The need to play Schafer and Gattis puts B.J. Upton in limbo
Now that the Braves have snapped their four-game losing streak, some of you should exhale and recognize the fact that they are still in a pretty good position with less than three weeks remaining in the regular season.
With their magic number at eight, the earliest the Braves could clinch the National League East would be on Friday when they open a three-game homestand against the Padres. Yeah, it would be nice to celebrate in front of the home fans. But I’m thinking some of you would enjoy seeing them soil the visitor’s clubhouse at Nationals Park with beer and champagne next week.
While there still remains little intrigue surrounding their division race, the Braves will spend the next few weeks fighting to earn what could be a very important home-field advantage throughout the NL-portion of the playoffs. The top five home winning percentages in the NL are owned by the five clubs — Braves (51-20, .718), Reds (47-25, .653) , Pirates (45-25, .643), Cardinals (44-25, .638) and Dodgers (44-28, .611) — most likely to represent the Senior Circuit in the postseason.
In the race for the NL’s best record, the Braves entered Tuesday leading the Dodgers by two games, the Cardinals by three games, the Pirates by four games and the Reds by five games. But because Atlanta won the season series against each of these clubs, you can essentially add one to each of the aforementioned advantages to account for the head-to-head tiebreaker.
To maintain this lead, the Braves are going to need more from an offense that has scored at least one run in just 10 of the past 53 innings in which they have batted. They have hit .168 and compiled a .222 on-base percentage while winning just two of the six games played during this span.
Yeah, it was encouraging to see the Braves record five hits during last night’s decisive five-run fourth inning against Miami’s Henderson Alvarez. But given the fact that they went hitless and scoreless in the other eight innings, it is hard to say they have completely separated themselves from their most recent offensive struggles.
Over the past few weeks, I have felt the Braves needed to play B.J. Upton for an extended stretch to see if he could produce another of his impressive late-season hot streaks. But we’ve reached a point where there is simply not a spot for him to be in a lineup that currently has to include both Jordan Schafer and Evan Gattis on a daily basis.
With Jason Heyward sidelined, Schafer’s presence at the top of the lineup is essential. There is also the fact that he has proven to be more reliable defensively than Upton. As for Gattis, he has once again become a threat that all opposing pitchers should fear. He has gone 7-for-21 with two doubles and three home runs since returning from his three-day stint with Triple-A Gwinnett.
Gattis is obviously gifted with tremendous power. What is often overlooked his baseball IQ and advanced feel for the game. The 480-foot home run he hit off Cole Hamels on Sunday was a thing of beauty. But more impressive was the fact that five innings later, he went to the plate ready to react to the first-pitch curveball he crushed into the left-field seats as Hamels reacted in disbelief.
There might be reason to put Upton in the lineup when Schafer needs a breather or when Gattis is playing catcher. But for now, it just doesn’t make sense for him to play on a everyday basis.
My objection to the lack of playing time Upton was receiving began when he hit .357 with a .829 OPS in the first seven games he played after coming off the disabled list and then was out of the starting lineup in five of the next 10 games.
Upton certainly didn’t help his cause by going hitless in the 24 at-bats he compiled during this span. Still I maintained the belief that he might have been more productive had he been playing on a daily basis.
While this might have been unrealistic optimism regarding a player whose batting average has rested as high as .200 after just one game this season, Upton at least supported my argument by hitting .407 with 1.077 OPS while starting eight of the nine games played on this most recent homestand. Then he went 0-for-12 with seven strikeouts this past weekend in Philadelphia and found himself out of the lineup again for Monday night’s series opener against the Marlins.
If trying to make a case for Upton, one might point out a lot of players struggle during a three-game series in which they face Cliff Lee and Hamels. But the veteran center fielder went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in the game started by Kyle Kendrick.
Without the need to play Schafer and Gattis on a daily basis, the Braves might be in a position where they could continue to give Upton a chance to continue building on the success he had before going to Philadelphia.
But such is not the case as they spend the next couple weeks battling for the home-field advantage that might significantly influence which club represents the NL during this year’s World Series.