been one of baseball’s top five starting pitchers since exiting June with a 6.20 ERA.

In the 25 starts Minor has made dating back to July 5, Minor has gone 13-6 with a 2.32 ERA.  He has limited opponents to a .196 batting average and a .243 on-base percentage.

No other Major League pitcher who has made at least 25 starts during this span has held opponents to a lower batting average.  Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw is the only other pitcher who has posted a lower ERA (1.99) and limited opponents to a lower batting average (.187).

Kershaw’s 2.70 career ERA is the best among all starting pitchers who have completed at least 1,000 innings during the live ball era.

So within a span of 11 months, Minor has gone from being on the brink of going back to the Minors to being in the same category as one of this generation’s top starting pitchers.

Courtesy of the decisive blast he sent into the left field seats with two outs in the fifth inning of Saturday’s win, Minor can also say he has hit just as many home runs as Kershaw has during this span.

Minor’s first career home run set the stage of Minor to also deliver last night’s funniest quote while explaining the aggressive approach he took while pitching with a strong wind at his back.

“As you could see the outfielder would take one or two steps back and then sprint forward because of the wind,” Minor said. “I noticed that early on. So I just decided to attack them because if they’re going to try to get it out, they’ve got to have power like me.”

When Julio Teheran was mediocre in this season’s first three starts, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he would be patient with him just like he had been with Minor and Beachy, whose only real struggles as a rookie were his inability to consistently get past the sixth inning.

As Teheran has steadily improved and become one of Atlanta’s most reliable starters over the past month, Gonzalez has said the young pitcher is taking the same path previously navigated by Minor and Beachy.  But in all fairness, Teheran is making his strides at a much younger age than either of the other two aforementioned pitchers.

Teheran has compiled a 2.41 ERA in his five past starts leading into tonight’s matchup against the Mets.   The 22-year-old hurler has completed at least seven innings three times during this span and was two outs shy of his first career shutout during Monday  night’s game against the Twins.

It will be interesting to see how Teheran performs coming off the career-high 123 pitches he threw against the Twins.  But he does have the benefit of pitching with one extra day of rest.

When Teheran allowed four runs in the first two innings of his start against the Nationals on April 12, a fan asked if I thought he could turn things around like Minor did last year.  My immediate response was that he was still relying too heavily on his fastball and did not have enough command of his offspeed pitches to turn things around without enduring at least another month or two of growing pains.

Over the past month Teheran has proven me wrong.  While his changeup is still a work in progress, he has certainly found more comfort with his slider and curveball.

Here is a breakdown of the percentage of fastballs (2-seam and 4-seam) Teheran has thrown in each of his starts this year.

April 6 vs. Cubs:  69.3 percent

April 12 at Nationals: 77.3 percent

April 18 at Pirates: 63.2 percent

April 23 at Rockies 72.2 percent

April 29 vs. Nationals 63.7 percent

May 9 at Giants  72 percent  (threw a season-high 10 changeups in this game)

May 14 at D-backs  67 percent

May 20 vs. Twins 64.2 percent

Game situations and specific matchups are obviously going to influence the percentage of fastballs and offspeed pitches thrown in particular games.  But the numbers above and the thoughts expressed by catcher Gerald Laird over the past couple of weeks indicate Teheran has already made significant strides in his attempt to prove why he was considered one of the game’s top pitching prospects just two years ago.



Teheran could benefit from his bid to go the distance

Julio Teheran had not allowed a hit since the fourth inning and he escaped Monday night’s eighth inning having retired each of the previous seven Twins batters he had faced.   Giving him a chance to notch his first shutout and complete game seemed to be more appealing than dipping into an injury-depleted, short-handed bullpen.

Still it was somewhat surprising to see Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez send Teheran back out for the ninth inning having already thrown 109 pitches  — one shy of the highest total he compiled during his Minor League career.  Sure, he was pitching with an extra day of rest and will have another extra day of rest before he starts against the Mets on Sunday night in New York.

But going the distance has become somewhat foreign for the Braves, who have notched the third-fewest complete games (16) in the Majors since the start of the 2008 season.

With that being said, this trend started to change last year when the Braves recorded five complete games, their highest total since 2006.   Braves general manager Frank Wren has urged Minor League managers to push starting pitchers a little bit harder over the past few years and Gonzalez has started to get the kind of pitchers who are capable of going the distance.

Gonzalez’s hope to give Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin a chance to rest on Monday evaporated when Teheran surrendered a one-out home run to Josh Willingham and then exited when Trevor Plouffe exited with one out in the ninth inning.  But the Braves could reap future benefits from the decision to send Teheran back out for the ninth inning.

