August 2013

Fernandez could provide the Braves their toughest challenge to date

This year’s schedule has been kind via the fact that the Braves have consistently missed an opposing team’s ace.  They did not oppose Clayton Kershaw in the seven games against the Dodgers and they squared off against the injured Matt Harvey in just one of the 19 games they will play against the Mets.

The Braves have also somehow missed Jose Fernandez in each of the first 12 games played against the Marlins this year.  But this run of good fortune will expire tonight when Fernandez opposes Julio Teheran in a much-anticipated rookie matchup that should create genuine excitement.

Well, at least amongst the fans.

“I’m kind of upset the Marlins haven’t shut him down yet,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Fernandez, who’s approaching an innings limit and will likely make one more start after Friday. “I’m going to have to call [Marlins owner] Jeffrey Loria and tell him it’s a good time to shut down Fernandez.”

While the Braves understandably would like to avoid being subjected to Fernandez’s electric fastball and nasty slider, fans should savor every opportunity to watch this energetic 21-year-old phenom, who has arguably been the NL’s top pitcher not named Kershaw or Harvey.

Taking full advantage of the exposure he does not receive while pitching in Miami, Fernandez was simply dominant when he made his first All-Star Game appearance in July.   During the 13-pitch perfect inning he completed that night, he retired two former American League MVPs  –  Miguel Cabrera and Dustin Pedroia  –  and Chris Davis, who is a top candidate for the award this year.

Fernandez ranks among the top four National League pitchers in ERA (2.30), opponent’s batting average (.188) and Fielding-Independent Pitching (2.64), strikeouts per nine innings (9.73) and strikeouts per batter faced (.272).

In the 15 starts he has made dating back to June 1, Fernandez has posted a 1.52 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .167 with a .238 on-base percentage.  His ERA and opponent’s batting average rank as the best marks produced by any Major League starter during this span.  His on-base percentage allowed ranks second only to Kershaw (.236).

Not bad for a guy who had not pitched above the Class A-Advanced level before this season.

To get a better understanding of Fernandez and how he escaped Cuba, check out this story written in July by my MLB.com colleague Anthony Castrovince.

Since allowing one run or less in each of his first four starts after the All-Star break, Teheran has allowed four runs in two of his past three starts.  Sandwiched between these two outings was the six-scoreless inning effort he produced against the Nationals on April 18.

The 155 innings Teheran has completed this professional-high season total he worked while combining for 151 innings with Atlanta and Triple-A Gwinnett in 2011.  But with a month remaining in the season, the Braves may try to stick to their plan of skipping him at least once in September.

The plan to provide extra rest to all of their starters would have been much easier to exercise if Brandon Beachy had not sidelined with right elbow inflammation.  But the Braves may still be able to do this by potentially using potential September roster additions  — Freddy Garcia or David Hale  –  to make a couple starts.

Odds and ends:  Accounting for each of the game’s played during this week’s three-game sweep of the Indians, the Braves improved to 20-42 when scoring three runs or less.   They were 11-36 in these games through July 23.

Atlanta’s pitching staff leads the Majors with a 3.17 ERA.   The staff ranks ninth with  3.76 road ERA.  But it’s league-leading 2.58 ERA is a half a run better than every other staff, minus the Pirates (2.88).

The Braves will likely be without Justin Upton tonight while he rests the bruised left hand he suffered courtesy of Ubaldo Jimenez’s 92-mph fastball last night.  But Upton is expected to return to the lineup during this weekend’s series.

Kimbrel has positioned himself to enter another select group

Craig Kimbrel positioned himself  to join an exclusive club when he exited Wednesday night’s win over the Indians with a 0.99 ERA.  The only pitchers to ever post a sub 1.00 ERA while recording at least 40 saves in a season were Dennis Eckersley (0.61 in 1990) and Fernando Rodney (0.60 in 2012).

Kimbrel nearly made himself a part of this select company when he notched 42 saves with a 1.01 ERA during last year’s incredibly dominant season. Having already matched that saves total this year, he has a chance to become the first pitcher to post a sub 1.00 ERA during a 50-save season.

When Kimbrel allowed a pair of two-out ninth-inning solo shots during a May 7 loss in Cincinnati, the knee-jerk reaction was, “what is wrong with him.”  Four days earlier, he had surrendered a game-tying solo shot to New York’s David Wright.  So within a span of three appearances he allowed as many home runs (3) as he had all of last year.

