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.”
When Jason Heyward awoke on Monday feeling some of the same discomfort that had plagued him throughout this past weekend’s series in Pittsburgh, he visited the team’s physician Dr. Joe Chandler in his room at the Braves’ hotel in Denver.
It proved to be a wise decision.
Per Chandler’s instructions, Heyward arrived at a Denver area hospital to undergo successful laparascopic appendectomy surgery before his appendix burst.
Heyward will likely be placed on the disabled list on Tuesday with the expectation that he could return to Atlanta’s lineup in two weeks. The DL move would be made retroactive to Sunday, setting May 5 as his earliest potential activation date.
With backup outfielders Reed Johnson and Jordan Schafer already on the roster, the Braves could fill Heyward’s roster spot with utility infielder Tyler Pastornicky, who has hit .351 with six doubles and a home run through his first 18 games with Triple-A Gwinnett this year.
Pastornicky has never played the outfield at the professional level. But his athleticism would allow him to play one of the three outfield positions in an emergency situation.
If the Braves promote Pastornicky, Schafer and Johnson could see most of the playing time in right field. The Braves also would have the option of moving Justin Upton from left field to right field.
Evan Gattis could play left field if necessary. But it seems doubtful that the Braves would ask the 26-year-old catcher to try to play left field during their current three-game series at cavernous Coors Field.
Heyward has batted .121 with a .519 OPS through the first 17 games he has played with Atlanta this season. He went 1-for-11 with three strikeouts during this past weekend’s series against the Pirates.
There will not be a tremendous amount of fanfare if Tim Hudson is fortunate enough to notch the one more victory he needs to become the 110th pitcher in Major League history to record 200 career victories. But this milestone will at least give us reason to take a closer look at how valuable the 37-year-old right-hander has been throughout his career.
Hudson’s first opportunity to notch his 200th victory will come during Friday night’s game against the Pirates at PNC Park.
“(Winning 200 games) is really nothing I ever thought of.,” Hudson said. ‘The first time it ever really crossed my mind was when I got my 150th win. I thought man I’m just 50 from 200. That’s not really that long if I stay healthy. Those are just things you think about. Anything can happen. But you’ve got to have a little luck go your way and keep your preparation level at a high level and you’ve got to be on some teams that win.”
Hudson’s first career win came on June 13, 1999 against a Dodgers team that was skippered by current Nationals manager Davey Johnson. His 100th victory came against the Cardinals on Aug. 6, 2005 – his first season with the Braves. The 150th career victory was notched against the Astros on May 1, 2010, in what was just his 10th start after returning from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
Based simply on raw memory, I do not remember a lot of the conversations that developed when Hudson blew he elbow out during the middle of the 2008 season. I remember television cameras catching him pointing to his elbow a few minutes before he did not return to pitch the seventh inning of his July 23 (OK, the date was not raw memory) start in Miami. I remember Hudson standing in front of his locker about a week later confirming that he would need TJ surgery.
But I don’t remember ever thinking too much about the potential pitfalls of undergoing TJ surgery at 32 years-old. But that probably had everything to do with the fact we were dealing with Tim Hudson, the man who had made a career out of proving his doubters wrong.
Staying true to form, Hudson has gone 53-27 with a 3.20 ERA in the 105 starts he has made since his right elbow was reconstructed. Justin Verlander (65), CC Sabathia (62), Roy Halladay (56), Gio Gonzalez (55), David Price (54) and Jered Weaver (54) are the only other Major League pitchers with more wins during this span.
Despite missing the first month of the 2012 season while recovering from offseason back surgery, Hudson still entered this year with at least 16 wins in each of the three full seasons he has completed since TJ surgery.
Hudson’s only real rough year with the Braves came in 2006, when he posted a career-high 4.86 ERA. He has compiled a 3.22 ERA in the 161 starts that have followed. Felix Hernandez (3.05), Halladay (3.05), CC Sabathia (3.12) and Adam Wainwright (3.12) are the only other pitchers who have compiled a lower ERA while also notching at least 80 wins in this span.
