Thoughts as the Braves enter a tough two-week stretch with a slumbering offense
Before the Braves spend the next two weeks playing against the top two teams from the National League Central and West divisions, they have to feel fortunate to know that the consistent misery they experienced most of the past two weeks had just a minimal effect on their place atop the NL East standings.
Here is a look at the lead Braves had on each division opponent on April 29, when they began a seven-game losing streak and a stretch of nine games that included just one victory:
Mets -3.5, Nationals -4 , Phillies -4.5, Marlins -6.5
After righting themselves with a sweep of the Cubs this past weekend, the Braves find themselves with just a slightly less comfortable lead over these four division rivals:
Marlins -2 Nationals -2.5, Phillies -4, Mets -4
There really is not much reason to be concerned about standings during the first half of May. But if the baseball season is indeed more a marathon than a sprint, then the Braves can be encouraged to know the pace they set during the first four miles of the race was strong enough to overcome the fact that they went through the next two miles looking like they were running on two broken ankles.
Yeah, it was good that the Braves spent these past three days healing themselves with just what the doctor ordered — a visit from the Cubs. But if they are going to extend this success while spending these next two weeks playing the Giants, Cardinals, Brewers and Rockies, then I think it’s safe to say they’ll need much more production from an offense that has averaged 2.17 runs over the past 12 games. The Nationals (2.91) are MLB’s only other club to average less than three runs dating back to April 29.
So while the Nationals continue to function with an injury-depleted lineup and the Marlins spend the remainder of this week on the road, where they are 3-13, the Braves need to attempt to exact some revenge against the Giants and Cardinals, a pair of teams that combined to account for five of the eight losses Atlanta incurred during that recent nine-game stretch.
If you’re a Braves fan who was fortunate enough to be stuck under a rock for the past two weeks, you might look at look at tonight’s matchup against Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum and assume this might be a good night for Atlanta’s offense to awake with a fury. That same assumption was made when Lincecum carried a 5.96 ERA into his May 2 start at Turner Field and ended up allowing one earned run over six innings.
Lincecum’s ERA jumped back up to 5.55 when he allowed the Pirates four earned runs in just 4 2/3 innings. The former Cy Young Award winner has lasted fewer than five innings in three of his first seven starts, including two of his past three.
But Lincecum once again has a chance to right himself against the Braves, who have scored two runs or less against 11 of the past 13 starting pitchers they have faced. This trend stood at 11 of 12 before Atlanta tallied three runs against Cubs right-hander Edwin Jackson on Sunday.
Instead of pointing out that the pedestrian .769 OPS Justin Upton has produced since April 29 leads all Braves players, it might be to simply look at who has trended in the right direction as the Braves have won four of their past five. Yeah, it’s a small sample size. But the horrific numbers produced during the more substantive two-week size are not suitable for the young impressionable eyes that visit this sight.
Chris Johnson: With 10 hits in 19 at-bats dating back to Tuesday, Johnson has raised his batting average from .236 to .279. Since entering last Tuesday 2-for-19 with runners in scoring position, he has recorded a hit in each of his past four at-bats with a runner at second or third base. In other words, as he has regained his tendency to hit the ball the other way, he has started to look more like he did last year when he produced the NL’s second-best batting average (.321) and hit .336 with runners in scoring position.
Justin Upton: We’ll have to see how his sore back reacted to Sunday’s cross-country flight. But the Braves have been pleased with what they have seen from the outfielder since he struck out in 11 of his first 15 at-bats of the just-completed homestand. He went 5-for-14 with two doubles, a home run and three strikeouts in the 14 at-bats that followed. While these are not earth-shattering numbers, they are at least an early sign that he might avoid the long stretch of futility that plagued him last year after he produced an April that was only slightly more impressive than his first month of this season.
Freddie Freeman: Despite going hitless in his past two games (probably had something to do with me picking him in MLB.com’s Beat The Streak), Freeman has recorded eight hits, including three doubles, in his past 24 at-bats. Yeah, this has been a rather ho-hum short stretch for the first baseman. But given he had batted .151 with two extra base hits and a .437 OPS during his previous 13 games, it is a sign of progress.
Jason Heyward: As Heyward hit .264 with a .340 on-base percentage in 21 games from April 9-May 3, it looked like he might provide sufficient production in the leadoff role. But as he has hit .125 with a .267 on-base percentage in his past seven games, he has brought more attention to the glaring slash line (.209/.302/.324) he has produced with nearly a quarter of the season complete. Ben Revere (.299), Billy Hamilton (.291), Evereth Cabrera (.289) and Denard Span (.286) are the four National League players who have compiled a lower on-base percentage while compiling at least 100 plate appearances at the leadoff spot.
B.J. Upton: It appeared Upton was heading in the right direction as he hit .241 with a .355 on-base percentage and struck out once every 4.42 plate appearances in 21 games from April 10-May 4. But he has recorded just two hits (both doubles) while striking out in half of his past 18 plate appearances. Yeah, it’s just six games. But given what happened last year, it’s safe to say the Braves didn’t want to see Upton hit .202 with a .595 OPS through his first 34 games this year.
Andrelton Simmons: Since hitting .289 with nine extra-base hits through the 24 games he played in April, Simmons has batted .200 (6-for-30) with one extra-base hit. The six strikeouts he had in his past 28 plate appearances has tripled his season total to nine (127 plate appearances).
QUICK THOUGHTS: Last year we saw Luis Avilan and David Carpenter step up and capably handle high-leverage relief appearances after Eric O’Flaherty underwent season-ending elbow injury. With Jordan Walden dealing with a left hamstring strain that could affect his violent delivery for a while, Anthony Varvaro will have more chances to pitch in some crucial middle-inning situations. Varvaro has allowed three hits while striking out seven of the 17 batters he’s faced in 4 2/3 scoreless innings this month.
When Aaron Harang allowed the Marlins nine earned runs in 4 2/3 innings on April 30, it seemed like the clock had struck midnight on his Cinderella season. But he’s worked six innings and allowed just two earned runs in both of the two starts that have followed. Instead of waiting for the veteran pitcher to implode, it might be time to fully concede that the Braves were wise to follow the advise of their two veteran scouts Brad Sloan and Rick Williams, who submitted positive reports regarding Harang.
If the Braves stick with their plan to bring Alex Wood back to a starting role for Saturdays’ game against the Cardinals, they would be setting up the possibility that each of their next four starting pitchers would be pitching with two extra days of rest. As Wood and Harang proved with the consecutive clunkers they produced with two extra days of rest two weeks ago in Miami, it’s not always good to alter the schedule for these creatures of habit.