Through this year’s  first 14 appearances, he matched last year’s blown saves total (3) ,compiled a 3.38 ERA and struck out 40 percent (21 of 52) of the batters he faced. His stats, which were marred by Justin Upton’s inability to catch a two-out fly ball at Coors Field on April 24, were still pretty respectable.  But they simply did not live up to the ridiculous expectations produced last year, when he became the first pitcher to ever strike out more than half the batters he faced (116 of 231).

Kimbrel’s lack of consistent sharpness through this season’s first five weeks was a product of the altered offseason preparations he made to participate in the World Baseball Classic and still have enough in the tank to be effective during the final stages of this season.  As things currently stand, it appears his plan was sound.

Kimbrel has converted 32 consecutive save opportunities and allowed just one earned run in the 41 1/3 innings (41 appearances) he has completed since allowing those back-to-back two-out home runs in Cincinnati.  He has limited opponents to a .142 batting average and .234 on-base percentage during this span.

In the 23 appearances Kimbrel has made since allowing that one earned run during a non-save situation in a July 4 loss to the Marlins, he has worked 23 1/3 scoreless innings and limited opponents to a .114 batting average and .176 on-base percentage.   During this stretch, he has most closely resembled the pitcher he was last year when he allowed a .126 batting average and .186 on-base percentage  –  both the lowest marks ever surrendered by a National League pitcher with at least 40 appearances.

Kimbrel has struck out 38.1percent (80 of the 210) batters he has faced this year.  While this percentage represents a decline from last year’s ridiculous pace, it still ranks third among Major League relievers, trailing only Aroldis Chapman (41.1) and Kenley Jansen (38.3).   Kimbrel’s 13.17 strikeouts per nine innings ranks second only to Chapman (15.19).

Odds and ends:  I sent David Ross a text this morning to inform him that his franchise record for bunt hits by a catcher was eclipsed last night when Brian McCann notched the ninth of his career.  This is obviously a weapon that was only recently added to the arsenal of Braves catchers.  Johnny Oates, who played in Atlanta from 1973-75, ranks third on the list with three.

The response from the always witty Ross:  “Tell Mac he learned from the best.”

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he expects just small group of players will join his club when rosters expand next week.  Todd Cunningham, Jose Constanza and Freddy Garcia will all likely get the call to Atlanta.  Another likely candidate is right-handed pitcher David Hale, who is already on the 40-man roster.

Top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt is also already on the 40-man and stands as a top candidate to replace Brian McCann as Atlanta’s starting catcher next year.  Bethancourt could benefit from the opportunity to be around the big league scene for a month.  But Gonzalez did not provide indication Double-A Mississippi’s young catcher  would definitely be among the players added next week.

 

 

 

 

Johnson’s Kurkjian impersonation would have been fittng last night

Before Tuesday night’s 2-0 win over the Indians, the Braves had lost each of the previous seven games in which they had recorded three hits or fewer.  One of those hits was Elliot Johnson’s game-winning, second-inning triple –  the first triple Atlanta has received from the eighth spot of its lineup this year.

The minimal offensive production was enough for Alex Wood, who tossed 5 2/3 scoreless innings to become the first Atlanta rookie pitcher to allow one or fewer runs in five consecutive starts.  The Elias Sports Bureau says this span ties the franchise rookie record set by Boston’s Jim Turner (1937) and matched by Milwaukee’s Bob Sadowski (1963).

Dating back to Tom Glavine’s masterpiece in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, the Indians have been shutout in three of the past five games played in Atlanta.

Click here to see Johnson’s comical postgame interview with Tom Hart last night.  But given all that transpired as the Braves played an American League opponent for the first time in August during either the live or dead ball eras, it might have been fitting for Johnson to recap the last Tuesday of the eighth month of the 13th year of this century with his impersonation of ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian.

With Dan Uggla expected to return to his role as Atlanta’s starting second baseman tonight,  Johnson will have a little more time to perfect his impersonations while providing depth on Atlanta’s bench.  To make room for Uggla, the Braves will likely send Todd Cunningham to Triple-A Gwinnett.  Despite the fact Gwinnett’s season ends on Monday, Cunningham will still have to remain off Atlanta’s roster for 10 days unless he is called back up to replace a player placed on the disabled list.  This would put him in line to be added to the expanded roster on Sept. 7.

