There was not much fanfare when the Braves claimed Eric O’Flaherty off waivers before the start of the 2009 season. Nor was there much reason to be excited about Jonny Venters’ potential before he dazzled during the 2010 Grapefruit League season.
Long before they became two of the game’s most reliable setup men, O’Flaherty and Venters were like so many other relievers (not named Craig Kimbrel) who have had to earn their right to be “high leverage” guys at the back end of a bullpen.
Now that it appears O’Flaherty and Venters will both spend the next year experiencing the long recovery from Tommy John surgery, the stage is set for Luis Avilan to prove he too is capable of rising from relative obscurity to the ranks of a top setup man.
When Avilan arrived in Philadelphia before the start of a series against the Phillies just before last year’s All-Star break, he was essentially viewed as nothing more than a body that would fill the bullpen vacancy created when Venters was placed on the disabled list with what was termed a left elbow impingement.
When Avilan made his Major League debut during a July 14 win over the Mets, he stranded two runners in the sixth with a strikeout of Ike Davis. While I don’t exactly remember the moment, my assumption is that the resulting thought was, “maybe this kid can at least prove to be a decent left-handed specialist.” When he allowed a run in each of the next three appearances that followed, we certainly the potential that has been displayed in the the months that have followed.
In the 43 1/3 innings Avilan has completed dating back to Aug. 1, he has compiled a 1.66 ERA and limited opponents to a .178 batting average and .248 on-base percentage. Three of the eight earned runs he has allowed during this span were tallied in the in a three-week span that began when he exited an April 16 game against the Royals with what initially looked like a bad hamstring injury.
Initially, Avilan did not look completely comfortable after missing just a week with that injury. But in his past 6 2/3 innings, he has surrendered just two hits and held opponents scoreless.
There is certainly reason to believe the Braves might eventually attempt to restock their injury-depleted bullpen by making a trade. But with Avilan, the much-improved Cory Gearrin and Jordan Walden, who should return from the disabled list next week, they already have some candidates to compensate for the loss of O’Flaherty.
It will be interesting to see how the Braves utilize their bullpen if they are working with a tight lead during the late innings of tonight’s series opener against the Twins. Closer Craig Kimbrel will almost certainly not be available after notching a save in each of this weekend’s three wins over the Dodgers.
The left-handed Avilan and right-handed Gearrin will both be available. Manager Fredi Gonzalez will likely determine which to use as the closer based on how the Twins’ lineup shapes up entering the eighth inning.
While Avilan is certainly capable of filling in as the closer for one night, I would like to see Gearrin get a shot to simply bring a huge smile to the face of former Braves closer Gene Garber, who will be watching from his Pennsylvania farm with great pride.
Over the course of the past two years, Gearrin was viewed as just another sidearm reliever who had trouble getting left-handers out.
On his way to compiling a 0.92 ERA through his first 23 appearances this year, Gearrin has limited left-handed hitters to a .087 (2-for-23) batting average. Though the sample size is small, the results come courtesy of the changeup Garber has helped the fellow sidearm reliever develop over the past few years.
When Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez’s phone rang as he was driving home from Friday night’s win over the Dodgers, he knew head athletic trainer Jeff Porter was not calling with good news.
Porter called to inform Gonzalez that left-handed setup man Eric O’Flaherty’s felt some spasms in his left elbow after he had pitched Friday’s eighth inning.
The news got even worse on Saturday when an MRI exam showed a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of O’Flaherty’s left elbow. The Braves reliever will visit Dr. James Andrews within the next few days to learn whether he will need to undergo season-ending Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
“Obviously, you’re hoping it’s just a sprain and a short DL stint, and you get him back fairly quickly,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “But it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case.”
O’Flaherty has surrendered two home runs and allowed three earned runs in the 6 1/3 innings he has completed in May. But before Friday, the Braves were not too concerned about his elbow.
“He’s had some tenderness, but not anything abnormal,” Wren said. “But last night, after he threw and actually after we all left, I got a call leaving last night, I was halfway home, that he came back in after starting to do his post-game workout, that he had some abnormal soreness.”
This discouraging development regarding O’Flaherty came just 48 hours after Andrews performed a second Tommy John surgery on Jonny Venters, who teamed with O’Flaherty to serve as Atlanta’s primary setup men over the past few years.
To make room for Jason Heyward to be activated from the disabled list on Friday, the Braves opted to go to a six-man bullpen by placing right-handed reliever Jordan Walden on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.
