Results tagged ‘ Brian McCann ’

Cox shuffles power-hungry lineup

If Braves general manager Frank Wren’s attempt to land a power bat proves unsuccessful, he might want to see if the Phillies are willing to trade Citizens Bank Park in exchange for Turner Field.

In fact, while thinking out of the box, he might want to call the Reds or any other team that is capable of providing a homer-happy environment in exchange for Turner Field, a place that has become the kryptonite to the power-limited Atlanta lineup.
 
Entering Tuesday night’s game against the Rockies, the Braves had scored one run in their previous 18 innings and won just three of their previous 14 home games.  Working with a roster that doesn’t possess a legit leadoff or cleanup hitter, manager Bobby Cox is going to have to employ some serious chemistry skills to form an effective equation with his current elements.  

With his latest attempt on Tuesday night,  Cox moved Yunel Escobar into the leadoff spot, placed Casey Kotchman in the second spot and positioned Brian McCann back in the cleanup spot.  Kelly Johnson will bat sixth, where he’s found success in the past.

Tonight’s Lineup
SS Yunel Escobar
1B Casey Kotchman
3B Chipper Jones
C Brian McCann
LF Garret Anderson
2B Kelly Johnson
 RF Jeff Francoeur
CF Jordan Schafer
P Jair Jurrjens

In  346 career plate appearances in the lineup’s first spot, Escobar has hit .317 with  a .378 on-base percentage.   In the 72 plate appearances he’s recorded while serving as the game’s first hitter, the Cuban shortstop has .429 with a .444 on-base percentage. 

The potential benefit of placing Kotchman in the second spot stems from the fact that he routinely puts the ball in play.  In the 316 plate appearances he’s registered since joining the Braves, the veteran first baseman has struck out 32 times   —  or  just 13 times more than the second hitter in Atlanta’s lineup has registered in 169 plate appearances this year. 

Putting McCann in the cleanup spot provides Chipper Jones the protection he needs against pitchers, who still haven’t been given much reason to fear Garret Anderson’s bat.    In the 11 games he’s recorded since returning from the disabled list, Anderson has hit .262 (11-for-42) and tallied just two extra-base hits  — both doubles.

Johnson, who has batted .191 with a .262 on-base percentage in 105 plate appearances as the leadoff hitter this year, will now have an opportunity to display his run-producing skills.  He has hit .289 with a .344 on-base percentage in 90 career plate appearances , while batting sixth. 

Jumbling the order of the lineup might enhance the power by giving Jones the potential to see better pitches with McCann hitting behind him.  But this is a club that is in dire need of benefiting from the longball.  

Entering Tuesday, the Braves had scored 58 runs during their 17 home games.  The only Major League team with a lower home total was the White Sox with 56 runs after 16 dates at U.S. Cellular Field. 

The six home runs the Braves had tallied at home ranked as the Major League’s lowest mark, sitting five dingers behind the 29th-ranked Giants.
 
The Braves have totaled 28 homers this year and 12 of those were hit during this six games they played at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park.  Another four were tallied during the three-game series at Cincinnati’s compact stadium.

Further showing the power discrepancy that has been produced outside of Atlanta, the Braves have homered once every 31.7 at-bats on the road and once every 90.7 times at home.  The Giants have compiled the Major League’s second worst home mark with one homer every 62.7 at-bats.    

While you’re at it Frank, see if the Phillies are also willing package Ryan Howard with their ballpark.

Twitter @mlbbravesscribe.com

Bats prepared to come to life at Turner Field

Instead of dissecting statistics to determine why the Braves have encountered most of their success on the road, you can look at the simple fact that Brian McCann and Garret Anderson have been in the same lineup just once at Turner Field this year.

OK, now let’s delve into the numbers to show why the Braves have gone 2-9 at home since opening Turner Field with a three-game sweep of the Nationals.  In these 11 games, the Braves have hit .236 with THREE homers, a .329 on-base percentage and a .325 slugging percentage.

While going 6-2 on their recently-completed road trip, the Braves hit .285 with seven homers, a .380 on-base percentage and a .426 slugging percentage.   This improved production was obviously a direct result of  Anderson and McCann returning from the disabled list last week.

With the Braves opening a 10-game homestand on Friday night against the Diamondbacks, the home fans should also be prepared to see the return of Chipper Jones’ bat, which slumbered as McCann and Anderson dealt with their ailments. 

During the past 11 home games, four Braves players produced a .300 batting average (min. 20 at-bats)    —  Omar Infante  (.355), Jeff Francoeur (.310), Casey Kotchman (.306) and Yunel Escobar (.300).   The next-best batting average compiled during this span was .208 — a mark produced by both David Ross and Kelly Johnson. 

This lineup obviously revolves around the success of Jones and the team-worst .143 batting average he produced during the past 11 home games was a direct result of some of the impatience he showed while facing pitchers, who didn’t feel the need to challenge him without Anderson and McCann hitting behind him. 

The 11 walks Jones drew during this 11-game span represent half the total he’s tallied through the first 27 games that he’s played this year.