The highlight of the current nine-game homestand comes Friday night when Julio Teheran will oppose Miami’s Jose Fernandez in a battle between two of the most impressive members of this year’s strong crop of National League rookies.  Along with being a top Rookie of the Year candidate, Fernandez is arguably the NL’s best pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw.

Fernandez’s 0.82 ERA in August stands as the only mark better than the one produced by Wood (0.90) who allowed just three earned runs in the 30 innings he completed this month.  Just eight starts into his career, Atlanta’s 22-year-old rookie has quickly gained comfort at the big league level.  He held opponents hitless in 24 at-bats with runners in scoring position this month.   No other qualified Major Leaguer has not allowed a hit in these situations this month.

It was certainly good to see Jason Heyward back in the clubhouse yesterday.  As an added bonus, Heyward had the opportunity to catch up with Cleveland’s Michael Bourn, who provided Heyward valuable guidance during his stint in Atlanta.

If you haven’t seen the video that accompanied yesterday’s story, click here to hear Heyward talk about what he has been feeling since his jaw was fractured by Jon Niese’s 90-mph fastball last week.

Medlen picked the wrong time to question Gonzalez’s decision

When the Braves gained a double-digit division lead in late July, there was reason to wonder if this would be the year when they benefited from what was learned during their September collapse in 2011.   These next few weeks will provide a better indication.

During their first two games without Jason Heyward, the Braves have totaled three runs against a pair talented St. Louis pitchers  –  Joe Kelly and Adam Wainwright. Consequently, they are in the midst of their first multi-game losing streak since July 21.

There is no doubt the Braves face a great challenge as they spend at least the few weeks without Heyward, who fractured his jaw on Wednesday.  But now is not the time for them to fall victim to the panic that paralyzed them as they wilted down the stretch two years ago.  They’re still 13 games in front of the Nationals in the National League East and the owners of the game’s best record.

With Heyward, the Braves are legitimate World Series contenders.  Without him, they are still a club much more talented than the one that was undone by the injuries that depleted their starting rotation and led Brian McCann to experience the most frustrating six-week stretch of his career near the end of the 2011 season.

Along with needing to stay loose, the Braves need to avoid the kind of unnecessary distraction Kris Medlen created Friday night, when he complained about a managerial decision that seemed to be rather routine.

Unsolicited, Medlen told reporters that he did not agree with manager Fredi Gonzalez’s decision to remove him with runners at the corners, no outs and the Cardinals leading 2-1 in the seventh inning.  Left-handed reliever Scott Downs limited the damage in the potentially-disastrous situation to one run.  Having thrown fewer than 80 pitches, Medlen felt he should have been given a chance to clean his own mess against the bottom of St. Louis’ lineup

“I got taken out with 78 pitches,” Medlen said.  “I was just starting to have to battle.  I didn’t have to battle yet.  But I wasn’t given the opportunity.  I guess I’m voicing the fact that I didn’t appreciate that.  I don’t know what kind of mentality we’re trying to create for our starters.  But I feel like I should be able to work out of some jams.”

Medlen might have had a leg stand on had he been removed immediately after Yadier Molina opened the bottom of the seventh with a double.  But his decision to criticize after Gonzalez gave him a chance to face Jon Jay, who followed with a seeing-eye single, was simply baffling.

Yeah, you want pitchers who have the confidence they can escape any situation.  But you also want managers and pitching coaches who have a good feel for how their players have previously performed in similar situations.

Medlen had allowed 14 earned runs in the 31 1/3 innings that had encompassed his five previous starts.  Nine of those runs scored after he had thrown his 70th pitch of the game.

Matt Holliday’s decisive solo home run with two outs in Friday’s sixth inning came on the Medlen’s 74th pitch of the night.  Molina and and Jay then recorded their hits on two of the three pitches Medlen threw before exiting in the seventh inning.

This is not to say, Medlen is destined to crumble once his pitch count reaches 70.  After reaching this mark during his 96-pitch effort against the Nationals on Aug. 7, he surrendered one run and allowed hits to two of the final seven batters he faced.  During his 93-pitch, seven-inning outing against the Phillies on Aug. 13, he surrendered a run and allowed hits to three of the seven batters he faced after throwing his 70th pitch.

Had Gonzalez not pulled Medlen after giving him a little extra rope, he would have subjected himself to justified criticism.  Instead, by making a move that 29 other managers likely would have made, he found himself subjected to an unwarranted objection that created a distraction the Braves simply don’t need to deal with at the end of what has already been a tough week.