Wren said the current expectations are that Walden will be available when he is eligible to come off the disabled list on May 27. The Braves also could soon activate veteran right-handed reliever Luis Ayala, who has been sidelined for nearly a month because of an anxiety disorder.
While the Braves are excited about what Alex Wood has done with Double-A Mississippi this season, they do not plan to promote him to serve in Atlanta’s bullpen any time soon. The left-hander, who was pitching at the University of Georgia at this time last year, will continue to serve as a starter with Mississippi.
“I don’t think we need to disrupt the development of players at this point,” Wren said. “We’ve got to let them continue to develop and grow. He’s doing really well, but we’re not at the point where we think that would be advantageous to him or us.”
The Braves activated Jason Heyward from the disabled list and placed him in the starting lineup for Friday night’s game against the Dodgers at Turner Field.
To create a roster space for Heyward, the Braves placed right-handed reliever Jordan Walden on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.
Heyward has been sidelined since undergoing an emergency appendectomy on April 22 in Denver. The 23-year-old right fielder spent the past week playing for Triple-A Gwinnett on a Minor League rehab assignment.
After remaining relatively sedentary for the first week after the surgery, Heyward steadily regained his strength and started working himself into baseball shape. He hit .300 (6-for20) in the six games he played for Gwinnett.
Heyward batted .121 with two home runs and a .519 OPS in the 17 games he played for Atlanta before being placed on the disabled list.
As we count down the hours before Jason Heyward returns to the Braves lineup for tonight’s series opener against the Dodgers, can somebody please kindly remind me how to get from Sandy Springs to Turner Field?
The Braves have played just six home games since Heyward was placed on the disabled list after undergoing an appendectomy on April 22. Forgive the players if they felt like they were in foreign territory as they mulled around their Atlanta-area homes during Thursday’s offday. They had spent 28 of the previous 38 days on the road.
With a quarter (40 of 162 games) of this season complete, the Braves have already complete a third of the road portion (26 of 81) of their schedule. Despite losing 13 of the last 19 games they have played outside of Atlanta, they stand as just one of five National League teams to have a .500 record or better on the road this year. The Cardinals, Pirates and D-backs are the only NL teams who have won more than half of their road games.
After the Braves completed their most recent 10-game trip with consecutive losses to the D-backs, manager Fredi Gonzalez said it did not feel like his club had lost two of three in Arizona.
The Braves matched a season-high total for runs in Monday night’s 10-1 win over the D-backs and then did not take advantage of Patrick Corbin’s five walks or Arizona’s leaky bullpen in Tuesday’s shutout loss. During Wednesday’s defeat, Atlanta stranded a season-high 12 runners, chased Ian Kennedy after five innings and allowed Heath Bell to convert his second save opportunity in less than 24 hours.
After being lifeless during the final three games of last weekend’s series in San Francisco, the Braves offense did show some signs of life in two of the three games played in Arizona. Now with Heyward’s return, we might actually start to see why there was so much optimism surrounding this lineup entering this year.
Tonight’s series opener against the Dodgers will serve as the first game in which the Braves’ lineup has been at full strength. Brian McCann will be playing his first home game of the year and Heyward will be playing his first game since April 20, which was three days before Freddie Freeman was activated from the disabled list.
Freeman and Heyward were in the same lineup for just five games before Freeman strained an oblique muscle and missed two weeks.
Heyward hit just .121 with two home runs and a .519 OPS in the 17 games he played before going on the disabled list. But his mere presence makes this lineup much more formidable.
Still this might not be the most best night for the Braves to add another left-handed bat to their lineup. The Dodgers are scheduled to start Hyun-jin Ryu, who has limited left-handed hitters to a .189 batting average and .268 on-base percentage. Right-handed hitters have compiled a .260 batting average and .307 on-base percentage against the South Korean southpaw.
The Dodgers’ NL leading .303 batting average against left-handed pitchers could also be put to the test tonight against Paul Maholm, who leads all NL pitchers with the .118 batting average he has allowed against left-handed hitters.
If Maholm can extend this successful trend, he could neutralize the left-handed trio of Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford. But he’ll still obviously have to deal with the always-dangerous Matt Kemp, who has just .203 (15-for-74) with three home runs in the 21 games he has played against the Braves dating back to the start of the 2010 season.