Halladay has enjoyed some much more dominant seasons on the way to winning multiple Cy Young Awards. But his career numbers look quite similar to those tallied by Hudson.
HALLADAY: 200-102, 3.33 ERA, 380 career starts, .662 winning percentage
HUDSON: 199-104, 3.41 ERA, 408 career stars, .657 winning percentage.
Whatever happens to Hudson over the remainder of his career, he will always be recognized as an incredible competitor who has managed to win almost as consistently as any other Major League pitcher who has notched at least 200 victories.
The only modern 200-game winners with a better career winning percentage than Hudson are Whitey Ford (.690), Pedro Martinez (.687), Lefty Grove (.680), Christy Mathewson (.665), Halladay (.662) and Roger Clemens (.658).
Regardless of what you think about the wins and losses assigned to pitchers, that is pretty impressive company.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson spent time during Spring Training discussing the lineup balance the Braves gained with the offseason additions of two right-handed power threats – B.J. Upton and Justin Upton. He touched on this topic again yesterday, hours before his club improved to 7-2 by completing a three-game sweep of the White Sox.
“I thought the Braves were a little too left-handed,” Johnson told MLB.com’s Bill Ladson. “They added the Upton boys. I thought Chris Johnson was a great addition, too. They have three really good right-handed bats. Of course, the younger players are playing awfully well — Andrelton Simmons, Evan Gattis and Juan Francisco. They are a balanced ballclub now.”
When the Braves missed wining the National League’s Wild Card entry by one game in 2011, their offense was abysmal against left-handed pitchers. They ranked last in the Majors with a .228 batting average and second-to-last with a .642 OPS.
On the way to winning 94 games last year, the Braves were slightly more effective. Still they ranked 11th in the National League in both batting average (.244) and OPS (.689) against left-handed pitchers.
This year, the Braves have gained a MLB-best 8-1 record without yet showing great improvement against southpaws. They enter the start of this weekend’s series against the Nationals having hit .198 with a .644 OPS against left-handed pitchers.
So, why the early success?
Well Justin Upton has hit six home runs and the offense has batted .284 with a .830 OPS against right-handed pitchers. More importantly, the pitching staff has compiled a Major League best 1.89 ERA. Their starters have posted a 2.01 mark. The relievers have produced a 1.65 mark while not allowing any of the 12 baserunners they have inherited to score.
On the other end of this spectrum is the Phillies, who have seen their relievers allow 12 of 15 inherited runners to score.
Enough about the Phillies. It is foolish to put too much stock in the statistics and results garnered through the first nine games of a 162-game season. But it seems we’ve seen enough from Philadelphia’s once-proud club to assume the battle for this year’s National League East crown will be staged by the two teams that will meet this weekend at Nationals Park.
Having covered Bobby Cox for 10 seasons, I know what he would said when asked about this weekend’s series between the Braves and Nationals. It would have been something like “Every game counts the same. No one game is more important than the other. You play the schedule.”
All of this is true. Each of the 162 games played during a season count the same. But even in early April, there is some added importance to games played between division contenders.
The Braves and Nationals will play 19 games against each other this year. That accounts for approximately 12 percent of the schedule. During the other 88 percent of the games played this year, the Braves will not have a chance to directly impact what the Nationals do.
This certainly does not mean a sweep would prove devastating for either team this weekend. It would simply add to the challenge that awaits both of these teams, regardless of this weekend’s results.
The Nationals won six of the first eight games played against the Braves last year and then lost six of the last 10 during the season series. Even after getting swept in Atlanta on Sept. 16, they still entered the season’s final 16 games with a 5 1/2 game lead in the NL East race.
Sure, the Braves had damaged their division title hopes by getting swept by the Brewers earlier that same week. But things definitely could have been different if they had not lost 10 of the first 14 games played against the Nationals last year.
Now after spending a comfortable six-game stretch against the Cubs and Marlins, the Braves will be challenged by the Nationals, who have hit .269 with a NL-best .848 OPS through their first nine games of the season. The 41 runs they have scored is just four fewer than the combined totals of the Cubs (29) and Marlins (16).
