It was hard to understand the correlation Fredi Gonzalez attempted to make between last weekend’s series against the Angels and last July’s three-game set against the Cardinals at Turner Field. As the Braves swept St. Louis in that series, you could see that they were ready to break free from the mediocrity they had produced over the previous couple weeks. This proved true as those three games marked the start of a 14-game winning streak.
Last weekend’s series against the Angels did not provide anywhere near as much optimism. And if it did, that optimism died somewhere in the midst of next three miserable games played against the Phillies.
But if the Braves spend these next two days doing what they did during their first two days in D.C., then there is a chance this four-game set against the Nationals will deservedly draw comparisons to that Cardinals series, which began two days after Tim Hudson suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
Here are a few thoughts on what has transpired as the Braves have won the first two games of this weekend’s four-game set. They have now won seven of eight during this year’s season series and 20 of the 27 games played against the Nationals dating back to last year.
1) Strong bullpens are stumbled upon, not created: The spectacular bullpen the Braves had in 2002 featured two veterans — Darren Holmes and Chris Hammond — who had come to Spring Training as non-roster invitees. When last year’s pen produced a franchise-best ERA, the top two projected setup men — Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters — had their arms in slings. Now this year’s oft-maddening relief corps might finally be taking shape.
Jordan Walden has allowed just one hit while holding opponents scoreless in his past four appearances. Shae Simmons has continued to show he can be a reliable seventh or eighth inning piece. And now Juan Jaime has arrived with the potential to reduce the workload incurred by Simmons and Walden. Jaime showed off his high-octane fastball and a knee-buckling low-70s curveball as he worked a scoreless 11th inning in his Major League debut last night.
The knock against the 26-year-old Jaime is that he can’t consistently throw strikes. Well, in order to stay with Atlanta, he’ll obviously have to prove he is capable. But he at least provided some indication as he walked just five of the 47 batters he faced for Triple-A Gwinnnett from May 13-Tuesday.
Of course to really have a strong bullpen, the Braves will need to see the recent trend change for Craig Kimbrel, who has blown two of his past seven save opportunities and allowed at least one run in three of his past eight appearances. But given the dominant outings he has sprinkled in between, I don’t think the veteran closer currently ranks too high on the club’s concern list.
2) Freeman is back: There was certainly reason to be concerned with Freddie Freeman as he entered last Saturday’s game against the Angels having hit. 188 with a .665 OPS in his previous 23 games. But the 24-year-old first baseman enters tonight’s game having collected eight extra-base hits in his past 31 at-bats. Somehow against the Marlins, he’s managed to go 2-for-36 this season. But against the Nationals, he has bated .515 (17-for-33) with three homers and a 1.503 OPS.
3) Gattis remains hot: Before delivering the decisive single in Friday night’s 13-inning win, Evan Gattis extended MLB’s longest current hitting streak to 19 games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the hitting streak is the longest by a player who was the starting catcher for every game of the streak since Jason Kendall put together a 20-game stretch for the 2004 Pirates.
On the way to recording their timeliest win of season, the Braves watched Gavin Floyd dominate and then make an abrupt exit because of what proved to be a fractured right elbow. It seems nothing has come easy for the Atlanta bunch this season. Well, unless you account for those days they’ve had a chance to play the Nationals.
With Thursday night’s series opening win, the Braves improved to 19-7 against the Nationals dating back to the start of the 2013 season. Accounting for the fact that they notched two of their seven wins with a doubleheader sweep in September, the Nationals have proven victorious during just six of the 25 days they have been pitted against the Braves during this span. That’s nearly a month’s worth of futility.
Now, the Nationals will spend the next two nights challenged by Atlanta’s two most talented starting pitchers — Mike Minor and Julio Teheran. With the always erratic Ervin Santana set to start Sunday, the Braves have to hope to win at least one of these next two nights, when the Nationals are set to start Stephen Strasburg and then Doug Fister.
