It is far too early to compare this current four-game surge to the 14-game winning streak that essentially ended the National League East race last year. But if this does prove to be the start of a special surge for the Braves, we will remember that like last year’s streak, it began when there did not seem to be much reason for optimism.
Last year was different simply because the Braves got off to a hot start and held a division lead of at least four games every day after May 20. But some doubt crept in on July 25 when they dropped to 19-21 over their previous 40 games. More importantly, they had lost Tim Hudson to a season-ending ankle injury less than 24 hours earlier and the NL Central-leading Cardinals were coming to Atlanta the next day.
Instead of being burdened by doom and gloom, the Braves showed their resiliency by producing an incredible streak that enabled them to celebrate a special season. Though, this previous sentence was in reference to last year, there is a chance it could apply to what is transpiring this season.
Or as tonight’s starter Aaron Harang will attest, some of these same words could have been used to describe what he and his 2002 A’s teammates experienced when they produced a 20-game winning streak that took them from being 4 1/2 games back on Aug. 12 to 3 1/2 games up on Sept. 4.
“We have the team that can do that,” Harang said. “When that happened (with the A’s), we got multiple guys all producing all at once and pitchers all were trying to feed off each other. One of the guys would go out and throw seven or eight innings of one run ball or no runs and the next night the guy would come in and say I’m going to one up you. You just kind of feed off of each other when you get in that situation…Every night, it was somebody else who was getting that big hit.”
When Harang toes the rubber at PNC Park tonight, he’ll attempt to add to the recent success of Atlanta’s starters, who have allowed three earned runs or less in five of the past six games. The only rotation member to be part of a loss during this span is Harang, who had another forgettable afternoon outing against the Dodgers last week.
Harang will not have to deal with the afternoon elements that have existed during two of the three occasions he has allowed more than four earned runs this year. But it looks like he will have to deal with reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, who is expected to come off the disabled list tonight. McCutchen went 3-for-3 with a double against Harang last year.
Meanwhile, the Braves will have to adjust to the oddity that Francisco Liriano presents when he takes the mound for the Pirates tonight. Liriano will become just the 25th different left-handed starting pitcher to face the Braves this year. STATS, LLC. says this is the lowest total for any club in the Majors this year.
This fact jives with what Jason Heyward said on Monday when he was asked about his struggles against left-handed pitchers this year. He has batted .157 with a .228 on-base percentage against LHPs and .306 with a .391 OBP against RHPs.
“It’s just nice to face (left-handed starters) again,” Heyward said. “I feel there has been some inconsistency in regard to when we face them. It’s tough to face shut-down lefties out of the pen regardless. But when you have to face them without getting any at-bats off of starters, it makes it that much tougher.
Liriano, who has produced a 1.89 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break, is the second left-hander the Braves have faced within the past three days. A two-run homer by Justin Upton helped them beat southpaw Jon Lester and the A’s on Sunday night.
Speaking of the younger Upton, Elias says he is batting .388 (19-for-49) against pitchers who were selected for this year’s All-Star Game. Matt Adams (.476) and Jose Altuve (.441) are the only players who have compiled a better batting average with at least 40 plate appearances against this group.
After suffering a 4-1, 11-inning loss that concluded at 2:29 a.m. ET on Sunday, many of the Braves players indicated they were shocked that their front office had decided to wait through a three-hour, 51-minute rain delay before throwing Saturday night’s first pitch. One reason for the long wait might have been the fact that more rain is in the forecast for Sunday night’s series finale.
Adding to the misery of this marathon event was the fact that the Braves lost for the ninth time in their past 10 games and lost the momentum they had gained with a win in Friday’s series opener against the first-place Nationals, who sit 4 1/2 games in front of the Braves.
“We got some momentum going last night,” B.J. Upton said. “For us to sit around for virtually four hours when it’s been raining all day and kind of force the issue, it kind of blows my mind, especially when we could have gotten an extra day to build on things. I don’t think we saw that coming, for us to start a game at close to 11 o’clock and then get out of here at 3 o’clock. I’ve never seen it. I haven’t been around the longest, but that’s definitely a first for me.”