The Braves will send Julio Teheran to the mound tonight with the hope that the rookie pitcher finds more consistency with his offspeed stuff than he did while allowing the Cubs five earned runs in five innings on Sunday. Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm, who has not allowed an earned run since February, will serve as Atlanta’s starting pitchers in the final two games of this weekend’s series.
In order, the Nationals will counter with Ross Detwiler, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. Detwiler (3.38) actually produced a better ERA against the Braves last year than Strasburg (4.10) or Gonzalez (4.57). In the process, he proved to be one of those left-handed pitchers that frustrated Atlanta’s formerly left-handed heavy lineup.
While facing a pair of left-handers in Detwiler and Gonzalez this weekend, the Braves will have a chance to benefit from this more-balanced lineup. The Upton brothers have made the lineup look more formidable. But so far, B.J. Upton has gone hitless in 11 at-bats against southpaws and Justin is 2-for-10 with one home run.
With veteran catcher Gerald Laird set to be behind the plate for Teheran’s start tonight, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he would think about keeping Gattis’ right-handed bat in the cleanup spot by playing him at first base, a position he played in just seven games during his Minor League career.
“I’ve done crazier things,” Gonzalez said after proposing this idea after Wednesday night’s win in Miami.
Given the way Gattis has swung the bat through the first two weeks of his career, I would not consider this move to be crazy.
The Braves have acquired veteran right-handed reliever Luis Ayala from the Orioles in exchange for Minor League pitcher Chris Jones.
Ayala posted a 2.40 ERA while combining for 118 appearances with the Yankees and Orioles over the past two seasons. The 35-year-old right-hander allowed two earned runs and four hits in the only two innings he completed for the Orioles this year.
With some uncertainty surrounding Jonny Venters, who is on the disabled list with a sprained left elbow, the Braves could use some depth in their bullpen. Eric O’Flaherty and Jordan Walden are currently serving as the primary setup men for closer Craig Kimbrel.
Although he is right-handed, Walden has been more effective against left-handed hitters throughout his career. He has allowed hits in two of the four at-bats right-handed hitters have compiled against him this year. But he has limited left-handed hitters to a .203 batting average and .292 on-base percentage in his career.
Ayala has allowed four hits in six at-bats against right-handed hitters this year. Last year, right-handed hitters batted .262 against him and left-handed hitters compiled a 2.84 batting average.
Jones posted a 3.90 ERA in 45 relief appearances for Double-A Mississippi last year. The 24-year-old left-hander was acquired from the Indians in exchange for Derek Lowe after the 2011 season.
Unless a player does something incredible like hit six home runs in his first seven games, statistics are essentially useless through the regular season’s first week.
It has certainly been encouraging to see Paul Maholm complete 12 2/3 scoreless innings through his first two starts. But to say he is destined for a Cy Young season would be as foolish as to have predicted he was destined for the Minors when he allowed six earned runs in both of his first two starts last year.
Jason Heyward certainly did not want to begin this year with just two hits in his first 24 at-bats. But to assume he is doomed to fail this year would be as foolish as it would have been to target him as an MVP candidate when he hit seven home runs during the first month of his miserable 2011 season.
B.J. Upton has hit .120 (3-for-25) through the first seven games of his Atlanta career. He reached base in just one of his first 16 plate appearances. But he has also been on base in six of the 14 plate appearances he has garnered since moving into the leadoff spot.
What does this mean? Not much more than the fact that he struggled through the first four games of the season.
Despite the first-week struggles experienced by Heyward and Upton, the Braves own a Major League-best 6-1 record. Like there was no reason to panic when they lost their first four games during last year’s 94-win season, there is not much reason to get overly excited about this season’s early results.
But we have already gotten a glimpse of the valuable depth this year’s team possesses. This is something to get excited about when factoring in the inevitable uncertainties that await over the next six months.
Sure the Braves have taken advantage of a once-proud Phillies pitching staff and the opportunity to play the Cubs and Marlins. But the degree of difficulty in these games has been increased by the fact that they have gone through a portion of this stretch without the guys they put in the leadoff and cleanup spots on Opening Day.