As Martin Prado remained in a state of shock in the hours after learning he was the centerpiece of the package the Braves used to land Justin Upton and Chris Johnson from the D-backs, his spirit was brightened with a phone call he received from Chipper Jones.
“He called me and said I’ve got a lot of respect for you,” Prado said. “That means a lot to me.”
A few weeks later Jones sent Prado a text to inform him his former teammate that the D-backs would be in Atlanta when the Braves retire Jones’ No. 10 jersey on June 28.
“I was like that’s awesome,” Prado said. “So I’ll be able to sit up on the stage with you? He said, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ll be able to sit right beside me.’”
Obviously this was a playful exchange between a pair of former teammates. But it provides further indication of how much Prado was loved in Atlanta. He admits he was bewildered for more than a month after the trade. But showing that same unselfish approach that he has taken to the field on a daily basis, he provided this great response when asked about the trade.
“The thing that makes me feel real good is that you know that you got traded and the [Braves] now look better,” Prado said. “I’m happy because all of my ex-teammates can see that they gave up something, but actually got a better team. That’s what [Braves general manager Frank Wren] was looking for. He made a good move.”
While Wren took great delight in watching Upton and Johnson both hit two-run home runs and finish a triple shy of the cycle in Monday night’s 10-1 win over the D-backs, I’m thinking Arizona general manager Kevin Towers was wishing he and his scouts had never had any conversations with Wren and his scouts back in January.
Upton once again took the high road when given a chance to express the frustrations that built as Towers repeatedly attempted to trade him over the past few years. But when he hit this monstrous home run off Wade Miley immediately after his brother was hit in the left shoulder with a pitch in Monday’s sixth inning, I had visions of him channeling Adam Sandler’s character from The Waterboy.
After I addressed the situational strikeout problem in yesterday’s blog entry, the Braves went out and struck out just six times last night while compiling a season-high 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Now we’ll take on the much greater challenge of attempting to use the written word to remove the hex that has been placed on the second spot of Atlanta’s lineup.
The two hole in the Braves lineup has produced a .148 batting average, .246 on-base percentage and .242 slugging percentage. Despite missing the past three weeks, Jason Heyward has accounted for more than half of the at-bats compiled in this spot. Andrelton Simmons, B.J. Upton, Johnson, Tyler Pastornicky, Ramiro Pena and Dan Uggla have all recorded at least five at-bats in this spot.
Simmons has batted .310 while hitting second, making him the only member of this group to hit over .200 in this role.
When I casually asked Uggla how he was doing on Sunday, he said something like, “I’m great as long as I’m not in that two hole.”
This is the expected response from a guy who has gone 0-for-11 with 10 strikeouts while batting second.
When I passed this message along to manager Fredi Gonzalez yesterday, he laughed and said there is no way he will ever bat Uggla second again this year.
“If he bats second again, I’m betting on the game,” Gonzalez said. “If you see it, there better be an investigation.”
While winning 13 of their first 15 games this season, the Braves batted .257 with a .332 on-base percentage and .473 slugging percentage. They homered once every 17.4 at-bats and struck out once every 3.94 at-bats.
As they have lost 14 of the 22 games that have followed, they have batted .228 with a .307 on-base percentage and .372 slugging percentage. They have homered once every 36.2 at-bats and struck out once every 3.34 at-bats.
With nearly one-quarter of this season complete, the Braves are on pace to strike out 1,510 times this year. This would shatter the franchise record set last yer (1,289 ) and leave them 19 away from the Major League record (1,529) set by the 2010 D-backs.
The Braves players are getting fed up with the strikeout questions to the point that Brian McCann expressed his frustration on Thursday night with a response to a question that did not even include any mention of strikeouts.
“I just know we’re in first place and everybody wants to talk about strikeouts,” McCann said. “The whole strikeout thing is overrated for me.”
McCann and many of his teammates are not the only ones who have subscribed to the theory that a strikeout is just another out. But it’s not just the quantity of strikeouts that have hurt this club. Their inability to put the ball in play in key situations has denied them the opportunity to occasionally benefit from the “luck” the Giants found with a series of soft hits in Friday night’s fourth inning against Tim Hudson.
The Braves have struck out once every 3.96 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. The only Major League teams with a worse percentage are the White Sox (3.84) and Astros (3.77), a pair of teams that rank in the bottom third of Major League teams in runs per game.
Without no runners on base, the Braves have struck out once every 3.79 plate appearance. With a runner on any base, they have struck out once every 4.47 plate appearances.