Minor has allowed a career-high 11 hits in his past two starts and three times in nine starts this season. Now that he has spent the past 10 days falling victim to Coors Field and a potent Angels lineup that only mustered three runs against him, the quietly confident southpaw is looking forward to another chance to emerge victorious in an underdog role.
Minor has never thought that he should have taken ahead of Strasburg (the top overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft). But when he opposes him tonight, he will attempt to thrive off the motivation created by the fact that he was taken six picks after Strasburg.
Of course the last time we got excited about a Minor-Strasburg matchup, neither got through two innings. Minor walked four and surrendered four hits, while notching just five outs during that wacky Aug. 17 evening. Strasburg surrendered a leadoff home run to Jason Heyward and then hit Justin Upton in the first inning, likely in retaliation to Bryce Harper getting hit twice the night before and three times by the Braves during the month of August. Strasburg was ejected after he threw three consecutive pitches behind Andrelton Simmons in the second inning.
This event simply added to the many oddities Strasburg has experienced in the process of lasting fewer than five innings in five of his 13 career starts against the Braves. He has exited before the end of the fifth in just nine of his other 77 career starts.
With Floyd now on the disabled list, the Braves have recalled left-handed reliever Ryan Buchter to provide bullpen depth for the next few days. The Braves will now have to decide whether to bring Alex Wood up to start a game during next week’s series in Houston or wait until he would be needed to account for the June 28 doubleheader in Philadelphia. Either way you cut it, it looks like they might have to promote one of Gwinnett’s starting pitchers (Gus Schlosser is on the 40-man) to serve as the 26th roster member for that doubleheader.
FREDDIE FREEMAN It looks like Freddie Freeman has regained his productive form. Freeman enters Friday night’s contest with six doubles and a triple in his past 25 at-bats. Freeman entered Saturday with just two extra-base hits (both home runs) in the 48 at-bats he had compiled this month.
Braves fans likely would not have been concerned had they entered this season with the guarantee that their team would be in its current position — 1 1/2 games out of first place entering this week’s series against the Nationals.
That is unless this guarantee came with the revelation that Washington would could currently sit atop the National League East standings despite the fact that Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez would have all missed at least one month’s worth of action because of injuries.
While the Nationals have persevered through these injuries and won 12 of their past 18 games, the Braves limp into D.C. knowing they squandered a prime opportunity to to distances themselves while their division rivals were down.
When the Braves won 17 of their first 24 games, they held a season-best 3 1/2-game lead in the NL East and owned Major League Baseball’s second-best winning percentage . In the process of shaking hands at the conclusion of just 19 of the 48 games that have followed, they have compiled a winning percentage (.404) that has been better than just the Rays (.354), Mets (.383) and Padres (.391) dating back to April 28.
The Braves have generated a couple glimmers of hope — a three-game sweep in Miami and a 5-2 homestand against Milwaukee and Colorado. But for the most part they have played rather uninspired ball for the past two months.
As bad as the first half of May was, the Braves still held a three-game division lead when they completed that sweep against the Marlins on June 1. But as they’ve lost 10 of the 15 games that have followed, the Nationals have won 10 of 15.
Thus, here we are D.C. ready to see if the Braves can jump back into first place by extending a dominant stretch during which they have won 18 of 25 against the Nationals dating back to the start of the 2013 season.
But regardless of what transpires over the next four days, the Braves will continue to evaluate the potential adjustments that could be made in attempt to avoid the inconsistencies that have plagued them the past two months.
BETHANCOURT COMING? Since it created a stir earlier this week, let’s revisit those preliminary discussions the Braves have had about promoting Christian Bethancourt, the talented catcher, who has finally provided some indication he might be adequate with the bat at the big league level. This move would improve the Braves defensively behind the plate and weaken them in left field, where Evan Gattis would once again get a chance to roam.
It must also be remembered that B.J. Upton’s struggles at the plate and in the field significantly influenced these discussions. As the dominoes would fall with this potential decision, Jason Heyward would replace B.J. in center field. But it’s still a little too early to say whether any of this will happen.