When Andrelton Simmons missed the final two games of this past weekend’s series against the Cubs, B.J. Upton proved effective in the leadoff role and Ramiro Pena delivered two clutch hits while providing solid defense at the shortstop position.
As Freddie Freeman misses at least the next two weeks with an oblique strain, Chris Johnson will handle the first base duties and Evan Gattis will assume most of the responsibilities in the cleanup spot.
Just two weeks ago, Gattis did not know whether he would begin the year at the Major League level. Now he is hitting cleanup for the club that owns the best record in the Majors.
Other than saying Gerald Laird will serve as Julio Teheran’s primary catcher, Gonzalez has not indicated exactly how he will split time with Laird and Gattis until Brian McCann returns. But it has become apparent that Gattis will get a majority of the playing time in McCann’s absence.
Much of the preseason excitement surrounding the Braves centered around their potentially-potent offense. But without Justin Upton hitting six home runs through his first 26 at-bats, this offense would be rather pedestrian right now. The 33 runs they have scored ranks sixth in the NL.
Despite straining his oblique the day before the season started, Freeman hit .412 and drove in seven runs before the Braves opted to take the cautious route by placing him on the disabled list. His production at first base has been compensated by the presence of Johnson and third baseman Juan Francisco, who join Gattis as the only active Braves not named Justin Upton to be hitting .300.
Over the course of the next week, Justin Upton could go cold while his older brother B.J., Heyward and Dan Uggla carry the load. That is where the strength of this year’s club sets. Never will all the players be clicking on all cylinders at the same time. But this lineup contains enough dangerous threats to assume there won’t be many stretches where this offense struggles as a whole.
The first week of the 2013 season certainly met all expectations for the Braves, who entered Monday leading all non-Houston-based Major League teams in strikeouts (63) and all non-Coors Field-based National League teams in home runs (11).
With five in his first five games, Justin Upton hit more home runs than any Braves player hit in all of April last year. He capped this season’s first multi-homer game on Saturday night with a walk-off shot that further endeared the Upton brothers to their new hometown. The home runs Justin and B.J. Upton hit in the ninth inning of the comeback win over the Cubs will rest in that special category that includes the two walk-off homers Chipper Jones hit last year and the Opening Day blasts hit by Andres Galarraga (2000) and Jason Heyward (2010).
It was only fitting for Justin Upton to conclude his first week in Atlanta by joining his brother as the only Braves to notch a golden sombrero (four strikeouts in a game) so far this year. More will be added to this club. It is simply part of the new Braves way. Justin’s four strikeouts on Sunday accounted for a quarter of the total recorded by Jeff Samardzija (13 strikeouts) and the Cubs bullpen.
Sunday marked the second time during this young season that the Braves won a game in which they struck out 16 times. In the franchise’s long storied history, the Braves have won just 10 games while striking out at least 16 times. Two of these instances have occurred within the first six games of this season.
The Angels are the only other Major League team to win a game this year while striking out at least 16 times. But they did so while needing 13 innings to claim their Opening Day victory in Cincinnati.
So how rare is it to win a game while striking out at least 16 times in games that do not extend beyond the ninth inning?
Including the two times this year, the Braves have won just five non extra-inning games in franchise history while striking out at least 16 times. The most recent occurrence had been a 5-0 win on May 6, 2011 against the Phillies and Cliff Lee, who allowed three runs and nine hits while recording 16 strikeouts in seven innings. Atlanta’s only runs off Lee came in third inning. Along with registering three strikeouts that inning, Lee also surrendered doubles to Alex Gonzalez, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla.
Another occurred on May 22, 2006, when John Smoltz beat Jake Peavy and the Padres 3-1. On the way to notching 16 strikeouts in seven innings, Peavy allowed Ryan Langerhans to hit a decisive two-run home run in the second inning.