Odds and ends:  When Adam LaRoche hit his 15th inning homer off Medlen during last Saturday’s marathon contest at Turner Field, he provided the Nationals a win and  at the same time denied himself a chance to make his first career pitching appearance.  Dan Haren was not going to throw more than one more inning.  When Haren exited, LaRoche was going to take the mound and realize the dream he has had dating back to when he occasionally threw a few pitches off the bullpen mound during his days in the Braves organization.

Jordan Schafer has recorded three hits and drawn three walks while compiling a .182 on-base percentage in the 34 plate appearances he has compiled since returning from the disabled list.  If he continues to struggle, the Braves will gain an even greater sense of how influential Heyward was during the three weeks he spent at the top of the lineup.  For now, Gonzalez plans to platoon the left-handed Schafer and right-handed Simmons in the leadoff role

Evan Gattis has hit .188 (22-for-117) with three home runs and a .581 OPS since June 1.  His aggressive approach has led him to see an average of just 3.50 pitches per plate appearance.  If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, this would rank as the NL’s fourth-lowest average.

It is too early to make assumptions regarding Beachy

Instead of using Twitter to announce Brandon Beachy will visit Dr. James Andrews on Monday, the Braves could have actually lightened the mood by allowing comedian Stephen Wright to make the announcement.

There is nothing funny about the fact that the news regarding Beachy was revealed just a few hours after Jason Heyward had two metal plates inserted into the fractured jaw that will sideline him at least until the latter portion of September.  But I suggest you wait a few more days before allowing this double whammy to lead to a full-blown panic attack.

It is concerning that Beachy experienced a sudden drop in velocity during the sixth inning of Tuesday’s start against the Mets. But for now, the Braves believe this was simply a product of the inconsistencies a pitcher often experiences after returning from Tommy John surgery.

When asked if he believes he will pitch again this year, Beachy said he is “confident” that he will.  But before doing so, he is going to see Andrews who will evaluate the elbow he surgically-repaired 14 months ago.  There is a chance the accomplished surgeon could deliver some bad news.  But there is also a chance he will simply send Beachy back to Atlanta with peace of mind.

Beachy began feeling some tightness during the fifth inning of Tuesday night’s start against the Mets.  He likened it to what he felt when he was shut down with elbow inflammation in June,  just days before he was originally scheduled to make his first big league start since the surgery.

Through Tuesday’s first four innings, Beachy’s fastball velocity (89-92 and touched 93 mph ) was similar to what it was during each of the previous four starts he had made since returning from the surgical procedure on July 29.  The velo drop was very slight in the fifth and much more noticeable in the sixth, especially toward the end of the inning when the last three fastballs he threw were clocked in order at 87, 85 and 82 mph.

Here’s a breakdown of his velo during Tuesday’s  final three innings:

Fourth inning:   Nine fastballs averaged 90.1 mph

Fifth inning;  10 fastballs averaged 89.4 mph

Sixth inning:  10 fastballs average 86.7 mph

Now courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net, here is a look at Beachy’s average and max fastball velo from each of the five starts he has made since returning:

July 29 vs. COL:  91.9 average, 93.6 max

Aug. 3 at PHI:  91.8, 93.1

Aug. 9 vs. MIA:  90.5, 94.2

Aug. 14 vs. PHI: 89.8, 93.7

Aug. 20 vs. NYM: 90.5, 93.3

So the only time, Beachy’s average velo has even slightly dipped below 90 mph this month came on Aug.14,  five days after he had thrown a season-high 99 pitches and completed eight innings for the first time since May 17, 2012.

Given the significant velo drop that occurred at the end of Tuesday’s outing provides reason for concern.  But this might have simply been a sign that Beachy is ready for that break the Braves had already been planning to give him and their other five starters over the next couple weeks.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell had planned to skip each starting pitcher through one turn of the rotation.  Beachy might need to skip two turns.  Or maybe he will indeed get some bad news while visiting with Dr. Andrews. But for now, it is too early to make assumptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heyward’s absence will test the Braves’ perseverence

As troubling as it might be to wonder how the Braves will perform in Jason Heyward’s absence, this is certainly not the first time the club has been forced to overcome the extended absence of a key figure.