Yeah, the Braves had reason to be upset when Upton botched a routine fly ball on Friday and then made a costly error on Saturday. But he also made a sensational diving catch on Sunday and more importantly is nearing the halway point of year two of a five-year, $75.25 million contract.
Exactly one month ago, Upton arrived at Turner Field and told hitting coach Greg Walker he had figured out how to control the pre-swing bat waggle.
In the 15 games played from May 19-June 3, Upton his .268 with a .782 OPS and 5.9 plate appearance/strikeout ratio. In his past 13 games, the Braves center fielder has hit .182 with a .546 OPS and 3.3 plate appearance/strikeout ratio. All told, in the 25 games played since telling Walker he was confident he had made the right adjustment, Upton has batted .225 with a .668 OPS. <p>
Upton has obviously been much more productive than he was last year and the .630 OPS he has produced thus far is not necessarily eons away from the .670 OPS he compiled at this same point (67 games) of the 2012 season, during which he proved impressive enough for the Braves to give him a franchise-record deal at the time.
So for now, it seems it would be wise for the Braves to remain patient a little longer with B.J. But it never hurts to at least be looking at potential moves that could be made over the next few weeks.
When Alex Wood was sent to Triple-A Gwinnett to stretch out as a starter, it was always known that he would return to at least start one of the games played during next Saturday’s doubleheader in Philadelphia. But it was also not necessarily a coincidence that he was lined up to be pitching on the same days as Aaron Harang.
As Harang was allowing 13 hits and eight earned runs in just five innings against the Phillies on Wednesday, Wood was limiting Indianapolis to one earned runs over five innings.
Wood will likely make one more start for Gwinnett and then rejoin the Braves rotation. Even before Harang faltered yesterday, it seemed the Braves were still leaning him to be the odd man out when Wood returns. It will now be interesting to see what Harang might warrant on the trade market.
Alex Wood will spend the next couple of weeks preparing to rejoin Atlanta’s starting rotation. How the Braves will create a spot for him remains to be determined. But given a choice it still seems like they would be more willing to trade Aaron Harang than Gavin Floyd.
Wood was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett to make room room for Jordan Walden, who was activated from the disabled list on Tuesday. As Wood makes at least a couple starts for Gwinnett, he will attempt to regain the endurance he has lost since he was moved to the bullpen after a May 4 start against the Giants.
Wood will almost certainly be back at the Major League level by the time the Braves play a June 28 doubleheader in Philadelphia. But he could return sooner if one of the current members of Atlanta’s rotation suffers an injury or gets traded.
Late last week, I suggested it would be more prudent to keep Harang, who salary will not exceed $2 million regardless of what transpires over the next 3 1/2 months, and deal Floyd, who is going to get more expensive over the remainder of this summer.
But the financial element does not seem to be influencing the Braves mindset in any way. Once they went over budget to give Ervin Santana his $14.1 million salary in March, they signaled they are all in this year, regardless of the cost.
Thus when determining whether they would rather trade Harang or Floyd, they will base their decision simply on who they believe will be more effective throughout the remainder of this season.
Floyd will receive a $175,000 bonus for each 15 days he has spent on the roster and $250,000 for each 30 and 60 days on the roster. Given that he has he has currently spent 36 days on the roster, he has already added $600,000 to his $4 million base salary.
The Braves also agreed to give Floyd a $250,000 bonus for each start he makes between his 21st and 28th of the season. At his current pace, the veteran pitcher would make his 21st start during the third week of August. While there are many different variables to be accounted for, this would set him up to gain approximately $1.75 million through these start incentives.
So, there’s a chance Floyd will end up costing somewhere closer to $7 million by the time this season concludes. If he maintains something close to the 2.57 ERA he has produced through his first seven starts, this would certainly be a cost the Braves would be willing to pay.
Some might argue that Harang would be an even better bargain if he maintains something close to the 3.33 ERA he has posted through his first 13 starts. But as good as he has been, allowing two earned runs or less in 10 outings, it still feels like we’re still waiting for that clock to strike midnight.