The only other such game the Braves won in regulation occurred on July 14, 1989, when Smoltz beat Sid Fernandez and the Mets 3-2 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. After Fernandez compiled 16 strikeouts through the first eight innings, Lonnie Smith began the bottom of the ninth with a walk-off home run.
Dating back to the start of the 2011 season, there have been just seven non extra-inning games in which a team struck out at least 16 times and won. The Braves have been involved in four of those games. Their only loss in this four-game span was a 6-5 setback to the Cubs on Aug. 14, 2011 — the day Dan Uggla’s 33-game hitting streak was snapped.
Two of the three victories the Braves have recorded in these games obviously occurred during the first week of this season. The other was the game against the Phillies and Lee.
This year’s Braves could produce many innings similar to the one Lee endured that night in Philadelphia. They scored three runs against Roy Halladay as he recorded three strikeouts in the first inning last week in Atlanta.
As Samardzija compiled his career-high strikeout total on Sunday, it felt like it was just a matter of time before the Braves offense would support Tim Hudson’s strong start with a big inning. Yeah, some of that had to do with the fact that Samardzija’s pitch count was nearing the danger zone, a.k.a. as the need for the Cubs to turn to their bullpen.
But along with being a team that is going to swing and miss with great frequency, the Braves are a club that can produce instant offense with the power that fills their lineup. And as we saw when B.J. Upton got going the past two days, this club also has the ability to manufacture runs with the speed provided by their three five-tool outfielders.
Now the Braves potent offense has the chance to spend the next three days facing three Marlins starters not named Jose Fernandez, who notched eight strikeouts in five innings during his Major League debut on Sunday. Those eight strikeouts account for nearly 20 percent of the total Miami’s pitching staff has recorded through the season’s first six games.
Sure there will be some swings and misses during this week’s stay in Miami. But that is just a part of life for this new-look Braves club that will spend this season attempting to prove the potential damage from strikeouts can be overcome with an abundance of speed and power.
There certainly were not many positive developments to take from Thursday night’s 2-0 loss to the Phillies. Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon limited the Braves to two singles on a cold, blustery night that led Brian Jordan to reminisce about a game he once played for the Falcons at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
But somewhere in the midst of the miserable evening, Kris Medlen might have regained the swagger that he possessed during last year’s dominant run as a starting pitcher.
Medlen allowed 14 hits and nine runs against the Phillies on March 18. He then allowed six runs and eight hits in five innings against the Nationals his next time out. But you know the deal. One should never concern themselves with statistics or results from Spring Training.
Unfortunately the second part of this rule is often forgotten. The full commandment is, “Thou shall not worry about Spring Training results until affected player struggles during the earliest portions of the regular season.”
So as Medlen loaded the bases during a 27-pitch scoreless first inning, it was hard to ignore that he had looked much more like Chris Reitsma than Greg Maddux during Spring Training. Things did not get any better as he issued a six-pitch walk to Lee to load the bases in Philadelphia’s two-run second inning.
But Medlen looked much more like himself as he totaled 43 pitches and kept the Phillies scoreless over his final three innings. He notched two strikeouts in a perfect nine-pitch, fifth inning and might have been perfect in the fourth inning had Freddie Freeman been able to secure Jimmy Rollins’ double before it squirted past the first base bag.
Medlen said the command issues he has battled dating back to Spring Training have been a product of him rushing his delivery. His inability to consistently repeat his delivery prevented him from displaying the pinpoint command that was present as he issued a total of 10 walks while compiling a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts last year.
The four walks issued by Medlen last night were his highest total since he issued five in two of his first five career starts, including his May 21, 2009 Major League debut.
But by the time Medlen stumbled off the frozen mound last night, it appeared he had righted himself in time for Tuesday night’s matchup against the Marlins in Miami. Just 27 of his first 49 pitches were strikes through Thursday’s first two innings. But in his final three innings, he threw 30 of his 43 pitches for strikes and looked more like the Med Dog of old.
Now the Braves will turn to Mike Minor in tonight’s series opener against the Cubs. Minor allowed 14 runs in the last 10 innings he completed during the Grapefruit League seasons. I am completely honest when I say that I truly believe this was a product of him simply toying with such things as the two-seamer that is not even close to being regular season-ready yet.