This certainly showed Teheran the club was confident in his ability to finish what he started.  At the same time, it gave him a chance to experience the extra adrenaline that comes with this situation without having to first experience this in a one or two-run game.

Teheran ended up throwing 123 pitches before exiting to a standing ovation.  That pitch count ranks as the highest total posted by a Braves pitcher since Kenshin Kawakami threw 125 pitches over seven innings in a 10-inning win over the Dodgers on Aug. 8, 2009.

Gonzalez said sent Teheran out for the ninth inning with the plan to not allow him to throw more than 125 pitches.

Here are the top 10 pitch counts for Braves pitchers since the start of the start of the 2007 season:

125 —  Kawakami  (7 innings) at Dodgers Aug. 8, 2009

123  — Teheran  (8.1 innings)  vs. Twins  May 20, 2013

122 — John Smoltz (8 innings) vs. Nationals April 12, 2007

122  — Tim Hudson (6.2 innings) vs. Phillies  May 25, 2007

122 —  Hudson (8 innings) at Brewers May 27, 2008

122  — Brandon Beachy (9 innings) vs. Marlins May 17, 2012

121  — Javier Vazquez (7.2 innings) vs. Red Sox June 27, 2009

121  — Tommy Hanson (5.1 innings) at D-backs June 10, 2010

120  —  Hudson ( 7.2 innings)  vs. Brewers Sept. 21, 2007

120 —  Jair Jurrjens (6.2 innings) at Pirates April 17, 2009

120 —  Vazquez  (5.1 innings) at Marlins Sept. 2, 2009



Avilan will navigate the path O’Flaherty and Venters once traveled

There was not much fanfare when the Braves claimed Eric O’Flaherty off waivers before the start of the 2009 season.  Nor was there much reason to be excited about Jonny Venters’ potential before he dazzled during the 2010 Grapefruit League season.

Long before they became two of the game’s most reliable setup men, O’Flaherty and Venters were like so many other relievers  (not named Craig Kimbrel) who have had to earn their right to be “high leverage” guys at the back end of a bullpen.

Now that it appears O’Flaherty and Venters will both spend the next year experiencing the long recovery from Tommy John surgery, the stage is set for Luis Avilan to prove he too is capable of rising from relative obscurity to the ranks of a top setup man.

When Avilan arrived in Philadelphia before the start of a series against the Phillies just before last year’s All-Star break, he was essentially viewed as nothing more than a body that would fill the bullpen vacancy created when Venters was placed on the disabled list with what was termed a left elbow impingement.

When Avilan made his Major League debut during a July 14 win over the Mets, he stranded two runners in the sixth with a strikeout of Ike Davis. While I don’t exactly remember the moment, my assumption is that the resulting thought was, “maybe this kid can at least prove to be a decent left-handed specialist.”  When he allowed a run in each of the next three appearances that followed, we certainly the potential that has been displayed in the the months that have followed.

In the 43 1/3 innings Avilan has completed dating back to Aug. 1, he has compiled a 1.66 ERA and limited opponents to a .178 batting average and .248 on-base percentage.  Three of the eight earned runs he has allowed during this span were tallied in the in a three-week span that began when he exited an April 16 game against the Royals with what initially looked like a bad hamstring injury.

Initially, Avilan did not look completely comfortable after missing just a week with that injury.  But in his past 6 2/3 innings, he has surrendered just two hits and held opponents scoreless.

There is certainly reason to believe the Braves might eventually attempt to restock their injury-depleted bullpen by making a trade.  But with Avilan, the much-improved Cory Gearrin and Jordan Walden, who should return from the disabled list next week, they already have some candidates to compensate for the loss of O’Flaherty.

It will be interesting to see how the Braves utilize their bullpen if they are working with a tight lead during the late innings of tonight’s series opener against the Twins.  Closer Craig Kimbrel will almost certainly not be available after notching a save in each of this weekend’s three wins over the Dodgers.

The left-handed Avilan and right-handed Gearrin will both be available.  Manager Fredi Gonzalez will likely determine which to use as the closer based on how the Twins’ lineup shapes up entering the eighth inning.

While Avilan is certainly capable of filling in as the closer for one night, I would like to see Gearrin get a shot to simply bring a huge smile to the face of former Braves closer Gene Garber, who will be watching from his Pennsylvania farm with great pride.

Over the course of the past two years, Gearrin was viewed as just another sidearm reliever who had trouble getting left-handers out.