Before going further, the Fielding Independent Pitching, measure what a pitcher’s ERA should be over a given period assuming that the balls in play and timing were league average. Many sabermaticians believe this stat is more effective than ERA to predict future performances.
So if you are among those who buy into this theory, an argument to keep Harang could be supported by the fact he leads the Braves starters with a 2.82 FIP. But it should also be noted that Atlanta’s two best starters also own the rotation’s two worst FIP marks — Julio Teheran (3.63) and Mike Minor (3.75).
Teheran’s FIP is similar to what it was last year (3.68) when he posted a 3.20 ERA. He currently leads the Majors with a 1.89 ERA and the 2.49 ERA he has posted since April 23, 2013 ranks second only to Clayton Kershaw among pitchers who have made at least 35 starts during this span. Minor’s FIP is a little higher than it was last year (3.39) when he produced a 3.21 ERA.
So, before making too much of the FIP stat, remember we’re dealing with a relatively short sample size. Like you would never allow this stat to make you believe Harang is better than Teheran or Minor, it’s probably wise to also do the same in relation to Floyd.
If we take away Harang’s early excellence (0.82 ERA through his first five starts) and his clunker in Miami (9 ER in 4 2/3 innings), he has posted a 3.64 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .288 with a .348 on-base percentage in the seven starts that have followed.
On the way to posting his 2.57 ERA through seven starts, Floyd has allowed opponents to hit .279 with a .333 on-base percentage.
Like most other pitchers during the early stages of a return from Tommy John surgery, Floyd might experience an occasional rough outing like he did against the Mariners last week. But the assumption is that he will get stronger and more consistent as he distances himself from this surgical procedure.
It might not be wise to make any assumptions about Harang, who has taken great joy in his ability to prove most of us wrong over the past couple of months. There is no doubt a pitching-hungry club would be willing to take a chance on him at what now stands as a bargain price.
This will not be an easy decision for the Braves to make as they attempt to create a rotation spot for Wood. But as things currently stand, it seems they are more willing to figuratively and literally place their money on Floyd.
Had the Braves not blown a four-run first-inning on Tuesday night and allowed an opponent to record a comeback victory for the fourth time in an eight-game span, there would have been a much different feel at the end of Wednesday afternoon’s loss to the Mariners. Yeah, you don’t want to get shutout and you certainly don’t want to be dominated to the point where the only fly ball or line drive you send out of the infield accounts for the first out in the ninth. But it’s not like Hisashi Iwakuma is chopped liver or the version of Tim Lincecum that teams other than the Braves have seen over the past couple years.
Iwakuma has completed at least seven scoreless innings in three of his first seven starts and the 2.66 ERA he has notched since joining Seattle’s rotation on July 2, 2012 ranks second only to Clayton Kershaw (2.16) among pitchers who have made at least 50 starts in this span. Ranking seventh on this list is Wednesday’s tough-luck loser Mike Minor (2.92).
In tonight’s series opener against the D-backs, the Braves will turn to Julio Teheran, whose 2.49 ERA dating back to April 23, 2013 ranks second only to Kershaw (2.08) among pitchers who have made at least 35 starts during this span. Teheran will be opposed by Brandon McCarthy, who has surrendered at least five runs in six of his past 12 starts, including both of his past two. But as Lincecum has twice proven this year, a 5-plus ERA does not guarantee doom against the Braves offense, which has not taken advantage of….
1. Jason Heyward’s surge: The day before this season began, I posted this entry within which I provided thoughts about each member of the Opening Day roster. While I was dead wrong about the club being in trouble if Aaron Harang needed to make more than 10 starts, I’m sticking with my prediction that Heyward will garner more MVP votes than any of his teammates this year. Heyward has raised his batting average from .194 to .254 and his on-base percentage from .288 to .339 while hitting .302 with a .378 OBP and .806 OPS in his past 32 games. He’s hit .333 with an .867 OPS in his past 16 games.