But if the Cubs score a couple of runs in the first couple innings, remember the “Spring Training results don’t matter” creed does include an oft-forgotten second verse.
The Braves have played a key role in the development of a few feel-good stories since the turn of the century.
One of my favorite moments will always be the day Chris Hammond learned that he earned a spot in the Atlanta bullpen at the beginning of the 2002 season. He had not pitched in the Major Leagues since beginning a two-year retirement in 1999.
Hammond surrendered three earned runs during his second appearance of the 2002 season and then allowed just two more earned runs in the next 59 appearances he made that year. The 0.95 ERA he compiled that year ranks as the fifth best mark among all Major League relievers who have compiled at least 50 appearances in a season.
Then there will always be the tale of the former pharmaceutical representative from Australia who earned a professional contract during the inaugural World Baseball Classic and then made his Major League debut for the Braves a month later.
Seven years later, Peter Moylan is no longer with the Braves. But the contributions the hilarious and popular sidearm reliever made during his seven seasons with the organization will never be forgotten.
Now the Braves are anxiously awaiting the chance to officially introduce Evan Gattis, who has a story even greater than those that Hammond and Moylan will always have the pleasure of telling.
Gattis is expected to make his Major League debut as he serves as the Braves starting catcher in Wednesday night’s matchup against the Phillies and Roy Halladay. The 26-year-old rookie will have 14 friends and family members in attendance for tonight’s special event.
Among those will be Brian Reinke, the head baseball coach at University of Texas Permian Basin who gave Gattis a chance to begin playing baseball four years after he told his father, Jo, that he would never play again.
Most of you know Gattis’ story. If you don’t click here. If you need a quick refresher, depression led him to walk away from baseball in 2006 and begin a four-year journey as a ski lift operator, cook, janitor and young adult simply trying to find himself. After playing one year at UTPB in 2010, he was drafted by the Braves in the 23rd round of the 2010 Draft.
Two years ago, the Braves did not a spot for Gattis on any of their Minor League rosters at the end of Spring Training. Now the Braves are at least looking at the possibility of carrying Gattis on their big league roster throughout the entirety of this season.
Gattis will behind the plate for at least half the games that Brian McCann misses while recovering from right shoulder surgery. When McCann makes his expected return in late April, the Braves will have to decide if it makes sense to keep Gattis’ bat on their bench as a backup outfielder and third catcher.
There is no doubt Gattis could provide value while being available to serve as a pinch hitter on a nightly basis after McCann returns. But there is certainly reason to argue, the Braves should allow him to play catcher at Gwinnett on a daily basis in preparation for the possibility that he will be Atlanta’s starting catcher after McCann exits via free agency at the end of this season.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s sit back and allow Gattis the chance to prove himself over the next few weeks.
There was no reason to be surprised that he hit .368 with six homers during the Grapefruit League season. On Feb. 25, these fingers typed “If attempting to predict how Gattis will fare during the exhibition season, I’ll say that he will likely hit something north of .380 with at least six home runs.”
So in jest, we can say he did not exactly meet my expectations from the offensive perspective during Spring Training. But he certainly proved to be much better than advertised behind the plate.
Two months ago, I would have said there was an 80 percent chance Christian Bethancourt will be Atlanta’s starting catcher at the start of the 2014 season. But right now, I’d put that percentage at 50 percent.
And if Gattis continues to impress while getting a chance to catch on a consistent basis over the next month, it will hard not to consider him to definite favorite to begin next year as Atlanta’s everyday catcher.
The last time the Braves opened a season against the Phillies, Jordan Schafer homered in his first career at-bat and Jeff Francoeur homered in his first at-bat of the season. Derek Lowe further subdued Philadelphia’s World Series celebration by allowing two hits over eight scoreless innings in his Braves debut.
All of this occurred on April 5, 2009. The calendar indicates this was just four years ago. But to many of you, that was simply a celebratory night that occurred in what is now recognized as the Braves’ distant past.