According to Stats Inc. the 10:51 p.m. ET start time for Saturday’s game was the latest for any Major League game since the Braves also opted to wait until 10:53 p.m. ET to begin a June 17, 2013 game against the Mets.
“From a player’s aspect, it was kind of shocking a little bit,” Freddie Freeman said of the late start. “It’s definitely tough to get hot and then sit down for four hours and try to get re-hot again, but it’s our job and we still went out there and gave it our all.”
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez did not think the late start had an impact.
“I didn’t think anything about the particular starting time,” Gonzalez said. “You’ve got to be ready in the Major Leagues to play. And sure, we wanted to start at 7 or 7:05, but it’s Mother Nature and you can’t judge what’s going on.”
Now that the Braves have experienced a week that managed to be even worse than the one that bridged April and May, they will spend the next 10 games hosting three first-place clubs — the Nationals, Dodgers and A’s.
There are two ways to look at this. If the Braves extend the struggles encountered during their eight-game losing streak, by this time next week you can essentially bid adieu to legit postseason hopes and that lingering frustration you have felt while following this year’s maddening team. Or if they turn things around, you will feel much better about having spent the past 4 1/2 months watching this club’s interesting journey.
Here are nine things to ponder entering this weekend’s series against the Nationals:
1. The Braves will get a better understanding about Andrelton Simmons’ left ankle later today. If it’s determined he will be sidelined for more than a few days and possibly placed on the disabled list, there’s a strong possibility Jose Peraza will get a chance to make the jump from Double-A Mississippi to the Majors. Peraza has played just 41 games above the Class A level, but the 20-year-old infielder has batted .335 with a .361 on-base percentage and 25 stolen bases (32 attempts) since getting promoted to Double-A Mississippi.
2. Braves starting pitchers have completed at least six innings and allowed two earned runs or less five times during the current eight-game skid. In other words, most of the blame still points in the direction of an offense that now counts the Padres and Cardinals as the only two Major League clubs that have scored fewer runs. If Peraza gets the call, he obviously fits the leadoff spot perfectly. If not, this lineup could benefit from a decision to platoon Jason Heyward and Emilio Bonifacio in the leadoff spot. Heyward’s .225 on-base percentage vs lefties is a concern. But when clubs go with a southpaw starter, Fredi Gonzalez can go with Bonifacio, who has compiled a .442 OBP vs. lefties.
3. As the Braves have won 20 of 29 against the Nationals dating back to last year, there has been reason to wonder if some of their success has led to a mental edge. But some of that edge might have evaporated when the Nats claimed victories in the final two games of a four-game set in Washington D.C. in June.
4. The Braves will not have to deal with Nats ace Doug Fister this weekend. It also appears they will miss Clayton Kershaw during the four-game series against the Dodgers. But during the three-game set against the A’s, they are lined up to face Jason Hammel, Sonny Gray and Jon Lester.
5. Ervin Santana looked like a $14.1 million bust as he produced a 6.44 ERA in the six starts he made from May 16-June 12. But as he has posted a 2.95 ERA in the nine starts that have followed, he has proven capable of his assignment to solidify a fractured rotation that has lost three members to season-ending elbow surgeries dating back to March.
6. Stephen Strasburg enters tonight’s start having gone 0-2 with a 3.90 ERA in the seven starts he has made against the Braves dating back to last year. Strasburg has lasted fewer than five innings in three of his past five starts against Atlanta.
7. If another reason is needed to put Heyward back in the leadoff spot, he has batted .423 (11-for-26) with a 1.098 OPS in his career against Strasburg. Freddie Freeman has hit .450 (9-for-20) with a 1.319 OPS against the former top overall selection.
8. One year after not losing more than four straight, the Braves have now lost at least seven straight games twice this season. After their seven-game losing streak (April 28-May 5), they won 11 of their next 18 games.