While these numbers might not be MVP-caliber, Heyward is trending in the right direction and making his presence felt in other ways. He leads all Major Leaguers with 17 Defensive Runs Saved and has a team-high 2.2 FanGraphs WAR (Justin Upton ranks second with 2.0 and Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis are tied for third with a 1.5).
2. Speaking of Freeman: Since hitting .413 with five homers and a 1.239 OPS in his first 17 games, Freeman has batted .240 with a .731 OPS in the 41 games that have followed. He’s struck out 17 times and drawn 12 walks while compiling a respectable .357 on-base percentage in his past 16 games, dating back to May 19. To put that in perspective, B.J. Upton has struck out 12 times and drawn eight walks while compiling a .333 on-base percentage during this same span.
3. When strikeouts go awry: Jordan Walden struck out each of the first three batters he faced while making his first rehab appearance for Triple-A Gwinnett on last night. But he uncorked a wild pitch with the third strike thrown to the last of those three hitters and then ended his 23-pitch appearance by allowing a two-run home run to former Brave Elliot Johnson, who was manning the cleanup duties for Columbus. If Walden gets through his next appearance without any problems, there’s a chance he could be activated for next week’s series at Coors Field.
4. When Walden returns, the Braves will need to open a spot for him in the bullpen. One way or another the transaction could affect Alex Wood, who is no longer benefiting from being in the bullpen. Yes, the club has been able to harness his innings. But in an effort to protect his arm, they’ve put him in a role in which he has warmed up and sat down twice before entering two different outings over the past few weeks (May 14 in San Francisco and Tuesday night). Wood is best suited for a starting role and has the potential to be one of the top assets in Atlanta’s rotation.
Thus the Braves might end up sending Wood to Gwinnett to stretch out by making a start or two. If the current members of the rotation remain healthy, a trade might be necessary to open a spot in Atlanta’s rotation. There have been some discussions about moving Harang. But given that Harang has allowed two earned runs or less in 10 of his 12 starts and posted a team-best 2.46 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), it might be more prudent to find a potential suitor for Gavin Floyd, who is only going to get more expensive via the contractual incentives he has in relation to starts and time spent on the active roster.
5. The trade was still a focus when the Braves went to Arizona last year for the first time since acquiring Justin Upton and Chris Johnson in a seven-player trade that sent Martin Prado to the D-backs. Prado has hit .283 with a .710 OPS this year and Randall Delgado has continued to prove to be a 4-A pitcher (7.24 ERA in 17 appearances, two starts). Zeke Spruill, the other pitcher the Braves included in the deal, has a 5.68 ERA through 14 appearances at the Triple-A level. Arizona might end up getting a solid utility player in Nick Ahmed. The most valuable piece of the package they received for Upton and Johnson might prove to be Brandon Drury, who has hit .269 with 13 homers and an .839 OPS through his first 60 games for Class A Advanced Visalia. But while the D-backs love the passion that drew Troy Tulowitzski to Drury a few years ago, it has to be remembered that he’s already 21-years-old and he has not yet advanced to the Double-A level.
After tossing his latest gem against the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, Tim Hudson had planned to relax and enjoy Monday’s offday in Cincinnati. Instead, he spent most of the day disturbed by a USA Today article that portrayed him as still being bitter about the Braves not making a stronger push to re-sign him this past winter.
“It just kind of made me feel sick most of yesterday, because that is not the way I felt after the whole process played out” Hudson said after finishing breakfast on Tuesday morning.
Hudson grew up a Braves fan and became an integral part of the organization while being part of club’s starting rotation from 2005-13. When he and his Giants teammates came to Atlanta for an early May series, he had a lot of complimentary things to say about the Braves organization and said he is looking forward to the post-retirement days when he will bring his kids to Turner Field for games.
With this in mind, it is easier to understand why Hudson was bothered by the article within which he was quoted as saying, “It was made pretty clear to me the Braves didn’t want me back…After what I had done for them, it was kind of a slap in the face.”
While Hudson said this to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, he was bothered by the fact these quotes alone make it seem like he is bitter toward the Braves.