If you forgot Brian McCann missed this season’s first five weeks recovering from shoulder surgery, it is probably because Evan Gattis spent this span performing more like a five-time Silver Slugger award winner than a rookie getting his first taste of the big leagues.   The Braves went 18-12 during this stretch, which included Heyward’s absence after he underwent an emergency appendectomy on April

Then of course you had the gruesome season-ending injury Tim Hudson suffered last month.  Instead of waiting for the sky to fall upon them, the Braves have won 20 of 25 since then and seen their rotation compile a 3.11 ERA  — the National League’s third-best mark during this span.

Depth and perseverance have enabled the Braves to overcome adversity and compile the game’s best record through this season’s first 126 games.  But this year’s greatest challenge could come as they attempt to spend the remainder of the season without knowing exactly what to expect from Heyward.

The Braves know Heyward will be sidelined at least a month while recovering from the broken jaw he suffered when he was hit on the right side of his face with Jon Niese’s 90-mph fastball on Wednesday afternoon.  Realistically, Heyward will be out closer to six weeks, which would account for the remainder of the regular season.

So while there is hope Heyward could be cleared just before the end of the regular season, there is certainly no reason to know what to expect from him when he returns.  This unfortunate incident is one that requires both physical and mental healing.

When Heyward returned from his appendectomy earlier this year, it took him a couple weeks to get his timing back and find the rhythm that has enabled him to hit .301 with a .881 OPS in the 62 games he has played dating back to June 2.   Now along with regaining timing and the rhythm of his swing, Heyward will be forced to find comfort stepping back in that batter’s box after experiencing this scare. 

If all goes well, Heyward could compile some at-bats in the Instructional League and possibly simulated games thrown by Atlanta’s pitchers who might need some work in late September.  But it will likely take more than just a couple weeks of seeing living pitcher for him to regain most of his confidence.

Even if Heyward is not able to provide desired production at the plate upon his return, he could continue to be an asset with his Gold Glove-caliber defense.  But somebody will need to step up and compensate for the offensive production Heyward provided while hitting .345 with a .418 on-base percentage in the 23 games he played after moving to the leadoff role on July 27.

Jordan Schafer will likely have an opportunity to man the leadoff spot over the course of the next month.   But Schafer has gone 3-for-22 and compiled a .240 on-base percentage in the 25 plate appearance he has recorded since returning from a month-long stint on the disabled list earlier this month.  Regular playing time could help him get out of this funk or simply prove he has been brought back to reality since hitting .312 with a .399 on-base percentage in the 61 games he played before being disabled with a stress fracture in his foot.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez has spent the past two weeks platooning Schafer with B.J. Upton.  The timing of this decision prevented Upton from building on the success he had when he recorded 10 hits in his first 21 at-bats after ending a three-week stint on the disabled list earlier this month.

In my opinion, this was the time when the Braves needed to give Upton a “fresh start” and allow him to gain a sense that they were still confident he could be the player they envisioned when he signed a franchise record five-year, $75.25 million contract in November.  But the veteran center fielder has simply weakened this argument while going hitless in his past 24 at-bats and dropping his batting average to .183.

Still to keep the outfield defense strong and provide Upton a chance to get going, it might be wise for Gonzalez to attempt to use Upton and Schafer in the same lineup over the next couple of weeks.  Either would obviously be a significant upgrade in comparison to using either Gattis or Joey Terdoslavich in left field on a daily basis.

While Upton has struggled throughout this season, optimists have said he’ll get going like he did when he hit .249 with 19 home runs and a .864 OPS in last season’s final two months.

Well there is no time like the present for Upton to suddenly come to life and produce yet another torrid stretch that could allow the Braves to compensate for Heyward’s significant absence.

Pastornicky will undergo season-ending knee surgery

Tyler Pastornicky’s opportunity to fill in as Atlanta’s starting second baseman proved to be short-lived.  Early Friday afternoon, the Braves announced Pastornicky will undergo season-ending left knee surgery to repair the damage he suffered during a collision with Jason Heyward on Wednesday night.

An MRI exam performed on Thursday showed Pastornicky tore the left anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.   A timetable for recovery was not immediately provided.

The Braves have filled Pastornicky’s roster spot by purchasing Phil Gosselin’s contract from Triple-A Gwinnett.  Gosselin could simply provide depth while Paul Janish serves as the everyday second baseman in the absences of both Pastornicky and Dan Uggla.

When Dan Uggla agreed it was time to undergo LASIK surgery and consequently begin a disabled list stint late Tuesday afternoon, the Braves promoted Pastornicky from Gwinnett with the expectation he would serve as the starting second baseman in place of Uggla, who will not be eligible for activation until Aug. 28.