While this shows they do at least put the ball in play slightly more consistently with runners on base, this 4.47 mark is also better than only the White Sox (4.20) and Angels (4.11).
Entering Monday’s series opener against the D-backs, the Braves have struck out at least 10 times in 16 of their first 37 games. That equates to 43 percent. On the way to setting the franchise record for strikeouts, last year’s club recorded double-digit strikeout totals in 22 percent (37 of 162) of their games.
LOOKING BACK ON THREE UGLY DAYS
Before the Braves entered Friday night’s game against the Giants, it appeared their offense was starting to click and their starting rotation was dependable enough to provide the option of going to a six-man bullpen when Jason Heyward is ready to return from the disabled list.
Oh how quickly mindsets can change within a three-day span , especially one that proved to be as ugly as the one experienced this past weekend in San Francisco.
During the final three games of the disastrous series in the Bay Area, each of the Braves starting pitchers allowed at least five earned runs and Kris Medlen was the only one who proved fortunate enough to complete at least five innings. Meanwhile, none of the Giants starters surrendered more than four hits and each lasted at least seven innings.
Thoughts of going to a six-man pen were strengthened by the fact that the Braves entered Friday having seen their starting pitchers compile 63 innings and their relievers total 18 2/3 innings in their previous nine games.
Obviously, this is a small sample size that does not even account for two full turns through the rotation. But the same could be said about these past three games, when proof of David Carpenter’s existence materialized and the bullpen accounted for 10 2/3 innings of the 24 innings pitched.
Even with the disappointing results compiled by Hudson, Medlen and Paul Maholm, these past three games, the Braves still have compiled the fifth-fewest relief innings (103 1/3) in the National League.
So based on this larger sample size, there is still a chance the Braves would opt to go to a six-man bullpen when Heyward returns. Given the fact that Heyward has only served as a designated hitter through his first three Minor League rehab games with Triple-A Gwinnett, it would not be surprising if he does not return before the start of this upcoming weekend’s series against the Dodgers in Atlanta.
As Brian McCann was highlighting a three-hit performance with his first home run since coming off the disabled list and Craig Kimbrel was notching his 100th career save in Thursday night’s 6-3 win over the Giants, I stumbled across a few interesting trends, stats and tidbits.
McCann’s second-inning home run off Ryan Vogelsong came in his ninth at-bat this year. Most players would certainly like to tally their first home run within their first 10 at-bats. But for the Braves catcher, this was actually the third longest homerless span to begin a season in his career. He went 38 at-bats without a home run in 2011 and 10 at-bats without one in 2012.
Here is a breakdown of the homerless at-bats McCann tallied before hitting his first in each of his nine big league seasons: 5(2005); 4 (2006); 1 (2007); 5 (2008); 0 (2009); 1 (2010); 38 (2011); 10 (2012); 8 (2013).
Yesterday’s blog entry focused on why there was not any reason to panic about Kimbrel’s recent results. This next graph will provide the reminder of just how dominant the 24-year-old Braves closer has been through the early portion of his career. He became the second-youngest closer to reach 100 saves last night.
Among all Major League relievers who have ever totaled at least 175 career appearances, Kimbrel ranks first in ERA (1.60); hits per nine innings (4.95), strikeouts per nine innings (15.66), strikeouts per batter faced (.446), opponent’s on-base percentage (.241) and opponent’s batting average (.157).
“What he has done in his [three years], that’s hard to do,” McCann said last night. “Nobody really does that.”
While we’re on the subject of impressive pitching numbers, let’s take another look at just how good Mike Minor has been since exiting last June with a 6.20 ERA. In the 22 starts that have followed, he has posted a 2.45 ERA and limited opponents to a .196 batting average.
The only Major League pitcher who have compiled a lower ERA while making at least 22 starts in this stretch are Clayton Kershaw (2.11), Justin Verlander (2.29), and Hisashi Iwakuma (2.32). The only pitcher who has allowed a lower batting average is Kershaw (.193).
Like the Braves were patient with Minor last year, they entered this season determined to take the same approach with Julio Teheran. But while allowing two runs or fewer in each of his past three starts and lasting seven innings in two of those outings, the 22-year-old right-hander has provided every indication he is already capable to be a reliable piece in a big league rotation.
The most encouraging development regarding Teheran in Thursday’s win over the Giants was his willingness to throw his changeup much more frequently. He threw 10 changeups, which is six fewer than the combined total from his previous five starts.