9. There has been something missing from this club as this season has progressed. It can be said the lack of spirit felt inside the clubhouse is simply a product of the fact that this has been a sub .500 club for the past 90 games (41-48). Or some might say we were just spoiled to have the vibrant and humorous likes of David Ross, Tim Hudson, Peter Moylan and Brian McCann for so long. But you have to wonder if the spirit of these aforementioned players might have at least been preserved better had Kris Medlen not been forced to assume a bystander role this year.
As this week has progressed, I’ve found myself realizing that I have overlooked Medlen’s absence far too often while attempting to dissect this club’s problems this year. But instead of dwelling on what they do not have, the Braves simply have to hope that what they already have is enough to bounce back and prove they are a legit playoff contender.
After handling our respective duties during an Aug. 4, 2008 game in San Francisco, a group of us went to Lefty O’Doul’s to have a drink and tell just a few more stories about the friend we had lost 24 hours earlier. As we prepared to exit the establishment, Pete Van Wieren left a shot of Dewar’s sitting on the bar. He tapped his finger near the shot glass, stood and walked away with the wish that he might have had the chance to share just one more drink with Skip Caray.
Almost exactly six years after sadly saying goodbye to Skip, the baseball community finds itself mourning the passing of Van Wieren. The fact that he had missed last week’s Hall of Fame celebration in Cooperstown provided a clue. But it was not until Saturday morning that most of us realized how dire his battle with cancer had become.
When Van Wieren came to Turner Field to emcee the Hank Aaron 715th home run anniversary celebration, staged before this year’s home opener, he was thrilled his doctors had informed him that he was as healthy as he had been since he was diagnosed with with cutaneous B-cell lymphoma on Nov. 4, 2009 — 13 months after he had retired from his 33-year stint as a Braves broadcaster.
Knowing he had experienced other encouraging updates over the previous couple years, I asked Pete how optimistic I should be with the tone of what I would write. He said, “I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m feeling great.”
The cancer returned a short time later and progressively worsened. Van Wieren began receiving hospice care a couple days ago and then according to family members died peacefully this morning.
While thrilled that he will no longer suffer, I count myself among the many of you who are saddened by the reality that we will never again have the chance to see Van Wieren take great joy in the chance to be around the game of baseball. But we will always have memories of that distinct voice that was enriched with the wealth of knowledge he gained through countless hours of preparation on a daily basis.
Though we possessed different roles within the same industry, I would say Pete has had a significant influence on my career. While none of us could ever match the dedication and attention to detail that Van Wieren brought on a daily basis, we can always better ourselves just by trying.
Like many of you, I grew up away from Atlanta as the fan of a team that was not the Braves. Still throughout my youth, I recognized Skip, Pete and Ernie Johnson Sr. as three of the most recognizable figures of the Braves organization. They were revolutionary figures courtesy of TBS’ nationwide reach. But somehow Cooperstown’s doors have never been opened for any of these three legends.
From 1976-2008, Van Wieren served as a Braves broadcaster and one of the organization’s greatest ambassadors. Whether in a hotel lobby or at a team-related function, he always graciously interacted with fans. Then of course whether calling a game or emceeing an event, he blessed us with gifts that came via the sound and contents of his voice.
During his final two years as a broadcaster, he called every Spring Training and regular season game, except for one — an absence caused by laryngitis. What a treat it was to have Pete at Spring Training on a daily basis those two seasons (2007-08).
As Pete spent the past few years watching his grandchildren grow and fulfilling his passion for poker, I urged him to return to Spring Training for a week or two. He always said, “We’ll see” and never really indicated whether he was being limited by the cancer.
When I wrote this Thanksgiving story two years ago, Van Wieren provided us hope that he might have beaten the cancer that had rudely interrupted his plans to spend much of his retirement traveling and spending time with his family. He did some of this, but not nearly enough.
Still during his 69 years on this earth, Pete enriched countless lives and left his mark on a Braves organization that will forever be grateful for the opportunity to call him on of their own.
So, if you’re wanting to show your appreciation tonight, I suggest you grab a cold Heineken and raise it high. Or you might just leave one sitting alone on the bar before walking away with the wish that you might have had just one more to share with Pete.