With shortstop Andrelton Simmons and Janish manning the middle infield spots, the Braves would have an incredibly gifted middle infield duo from a defensive standpoint.  But Janish’s limited offensive capabilities have led the club to actively search for an infielder who could be acquired via a waiver wire deal.

Pastornicky suffered his injury when he went back to catch Jimmy Rollins’s pop fly during the third inning of Wednesday’s win over the Phillies.  As he stopped to catch the ball along the right field foul line, he was clipped by a hard-charging Heyward and  the fell to the ground.  Both players said they had called for the ball.

After remaining on the ground for a short time, Pastornicky completed the inning.  But he did not return to the field when the fourth inning began.

Gosselin has batted .277 with two home runs and 11 RBI in the 47 games he has played since being promoted from Double-A Mississippi to Gwinnett earlier this year.

Braves have proven they can beat front-line starters

Despite scoring one run or less in two of their past three games, the Braves have averaged a full run per game (5.41) more than any other National League team dating back to July 26.  So before getting overly concerned about the complete game gem Cole Hamels twirled at Turner Field last night, remember that while proving victorious in 15 of their past 17 games,  remember the Braves have won games in which they opposed Adam Wainwright, Cliff Lee, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman.

Over the next six weeks, you are going to hear many fans and media members question whether the Braves have the offense and rotation needed to match up against the high-caliber starting pitchers that would serve as the opposition during the postseason. Like virtually every other club Atlanta would obviously be the underdog in any matchup against the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw.  But such would not necessarily be the case in any matchup that pitted them against  Zack Greinke, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, Mat Latos, Tony Cingrani, Wainwright or any of the other starting pitchers they would most likely oppose during the NL playoffs.

With Mike Minor and Julio Teheran, the Braves have a pair of front-line caliber pitchers who are capable of matching up against each of these aforementioned pitchers and providing their offense the ability to produce the kind of necessary damage that it has produced against the highly-respected starting pitchers faced over the past 2 1/2 weeks.

With the recently much-improved Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and possibly even Alex Wood, the Braves have three more starters who have the potential to provide quality depth to the three or four-man rotations that would be assembled during the playoffs.

Wainwright, Lee, Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmerman all escaped their most recent outings against the Braves without allowing more than three earned runs.   But they were doomed by the fact that Atlanta’s young starters proved capable of winning those pitching-dominated affairs that often develop during the playoffs.

To be fair, it should be pointed out that the Braves have taken advantage of the opportunities to face the disappointing offenses possessed by the Phillies, Nationals and Marlins over the course of the past week.  But it should also be noted that the 14-game winning streak that ended on Saturday began with seven combined wins against the Cardinals and Rockies, two of the NL’s top three offensive clubs.

The Braves’ offense will have a chance to get back on track tonight against Phillies’ right-hander Ethan Martin, a native of Athens, Ga. who allowed his emotions to get the best of him as he allowed his once-beloved Braves six earned runs and eight hits in just 4 1/3 innings during his big league debut on Aug. 2.  It will be interesting to see how he reacts while pitching in front of the large contingent of family and friends who will likely come to see him pitch for the first time at Turner Field.

More importantly, tonight’s game will provide Medlen an opportunity to build on the season-best performance he produced while limiting the Nationals to three hits in seven innings last week.  For the first time this year, Medlen displayed consistent fastball command and the ability to throw his curveball for strikes and as a swing-and-miss pitch.

Nobody is expecting Medlen to duplicate the dominance he produced while posting  a 0.97 ERA in the 12 starts he made during last year’s final two months.  But over the past couple of weeks, he has provided regular signs of encouragement and a sense that the Braves might be able to rely on him both for the stretch run and during the playoffs.

Hanson demoted:  When word spread that the Angels had optioned Tommy Hanson to their Triple-A affiliate last night, some fans used Twitter to declare the Braves the winner in the offseason trade that sent Hanson to Anaheim in exchange for valuable setup man Jordan Walden.  While Twitter provides an avenue or immediate responses, I’d say these reactions were provided at least eight months after this was already obvious.

Hours before likely non-tendering Hanson, Braves general manager Frank Wren was able to exchange the declining right-hander for Walden, who was just one year removed from a 32-save season.   While Walden has limited opponents to a .204 batting average and .269 on-base percentage in 43 appearances with Atlanta, Hanson has produced a 5.59 ERA in 13 starts for the Angels.  In the 49 starts he has made since the 2011 All-Star break, Hanson has compiled a 5.12 ERA.