Teheran lost command of his changeup when he altered his grip last year. But during Thursday’s outing, he went back to the grip he used back in his early Minor League days, when the changeup was considered one of best weapons.
If Brandon Beachy continues to make progress and avoids any setbacks during his final stages of returning from Tommy John surgery, he could rejoin Atlanta’s rotation in the middle of June. This obviously creates reason to wonder how the Braves will make room for Beachy. But with his return still a month away, it is far too early to know what the state of Atlanta’s rotation will be at that point.
While the rotation decision can wait, the Braves will have to make a decision when Jason Heyward makes his return from the disabled list, possibly as early as Monday. Jordan Schafer has established a firm spot on the roster while hitting .263 with a .417 on-base percentage in his past 13 games.
The Braves also are not likely to part ways with Reed Johnson, who provides a solid contact right-handed bat off the bench and strong veteran leadership in the clubhouse.
There is a chance the Braves could attempt to trade Gerald Laird, who would certainly be coveted by a number of teams looking to improve their catching depth. But Laird has proven to be a good mentor to Evan Gattis and the team might want to keep him through the entirety of his two-year deal to serve as Gattis’ backup next year.
If the Braves do not move Laird, they will likely create a roster spot for Heyward by going to a six-man bullpen. David Carpenter has not been used since he was recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett on April 30 and Cristhian Martinez made just one multi-inning appearance before being placed on the disabled list in early April.
The Braves have compiled the third fewest bullpen innings (92) in the National League this year and really have not had a need for the “seventh pitcher” in their pen. So it certainly would not be surprising to see them go to a six-man pen to make room for Heyward.
While many have become concerned about Craig Kimbrel’s recent results, veteran umpire Angel Hernandez has not seen conclusive evidence that the Braves closer has been struggling.
Based on what we saw in Cleveland last night, maybe Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez should have asked Hernandez to review the David Wright home run that landed 11 rows deep in the right-center field seats with two outs in the ninth inning of Friday’s loss to the Mets.
Enough of the Hernandez talk. The more time I spend around the AJC’s (or is it myAJC’s) Jeff Schultz, the more I become more like him. Given I’d like to keep my hair, we will now turn our attention back to Kimbrel.
Over the course of his past five appearances, Kimbrel has blown as many save opportunities (3) as he did while converting 42 of his 45 opportunities last year. During his past three appearances, within a span of 10 plate appearances, he has allowed as many home runs (3) as he did all of last year.
This has led many around the baseball world to discuss whether Kimbrel will ever regain the dominant form he possessed last year when he compiled a 1.01 ERA. limited opponents to a .126 batting average and struck out more than half of the batters he faced (116 of 231). This year, he has allowed opponents to hit .226 and has struck out 21 of the 52 batters he faced.
Before getting too worked up about the strikeout percentage, realize he struck out 10 of the 26 (41 percent) batters he faced while allowing three hits and no runs in this season’s first nine appearances (8 2/3 innings). In the process of allowing five runs and eight hits in his past five appearances (4 2/3 innings), he has struck out nine of the 23 batters he has faced (39 percent).
While those strikeout percentages are similar, he has actually gotten closer to last year’s form while striking out six of the 13 batters he has faced this month. Unfortunately, he has also allowed three two-out home runs in the process.
Kimbrel made a mistake when he elevated the 97-mph fastball that Wright hit deep into the right-center field seats with two outs in the ninth inning of last Friday’s loss. But we might not be having this discussion if Justin Upton had not got turned around while chasing Dexter Fowler’s two-out fly ball in the ninth inning of the April 24 loss at Coors Field.
Again we saw this is a game of inches or feet on Tuesday, when B.J. Upton simply ran out of room while chasing Devin Mesoraco’s game-tying home run that fell in the first row of Cincinnati’s offensively-friendly ballpark with two outs in Tuesday’s ninth inning.
Each of the three home runs Kimbrel has surrendered this year (all within his past three appearances) have come against his fastball. Mesoraco and Wright hit their shots on two-strike fastballs.
Combining Justin Upton’s misplay with these two home runs, it can be said three pitches is all that separate Kimbrel from being perfect to this point.
Still with all of this being said, Kimbrel has not been the same overpowering, dominant pitcher that he was the past two seasons. But instead of worrying, fans should remember the longevity of a closer’s dominance is often on par with the longevity of a marriage to Elizabeth Taylor.