On his way to compiling a 0.92 ERA through his first 23 appearances this year, Gearrin has limited left-handed hitters to a .087 (2-for-23) batting average.  Though the sample size is small, the results come courtesy of the changeup Garber has helped the fellow sidearm reliever develop over the past few years.


O’Flaherty scheduled to visit Dr. Andrews after MRI shows torn elbow ligament

When Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez’s phone rang as he was driving home from Friday night’s win over the Dodgers, he knew head athletic trainer Jeff Porter was not calling with good news.

Porter called to inform Gonzalez that left-handed setup man Eric O’Flaherty’s felt some spasms in his left elbow after he had pitched Friday’s eighth inning.

The news got even worse on Saturday when an MRI exam showed a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of O’Flaherty’s left elbow.  The Braves reliever will visit Dr. James Andrews within the next few days to learn whether he will need to undergo season-ending Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.

“Obviously, you’re hoping it’s just a sprain and a short DL stint, and you get him back fairly quickly,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “But it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case.”

O’Flaherty has surrendered two home runs and allowed three earned runs in the 6 1/3 innings he has completed in May. But before Friday, the Braves were not too concerned about his elbow.

“He’s had some tenderness, but not anything abnormal,” Wren said. “But last night, after he threw and actually after we all left, I got a call leaving last night, I was halfway home, that he came back in after starting to do his post-game workout, that he had some abnormal soreness.”

This discouraging development regarding O’Flaherty came just 48 hours after Andrews performed a second Tommy John surgery on Jonny Venters, who teamed with O’Flaherty to serve as Atlanta’s primary setup men over the past few years.

To make room for Jason Heyward to be activated from the disabled list on Friday, the Braves opted to go to a six-man bullpen by placing right-handed reliever Jordan Walden on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.

Wren said the current expectations are that Walden will be available when he is eligible to come off the disabled list on May 27. The Braves also could soon activate veteran right-handed reliever Luis Ayala, who has been sidelined for nearly a month because of an anxiety disorder.

While the Braves are excited about what Alex Wood has done with Double-A Mississippi this season, they do not plan to promote him to serve in Atlanta’s bullpen any time soon.  The left-hander, who was pitching at the University of Georgia at this time last year, will continue to serve as a starter with Mississippi.

“I don’t think we need to disrupt the development of players at this point,” Wren said. “We’ve got to let them continue to develop and grow. He’s doing really well, but we’re not at the point where we think that would be advantageous to him or us.”

Braves activate Heyward and place Walden on the DL

The Braves activated Jason Heyward from the disabled list and placed him in the starting lineup for Friday night’s game against the Dodgers at Turner Field.

To create a roster space for Heyward, the Braves placed right-handed reliever Jordan Walden on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.

Heyward has been sidelined since undergoing an emergency appendectomy on April 22 in Denver.  The 23-year-old right fielder spent the past week playing for Triple-A Gwinnett on a Minor League rehab assignment.

After remaining relatively sedentary for the first week after the surgery, Heyward steadily regained his strength and started working himself into baseball shape.  He hit .300 (6-for20) in the six games he played for Gwinnett.

Heyward batted .121 with two home runs and a .519 OPS in the 17 games he played for Atlanta before being placed on the disabled list.

Heyward set to return to the foreign land of Turner Field

As we count down the hours before Jason Heyward returns to the Braves lineup for tonight’s series opener against the Dodgers, can somebody please kindly remind me how to get from Sandy Springs to Turner Field?

The Braves have played just six home games since Heyward was placed on the disabled list after undergoing an appendectomy on April 22.  Forgive the players if they felt like they were in foreign territory as they mulled around their Atlanta-area homes during Thursday’s offday.  They had spent 28 of the previous 38 days on the road.

With a quarter (40 of 162 games) of this season complete, the Braves have already complete a third of the road portion (26 of 81) of their schedule.  Despite losing 13 of the last 19 games they have played outside of Atlanta, they stand as just one of five National League teams to have a .500 record or better on the road this year.  The Cardinals, Pirates and D-backs are the only NL teams who have won more than half of their road games.

After the Braves completed their most recent 10-game trip with consecutive losses to the D-backs, manager Fredi Gonzalez said it did not feel like his club had lost two of three in Arizona.

The Braves matched a season-high total for runs in Monday night’s 10-1 win over the D-backs and then did not take advantage of Patrick Corbin’s five walks or Arizona’s leaky bullpen in Tuesday’s shutout loss.  During Wednesday’s defeat, Atlanta stranded a season-high 12 runners, chased Ian Kennedy after five innings and allowed Heath Bell to convert his second save opportunity in less than 24 hours.