 

 

Teheran has continued to impress as this season has progressed

When Julio Teheran allowed four earned runs through the first two innings of his April 12 start against the Nationals, a fan tweeted a question asking whether Teheran was in the early stages of the same journey navigated last year by Mike Minor, who struggled mightily in the first half and then proved to be one of Atlanta’s most dependable starters in the second half.

At the time, Teheran had allowed nine earned runs through his first seven innings of this season.  His offspeed stuff seemed inconsistent and he was in the midst of just his sixth big league start.  Given that Minor had completed 38 starts before beginning his impressive turnaround, I responded by saying that I didn’t think Teheran was at that stage where we could assume that he was going to make that immediate transformation to front-line starter this year.

Boy was I wrong.  In fact, Teheran was about a week away from suddenly transforming into one of the game’s top starting pitchers.

Since allowing at least four earned runs in each of his first three starts, Teheran has posted a 2.38 ERA in the 19 starts that have followed.   The only three National League pitchers to produce a better ERA during this span (going back to April 23) are Clayton Kershaw (1.87), Jeff Locke (2.08) and Matt Harvey (2.34).

We have seen Teheran develop a much quicker and impressive pace than most of us could have imagined.  The 22-year-old hurler took another step up the maturation ladder last week based on the calm, cool and confident manner he reacted during the verbal exchange he shared with Bryce Harper after Harper objected to getting hit with a first-pitch fastball in the plate appearance that followed his slower-than-usual home run trot.  Once order was restored, Teheran stranded a pair of runners and preserved a one-run lead by retiring Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman.

Tonight, Teheran will make his first start against the Phillies since making his Major League debut with a 4 2/3-inning effort in Philadelphia on May 7, 2011.  Safe to say a lot has changed regarding both Teheran and the Phillies in the two years that have followed.

The Phillies will enter this week’s three-game series at Turner Field having lost 17 of their past 20 games, including each of their past 11 on the road.  When Philadelphia began this morbid stretch on July 20, they were one-game above .500 (49-48) and just 6 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East . They are now 19 1/2 games behind the front-running Braves and just 7 1/2 games in front of the last-place Marlins.

Before opposing Ethan Martin and John Lannan in the final two games of this series against Philadelphia, the Braves will be challenged tonight by Cole Hamels, who has posted a 2.16 ERA in his past seven starts.  Hamels’ only previous matchup against Atlanta this year occurred on Opening Day, when he surrendered three home runs and allowed five earned runs in five innings.

Separation from the pack:  While winning 14 of their past 15 games, the Braves have erased the intrigue surrounding the NL East standings and set the stage to battle and gained MLB’s best record.  They sit 14 1/2 games in front of the second-place Nationals in the division standings and 1 1/2 games in front of the Pirates in the race to gain home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

When the Braves began this impressive 15-game stretch, they were eight games in front of both the Phillies and Nationals in the NL East.   They were 6 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the chase for the NL’s best record.  A little more than two weeks later they are 4 1/2 games in front of both the Cardinals and hard-charging Dodgers, who seem to be the most likely threat to Atlanta’s bid to secure as many home games as possible during the postseason.

Coincidentally, the Braves (.714) and Pirates (.672) own the top two home winning percentages among all big league clubs this season.  Despite how rough life outside of Atlanta has seemed this year for the Braves, they also own the NL’s fourth-best road winning percentage (.516).

Of the 42 games remaining for the Braves, 23 will be played amid the comfort of Turner Field and 19 will be played on the road.

NOTES:  Four Braves players have compiled an on-base percentage greater than .400 over the club’s past 15 games.  They are Freddie Freeman (.446), Jason Heyward (.441), Justin Upton (.441) and Chris Johnson (.421).  Heyward’s production is the most notable given the fact that this run began the day he replaced Andrelton Simmons in the leadoff spot.  Simmons has compiled a .259 on-base percentage in the 62 games he has manned the lineup’s top spot.

The two Atlanta starting pitchers with the lowest ERAs during this 15-game stretch  –  Teheran (1.00 in 18 innings) and Alex Wood (1.89 in 19 innings) –  have combined for 31 starts at the big league level.  With Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm both sidelined, the average age of Atlanta’s starting rotation is 24.4 years.  Still this group has posted a 2.85 ERA in the 16 games that have been played since Hudson suffered his season-ending right leg injury.