This is not to say Kimbrel does not have the ability to serve as one of the game’s top closers for many years to come. But there is certainly no guarantee he’ll ever be as dominant as he was during last year’s incredible season.
According to FanGraphs.com, Kimbrel’s average velocity for his fastball has dropped from 96.8 to 96.0 this year. The average velocity of his slider has decreased from 85.7 to 85.0. The slight drop in velocity is not that big of a deal. But it is somewhat telling that he threw his curveball (often interpreted as a slider) 32.6 percent of the time last year and is throwing it just 22.8 percent of the time this year.
After Kimbrel had a couple of rough outings in Spring Training, I asked him about the fact that he was seemingly shying away from his breaking ball. He told me there were many regular season games where he solely used his fastball.
At the time, it seemed to be one of those “I’m just working on things” responses you often get in Spring Training. But so far, the response seems to have been a sign of things to come.
But before getting too caught up on pitch selection, it should be realized that seven of the 20 (35 percent) pitches Kimbrel threw during Tuesday’s loss to the Reds were sliders. Each of the first four sliders he threw were strikes and he struck out the first two batters he faced. He missed with a first-pitch slider to Mesoraco and then threw five straight fastballs, the last of which landed in the first row of the right-center field seats.
Kimbrel then got ahead of Shin-Soo Choo with a first-pitch fastball before missing the strike zone with consecutive sliders. The next pitch, a 96-mph fastball resulted in a walk-off home run and the need to address the “What is Wrong with Kimbrel” questions.
In response to last night’s botched replay review in Cleveland, Major League Baseball’s vice president of baseball operations Joe Torre issued a release that included these words, “
Perfection is an impossible standard in any endeavor.”
Unfortunately for a closer who has been as dominant as Kimbrel as been in the past, anything short of perfection creates cause for concern. But the three costly two-out pitches he has made over the course of the past week certainly should not create cause for panic.
Once again, the mood of a baseball season has been reversed within a span of 24 hours. Most of the frustration that had built around the Braves over the previous nine days, evaporated over the course of the nine innings played during Monday night’s 3-2 win over the Nationals.
After losing seven of their final nine games of the 10-game road trip that concluded late Sunday night in Detroit, the Braves returned to the unfamiliar surroundings of home and won their eighth straight game against the Nationals dating back to last year.
While winning each of the first four games they have played against the Nationals this year, the Braves have batted .265 and averaged 1.25 home runs per game. In the other 21 games they have played this year, they have hit .239 and averaged 1.5 home runs per game.
We are obviously dealing with very small sample sizes here. But the Braves have been more successful at taking advantage of their opportunities against the Nationals than they have against the other teams they have played this year.
The Braves have hit .306 (11-for-36) with runners in scoring position against the Nationals and .203 (38-for-169) with runners in scoring position in their other 21 games.
From a pitching perspective the Braves have posted a 1.70 ERA against the Nationals and a 3.54 ERA against all of their other opponents.
Since scoring four runs in the first two innings of this season series against the Braves, the Nationals have totaled three runs in the 35 innings that have followed.
Tim Hudson will attempt to extend this success when he makes his third bid for his 200th career victory tonight. Hudson’s 15 wins against the Nationals and Mets stand as the highest totals he has recorded against any Major League club.
Hudson went an incredible 10-1 with a 1.55 ERA in his first 17 career starts against the Expos/Nationals. He has 5-4 with a 4.65 ERA in the 10 starts that have followed. But after allowing allowing 16 earned runs in the 18 2/3 innings he completed against the Nationals last year, he limited them to one run in seven innings at Nationals Park on April 13 – his only start against them this year.
During Monday night’s series-opening win, the Braves showed good plate discipline against Stephen Strasburg, who is downplaying the right forearm stiffness that manager Davey Johnson mentioned his pitcher was feeling last night. Regardless of whether Strasburg does make his next start, this revelation has at least created reason to wonder if Strasburg’s career path will mirror the one traveled by Mark Prior.
The Nationals will send Gio Gonzalez to the mound tonight with the hope that he proves more successful than he was when he allowed the Braves seven earned runs in five innings on April 14.
While making his first career start against the Braves last year, Gonzalez allowed one hit and two earned runs over seven innings. But the sometimes erratic Gonzalez has not completed more than five innings in any of the four starts that have followed against Atlanta.