There is no doubt Hudson felt the Braves slapped him in the face when they provided an initial one-year, $2 million offer shortly after the World Series concluded. But over the next couple of weeks before he signed a two-year, $23 million contract with the Giants, the veteran pitcher repeatedly made a point to credit Braves general manager Frank Wren for the increased interest he was showing via enhanced financial offers.
“After the initial offer and all of that, it ended up not being a slap in the face,” Hudson said. “But initially, it looked like we were not going to go anywhere.”
Quite honestly, it felt like any hope of Hudson returning to the Braves died on Nov. 4, when he indicated he would not even counter the initial offer. But over the next two weeks, Wren spoke with Hudson multiple times and even met at Hudson’s house just a couple days before the Giants deal was complete.
“The Braves made a push, but we were just too far down the line with the Giants,” Hudson said.
With the 38-year-old Hudson coming off a gruesome right ankle fracture that prevented him from even throwing off a mound until the latter part of November, the Braves were understandably not comfortable with making the kind of commitment the Giants made. In fact, Hudson entered the free-agent market without any inclination that he would end up getting the kind of offer that he did.
“I still keep up with the Braves like I have my whole life,” Hudson said. “I still have a lot of great friends in that clubhouse. I can’t say I don’t still pull for them, because I do, except for when we’re playing them.”
The Braves announced right-handed reliever Shae Simmons has been promoted from Double-A Mississippi to get his first crack at the Major League level. He is expected to be in Atlanta’s bullpen for Saturday afternoon’s game against the Marlins.
Left-handed reliever Ian Thomas was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett to make room on the 25-man roster for Simmmons. The Braves will have to make another move to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for their newest reliever.
Simmons has posted a 0.78 ERA and recorded 30 strikeouts while issuing just six walks in 23 innings for Double-A Mississippi this year. The hard-throwing right-handed reliever has limited opponents to a .183 batting average. Right-handed hitters have hit just .163 (8-for-49) against him.
While Simmons is likely targeted to stay in Atlanta for the remainder of this season, the need to call him up to the Majors has been hastened by the bullpen struggles experienced this week. A few of the late-inning collapses have highlighted how much the relief corps misses right-handed setup man Jordan Walden, who has been sidelined since May 4 with a strained left hamstring.
The Braves have been encouraged with the progress right-handed reliever Jordan Walden has made while throwing off a mound at the club’s Spring Training facility this week. But Walden is not expected to return for at least another week and it remains to be seen how stable his leg proves to be when subjected to his violent delivery on a regular basis.
Simmons’ made a quick Cinderella rise to the Majors. The Braves selected him out of Southeast Missouri State in the 22nd round of the 2012 First Year Player Draft.
The Braves have made the much-anticipated decision to promote Tommy La Stella to the Major League level. A corresponding move has not been revealed. But a source with knowledge of this development confirmed Dan Uggla will remain with the team.
La Stella is expected to be in Boston for Wednesday night’s game against the Red Sox. The 25-year-old second baseman has hit .293 with a .384 on-base percentage in 47 games with Triple-A Gwinnett this year. He is expected to provide the contact presence the Braves have lacked in their lineup.
With La Stella now available to handle the second base duties on an everyday basis, the Braves might decide to send Tyler Pastornicky to Gwinnett.
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.
The Braves have placed right-handed Jordan Walden on the disabled list and recalled left-handed reliever Ian Thomas from Triple-A Gwinnett.
Walden has been one of Atlanta’s most valuable bullpen pieces this year. The veteran setup man has not pitched since allowing a two-run home run to Brandon Crawford during Sunday’s loss to the Giants. Those two runs stand as the only he has allowed over his past 10 1/3 innings.
With this move made retroactive to Monday, Walden will be eligible to come off the disabled list on May 20. David Carpenter and Luis Avilan will primarily handle the setup duties in Walden’s absence.
Thomas posted a 4.26 ERA in the 10 appearances he made for Atlanta before being optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett on Sunday. The 26-year-old southpaw tossed three scoreless innings when he started Tuesday’s game for Gwinnett.