Quick thoughts leading into tonight’s game

The Braves ended a seven-game losing skid at Dodger Stadium with Wednesday night’s victory.  Now they will spend these next four days at AT&T Park, a place where they have won just once in their past six tries.

Tonight’s pitching matchup (Shelby Miller vs. Chris Heston) seems to favor the Braves.  Heston has produced some impressive outings this season, but there might not be anybody currently pitching better than Miller, who has produced a 0.87 ERA and limited opponents to a .144 batting average in four starts this month.

Miller has allowed two earned runs or less in each of this season’s first nine starts and he has produced a Major League-best (minimum 12 starts) 1.74 ERA.  Dodgers right-hander Zack Greinke (1.93) and Astros southpaw Dallas Keuchel (1.99) are the only other pitchers to produce a sub-2.00 ERA during this span.

This marks the first time Miller has pitched in San Francisco since lasting just 3 2/3 innings against the Giants in Game 4 of last year’s National League Championship Series.  He has allowed just two earned runs in the 12 innings he has completed in two career regular season starts (both in 2013) against the Giants.

Speaking of Greinke, the Braves can be happy that they claimed at least one victory during a three-game series against the Dodgers that included matchups against Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.  But they squandered the opportunity to win Monday’s series opener, a game they led until Luis Avilan walked two of the first four batters he faced and surrendered Adrian Gonzalez’ game-tying groundout.

Nick Masset prevented any further damage in the seventh inning, but then surrendered a career-high three homers in the eighth inning.  Masset likely would not have returned to pitch the eighth if the Braves had been working with a full bullpen. As the ugly inning progressed, we knew that closer Jason Grilli wasn’t available because he had pitched each of the previous three days.

But we had to wait another day to know that Ian Thomas wasn’t available to face either of the two lefties that went deep against Masset because he was part of the multi-player trade that the Braves and Dodgers already had in place.  You know, the trade that died until a $100,000 trade stipend proved to be enough for Alberto Callaspo, to quickly alter his claim that he “wanted to stay with the Braves for the rest of the season.”

Some of you have questioned why Gonzalez opted to go with Masset instead of Brandon Cunniff, who has limited opponents to a .044 batting average (2-for-45) this year. While Cunniff has been impressive in this department, he has produced a strike percentage of 56.1 (124 of 221 pitches).  According to Inside Edge, this ranks 159th out of 160 qualified MLB relievers.

This seems to be a case where a rookie pitcher has to earn the trust of his manager before being consistently placed in high-leverage situations.  But while Cunniff has routinely walked a fine line, he also has limited opponents to a .182 on-base percentage in the five appearances he has made since being recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett earlier this month.

So given the other options in the bullpen, maybe it’s time for the Braves to get a better feel for what they truly have in Cunniff.

Veteran setup man Jim Johnson has certainly been Atlanta’s most valuable reliever this year.  Johnson created some concern when he allowed runs in four consecutive appearances (April 17-24).  But in the 14 appearances (13.2 innings) that have followed, he has allowed one run, surrendered eight hits, notched 13 strikeouts and issued just one walk.

Meanwhile Jason Grilli has allowed at least one run in five of his past 10 appearances and allowed opponents to produce a .431 on-base percentage during that same span.  Grilli has blown just one of his 14 save opportunities this season.  But if his struggles continue, the Braves have to start seriously thinking about having him switch roles with Johnson.

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