As encouraging as the season’s first 15 games were for the Braves, the past nine have been equally discouraging. But they are far from the first legitimate postseason contender to experience a miserable lengthy road trip.
You know that Tigers team that looked unbeatable while sweeping the Braves this past weekend. Well, they went 4-5 during their previous road trip and totaled four runs while losing each of its final four games. It’s hard to imagine that is even possible when working with a lineup that features Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder as its first four hitters.
But it can be explained quite simply with that aged-old adage, “That’s baseball.”
In this era where we are deluged by statistics and the desire to quantify every aspect of the game, many might find it unacceptable to simply elicit this response that essentially translates to the ho-hum, “It happens.”
But it has happened frequently enough for us to understand every team regardless of stature is bound to experience a bad week. The past two World Series champions (the Giants and Cardinals) both endured a 3-7 stretch that probably created a frustration level similar to the one the Braves felt Sunday night when the returned home with just three wins on the 10-game road trip.
Everything appeared to be right when Evan Gattis hit a game-winning pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning of the road trip’s first game. But the surging Pirates turned the tide the next night when they faced the minimum amount of batters and threw a total of two pitches with a runner on base. That marked just the seventh time since 1921 that the Braves compiled the minimum number of plate appearances (27) in a nine-inning game.
Exactly one Friday later, Detroit starter Anibal Sanchez recorded a franchise-record 17 strikeouts in eight innings and the Braves ended up striking out 18 times while getting shut out for the third time in a span of nine games.
This marked just the fifth time since 1921 that the Braves struck out at least 18 times during a nine-inning game. Remarkably, they had won on the previous two occasions (2011 vs. Cliff Lee and the Phillies; 2006 vs. Jake Peavy and the Padres).
Before starting to get the sense that Friday is the new Monday in comparison to last year’s struggles, remember what the Braves have done during the past two Saturdays.
During last Saturday’s 3-1 loss in Pittsburgh, the Braves scored one run and tallied two hits in six innings against James McDonald, who had allowed the Cardinals eight runs in just 1 2/3 innings five days earlier.
Then during this past Saturday’s 7-4 loss to the Tigers, the Braves scored three runs and tallied five hits in 6 1/3 innings against Rick Porcello, who had allowed the Angels nine earned runs while recording just two outs in his previous start.
But the offense’s most significant failure seemed to come during the series finale in Pittsburgh, when they actually lost a game started by Jonathan Sanchez, who is 0-12 with a 9.13 ERA in his past 18 starts. His team has won just two of these past 18 games he has started dating back to April 14, 2012.
Sure Pirates manager Clint Hurdle proved wise to pull Sanchez after three innings and hand the game to his bullpen, which ranks second in the Majors with a 2.32 ERA. But minus the games played at Coors Field, it did not seem to matter who was on the mound against the Braves over the course of the past nine games.
Over the course of the past nine games, the Braves have batted .217 with seven home runs and 96 strikeouts. Six of those home runs were hit during Tuesday’s doubleheader sweep of the Rockies, which accounted for the only two wins during this span.
Now the Braves will face the challenge presented by the Nationals, who saw their starting pitchers compile a 2.31 ERA during the most recent turn through the rotation.
It would not be comforting for any team to know they will spend the first three days of a four-game series facing Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman, who has quietly established himself as the rotation’s most dependable member.
But the Braves have at least had some success against the first two starters they will face this week. Strasburg is 3-4 with a 3.59 ERA in eight career starts against Atlanta. The Nationals have lost three of the past four games Strasburg has started against the Braves. But it should be noted each of these losses were surrounded by unique events.
Strasburg left his June 30 start last year in Atlanta after three innings because of heat exhaustion. He then helped blow a 9-0 lead in his next outing against the Braves. In his only previous appearance against them this year, he surrendered two unearned runs in six innings of a 3-1 loss.
Gonzalez is 2-3 with a 6.08 ERA in the five starts he has made against the Braves since joining the Nationals. He allowed three earned runs or fewer in three of those outings and then surrendered seven earned runs in just five innings against Atlanta on April 14.
Zimmerman is 2-1 with a 3.81 ERA in his five career starts against the Braves. But both of those wins came before the start of the 2011 season. He is 0-1 with a 4.67 ERA in his past three starts against Atlanta.
So as bad as things have seemed lately for the Braves from an offensive perspective, there is certainly a chance they could break out this week while facing a few familiar faces.
And if they do, the Nationals might walk away saying, “That’s baseball. It happens.”