The last time the Braves opened a season at home, Jason Heyward electrified Turner Field by using the first swing of his Major League career to hit a three-run home run deep into the home bullpen beyond the right-center field wall. Lowe notched the second of his three consecutive Opening Day wins for Atlanta on that afternoon. (Please keep reading. The previous sentence was not an April Fool’s joke.)
Three years later, Heyward is a seasoned 23-year-old veteran and the face of the new-look Braves, who will introduce the Upton brothers and enter a promising era with tonight’s Opening Day matchup against the Phillies at Turner Field.
Over the past two months, Braves fans have basked in the hype created by the offseason additions of B.J. Upton and Justin Upton. Over the next six months, we will learn whether this reconstructed and potentially lethal lineup is indeed potent enough to allow the Braves to realize their aspirations to play deep into October.
How strong is this lineup? Well six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann will likely be sidelined until at least late April while recovering from shoulder surgery. Instead of wondering if the Braves can stay afloat during this stretch, most are simply wondering how much better this lineup will be if a healthy McCann returns to form and takes advantage of one last audition before hitting the free-agent market after the season.
While it is hard to predict exactly how things will shape up in the challenging National League East race, there is certainly reason to assume this year’s Braves will challenge the franchise record for both home runs (235 in 2003) and strikeouts (1,289 in 2012). Shortstop might be the only position where the Braves do not record at least 15 home runs and at least 100 strikeouts.
When I asked Chipper Jones about this year’s team back in early February, the large number of swings and misses will erase a number of scoring opportunities for this year’s Braves. In other words, the value of the one-out double or triple could be frequently erased when the next two batters follow with strikeouts.
This is bound to happen. Get over it and get used to it.
But while it has been easy to peg this year’s club as one that will feature power, it is not necessarily one that will live and die with the long ball. There have been other clubs who have had three outfielders who are capable of hitting at least 20 home runs. But the uniqueness of Atlanta’s new outfield trio comes via the fact that Heyward and the Upton brothers are also all capable of frustrating pitchers with their speed.
There has been a lot of talk about each of the outfielders recording a 20/20 season this year. While this is a possibility, stolen bases equates to just a portion of the value they will bring their legs. Each is capable of scoring from first base on a double and going first-to-third on a single.
But what stood out during Spring Training was the aggression that Heyward and the Upton brothers showed on the base paths. Their willingness to take extra bases will increase the team’s number of scoring opportunities. If the percentages play out over the course of six months, this should reduce the negative effect of what will be an alarmingly high number of strikeouts.
When Spring Training began, the Braves were widely recognized as having the game’s best bullpen. Optimism surrounding this pen has been blemished by the fact that Jonny Venters could miss at least the season’s first month while attempting to get his left elbow right. Venters visited Dr. James Andrews today and a diagnosis should be available later today.
Early indications are that Venters’ elbow is structurally sound. If this is true, he would not need to undergo a second Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. But the continued discomfort he has battled dating back to last year could indicate he is dealing with a bone spur or bone chip. Either way, he will likely need to rest for a couple of weeks before being cleared to begin rebuilding his arm strength.
Venters’ absence increases the potential value the Braves could receive from right-handed reliever Jordan Walden, who recorded 32 saves for the Angels two years ago. Walden nearly a month of the Grapefruit League season because of a bulging disc in his back. But he has not had any more setbacks over the past couple of weeks.
General manager Frank Wren was lauded for his ability to get both Upton brothers this winter. But I think it was every bit as impressive that he got a reliever of Walden’s caliber in exchange for a decaying Tommy Hanson. My assumption was that the Braves were going to have to non-tender Hanson or settle for a trade that would have brought them a less attractive pitching prospect.
Even with the emergence of Kris Medlen as a front-line starter and the great turnaround Mike Minor enjoyed last year, there are some questions about the rotation. Tim Hudson has made 405 starts, or 91 more than Paul Maholm (216), Minor (53), Medlen (30) and Julio Teheran (4) combined.
But when speaking of new eras in Atlanta, 91 is not a bad number. It might once again signal the start of something special.