 

Braves relievers have been simply dominant against the Nationals

After spotting the Nationals a four-run lead through the first two innings of this year’s season series, the Braves rallied back to claim a 6-4 victory and in the process provided an early indication of things to come.  The final four innings Julio Teheran completed during his six-inning effort during that April 12 evening directed him toward the success he has had in the four months that have followed.

The four scoreless innings the Braves bullpen produced that night…well that just marked the start of the utter dominance it has produced against Washington’s disappointing offense.

The Braves bullpen has not allowed a single run in the 30 innings worked against the Nationals this year.  In the process, this relief corps has surrendered nine hits, issued four walks and limited Washington to a .093 (9-for-97) batting average.

Let this one soak in for just a second:  The Braves bullpen has faced 102 Washington batters this year and just 13 have reached base via a hit or a walk.  Just one the nine hits surrendered was an extra-base hit   –  Adam LaRoche’s double against Craig Kimbrel in the ninth inning of Atlanta’s 2-1, 10-inning win at Turner Field.

LaRoche’s double put runners at second and third with no outs.  Kimbrel escaped the jam with a strikeout, flyout and the one-out Roger Bernadina fielded before throwing to the plate to retire Ryan Zimmerman.

The Nationals have stranded a runner in scoring position during the latter portion of the two one-run losses suffered against the Braves this week.  But this is not anything new.  Washington has hit .183 (13-for-71) with runners in scoring position against Atlanta this season.   On the flip side, Atlanta has hit .275 with runners in scoring position against the Nationals.

Timely hitting and the bullpen’s dominance have been the two key factors that have enabled the Braves to record four one-run victories on the way to winning nine of the first 12 games played against Washington.

Harper vs. Teheran:  If you want to believe Julio Teheran’s take that he was simply trying to come inside with a fastball when he hit Bryce Harper last night, I would like to know if you do indeed still leave cookies out for Santa every year.  Regardless, if Teheran felt the need to send a message after Harper pimped the home run he hit earlier in the night, it was encouraging to see him in the proper manner –  by hitting Harper in the right thigh   — and then stand tall after carrying out the deed.  Click here for a recap and video of the benches-clearing incident.

As Harper understandably came out of the box expressing his displeasure, Teheran did not back down in any shape or manner as he walked toward the Nationals outfielder.  Then after completing his verbal spat with Harper, Teheran kept his composure and stranded a pair of runners by retiring Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth.

Last night marked the 10th time this year Teheran allowed one run or less in a start this year.  According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the highest total by a Braves pitcher 22 years-old or younger since Steve Avery did so in 11 such starts during the 1992 season.

Since allowing four runs in both of his first two starts of the season, Teheran has posted a 2.57 ERA in the 20 starts that have followed.  He has allowed less than two runs in each of his past four outings.

QUICK THOUGHTS:  Despite allowing four runs in two of his past three outings, Kris Medlen has been encouraged by the way he has felt during the three starts he has made since the All-Star break.  Thoughts have him moving to the bullpen have at least slightly diminished since Tim Hudson suffered his season-ending injury. But the fact remains that Medlen has struggled throughout much of this season.  Since providing some encouragement while throwing a career-high 116 pitches in 6 2/3 innings against the Dodgers on June 8, he has posted a 5.30 ERA and allowed opponents to produce a .354 on-base percentage in the nine starts that have followed.

Along with attempting to help the Atlanta complete a series sweep and run their winning streak to 13 games tonight, Medlen will be attempting to show the Braves he can be a dependable asset down the stretch.  As things stand, Mike Minor and Teheran are the only obvious guarantees to be part of Atlanta’s postseason rotation.  If Medlen finishes strong, he could be added to this group.  But for now, he has left the door open for Brandon Beachy, Alex Wood or Maholm to make a playoff start.

With Tuesday night’s win, the Braves moved 14 1/2 games in front of the second-place Nationals, providing them their largest division lead since Aug. 28, 2003.  The last time Atlanta had a lead this great through 114 game was in 2002, when they were 18 games up in the National League East standings.

With six hits in the first 16 at-bats he has recorded since returning from the disabled list, B.J. Upton has improved his batting average from .177 to .188.  At the same time he has struck out seven times.  Still there have been encouraging signs as he has driven the ball to the opposite field and showed the ability to turn on a pitch like he did with his two singles last night.  It is far too early to evaluate his post-DL results.  But if you do, remember to account for the fact that he has faced Cliff Lee, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez in the past three days.

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