After being lifeless during the final three games of last weekend’s series in San Francisco, the Braves offense did show some signs of life in two of the three games played in Arizona.  Now with Heyward’s return, we might actually start to see why there was so much optimism surrounding this lineup entering this year.

Tonight’s series opener against the Dodgers will serve as the first game in which the Braves’ lineup has been at full strength.  Brian McCann will be playing his first home game of the year and Heyward will be playing his first game since April 20, which was three days before Freddie Freeman was activated from the disabled list.

Freeman and Heyward were in the same lineup for just five games before Freeman strained an oblique muscle and missed two weeks.

Heyward hit just .121 with two home runs and a .519 OPS in the 17 games he played before going on the disabled list.  But his mere presence makes this lineup much more formidable.

Still this might not be the most best night for the Braves to add another left-handed bat to their lineup. The Dodgers are scheduled to start Hyun-jin Ryu, who has limited left-handed hitters to a .189 batting average and .268 on-base percentage.  Right-handed hitters have compiled a .260 batting average and .307 on-base percentage against the South Korean southpaw.

The Dodgers’ NL leading .303 batting average against left-handed pitchers could also be put to the test tonight against Paul Maholm, who leads all NL pitchers with the  .118 batting average he has allowed against left-handed hitters.

If Maholm can extend this successful trend, he could neutralize the left-handed trio of Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford.  But he’ll still obviously have to deal with  the always-dangerous Matt Kemp, who has just .203 (15-for-74) with three home runs in the 21 games he has played against the Braves dating back to the start of the 2010 season.

Catching up with Prado and looking at the lineup’s two (black) hole

As Martin Prado remained in a state of shock in the hours after learning he was the centerpiece of the package the Braves used to land Justin Upton and Chris Johnson from the D-backs, his spirit was brightened with a phone call he received from Chipper Jones.

“He called me and said I’ve got a lot of respect for you,” Prado said. “That means a lot to me.”

A few weeks later Jones sent Prado a text to inform him his former teammate that the D-backs would be in Atlanta when the Braves retire Jones’ No. 10 jersey on June 28.

“I was like that’s awesome,” Prado said.  “So I’ll be able to sit up on the stage with you?  He said, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ll be able to sit right beside me.'”

Obviously this was a playful exchange between a pair of former teammates.  But it provides further indication of how much Prado was loved in Atlanta.  He admits he was bewildered for more than a month after the trade.  But showing that same unselfish approach that he has taken to the field on a daily basis, he provided this great response when asked about the trade.

“The thing that makes me feel real good is that you know that you got traded and the [Braves] now look better,” Prado said. “I’m happy because all of my ex-teammates can see that they gave up something, but actually got a better team. That’s what [Braves general manager Frank Wren] was looking for. He made a good move.”

While Wren took great delight in watching Upton and Johnson both hit two-run home runs and finish a triple shy of the cycle in Monday night’s 10-1 win over the D-backs, I’m thinking Arizona general manager Kevin Towers was wishing he and his scouts had never had any conversations with Wren and his scouts back in January.

Upton once again took the high road when given a chance to express the frustrations that built as Towers repeatedly attempted to trade him over the past few years.  But when he hit this monstrous home run off Wade Miley immediately after his brother was hit in the left shoulder with a pitch in Monday’s sixth inning, I had visions of him channeling Adam Sandler’s character from The Waterboy.

After I addressed the situational strikeout problem in yesterday’s blog entry, the Braves went out and struck out just six times  last night while compiling a season-high 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Now we’ll take on the much greater challenge of attempting to use the written word to remove the hex that has been placed on the second spot of Atlanta’s lineup.

The two hole in the Braves lineup has produced a .148 batting average, .246 on-base percentage and .242 slugging percentage.  Despite missing the past three weeks, Jason Heyward has accounted for more than half of the at-bats compiled in this spot.  Andrelton Simmons, B.J. Upton, Johnson, Tyler Pastornicky, Ramiro Pena and Dan Uggla have all recorded at least five at-bats in this spot.

Simmons has batted .310 while hitting second, making him the only member of this group to hit over .200 in this role.

When I casually asked Uggla how he was doing on Sunday, he said something like, “I’m great as long as I’m not in that two hole.”

This is the expected response from a guy who has gone 0-for-11 with 10 strikeouts while batting second.

When I passed this message along to manager Fredi Gonzalez yesterday, he laughed and said there is no way he will ever bat Uggla second again this year.

“If he bats second again, I’m betting on the game,” Gonzalez said. “If you see it, there better be an investigation.”




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