“I stayed as patient as I could,” Jones said. “Some teams were just determined not to pitch to me.  Other teams were taking their chances.  It’s going to make Garret and Mac making guys pay whenever they do walk me. That’s how you get 2-0 fastballs and 3-1 fastballs.  There weren’t a lot of those.”

In the five games that Jones has played since Anderson returned to the lineup and started hiting cleanup, he has hit .400 with three doubles and seven walks  — four intentional. 

After Jones recorded two doubles and a sacrifice fly during his first three plate appearances against the Mets on Wednesday, he drew two consecutive intentional walks. 

Anderson followed the first intentional walk with a sacrifice fly and the second with a fly ball that would have put Yunel Escobar at third base with one out in the ninth inning of a tied game if Mets right fielder Ryan Church hadn’t made a perfect throw to third baseman David Wright.

Obviously, I’ve been very critical of Anderson and a lot of that stems from the fact that because of his reserved demeanor, you can’t get a good read about his desire to be in Atlanta. 

There’s no doubt that he should have taken the short drive to Gwinnett County to play at least one Minor League game before returning from the disabled list.  In addition, he still has provided indication that he’s going to cost the Braves some runs with his limited range in left field.

But while getting the chance to watch him play over the course of the past week, I’ve seen seen a professional hitter, who will provide a presence in the middle of the lineup by putting the ball in play with regularity when runners are in scoring position.

While giving credit where credit is due, I’m also ready provide some to Kenshin Kawakami, who has allowed two earned runs and completed at least five innings during his past two starts against the Mets and Phillies.  I still don’t think he should be considered anything more than a fourth or fifth starter.  But if you’re fourth or fifth starter is providng these kinds of efforts on a consistent basis, then you’re probably feeling good about your rotation as a whole. 

Speaking of fifth starters, I think it’s pretty safe to assume we won’t be seeing Jo-Jo Reyes making another big league start in the near future.   Instead, I think we should expect to see Charlie Morton taking Reyes’ spot in the rotation until Tom Glavine is ready to resume pitching near the end of this month.

Tommy Hanson will still likely arrive in June.  But until then, he’s going to gain a little more Minor League seasoning, while Morton is given the chance to prove that he can carry his recent success to the big league level.

The Braves are going to be looking to find some power before the trade deadline and with a surplus of arms, there may be a number of teams interested in Morton, who has allowed just four earned runs in his past 27 innings with Triple-A Gwinnett.    

 

Two-game sweep followed by a two-hour delay

Coming off a relaxing two-day stretch away from the team, I certainly wasn’t happy to be introduced to the two-hour delay that Delta presented this morning.  
But refreshed from the two-day break, I’m going to keep a positive outlook and be thankful that the long concourses at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport provide wide-ranging ways to pass the time.  Thus instead of feeling my blood pressure rise while the AJC’s Dave O’Brien continued to complain about the delay, I opted to participate in the more tranquil activity of dancing barefoot on a bed of nails.  
OK, enough stretching the truth to simply deliver a point.   What I’m trying to say is that there’s a light at the end of every tunnel and the Braves have seemingly started to dig themselves out of a mess by beginning this eight-game road trip with a two-game sweep of the Marlins.
When you’ve got your ace (Derek Lowe) going up against a Minor League replacement (Graham Taylor), you’re obviously supposed to win.   Then when you finally give Jair Jurrjens the little bit of run support that he’s been seeking over the past couple of weeks, you certainly need to take advantage of this opportunity to sweep your way out of South Florida.   
But the Braves have simply passed level one during this game that we’ll call May’s influential road trip.   Fortunately like in the world of video games, passing this first challenge has gained them the opportunity to enter their upcoming battles against the Mets and Phillies with a new weapon in the form of Brian McCann.  
With his new prescription Oakley sports glasses, McCann is expected to return to the lineup for tonight’s series opener against Cole Hamels and the Phillies.   It’s going to take him some time to get comfortable with his new goalie-style mask.  In addition, he’s going to have to find a way to limit the amount of fog that gathers on his lenses as a result of heat and perspiration.  
But as long as he can continue his productive offensive ways, the Braves are going to start consistently providing the support that their pitching staff has been consistently denied over the past three weeks.    We’re 28 games into the season and it’s been 24 games since McCann made his presence felt in the lineup.
This is the primary reason that it’s truly remarkable that the Braves are just two games behind the front-running Phillies in the National League East race.  If we truly are trying to look at things in a positive light, would it be ridiculous to at least allow yourself to think about the possibility of them sweeping their way to the top of the division by the end of the weekend?  
In order to defense against being held responsible for jinxing the possibility, I will say that the numbers prove that there’s no way in Philadelphia that Jo-Jo Reyes will beat Hamels tonight.  
During his 11 career starts against the Braves, Hamels has allowed two runs or fewer six times.  In his past three appearances at Citizens Bank Park, Reyes has worked 12 2/3 innings, allowed 20 hits and posted a 9.24 ERA.  
But this is the new-and-improved Reyes and Hamels has to go all the way back to Sept. 18 to remember his last win against the Braves.  Five days later, while allowing two earned runs in seven innings, he suffered his first loss against them in a span of nine starts.
The decisive blow that provided Mike Hampton a win that Sept. 23 evening came courtesy of Casey Kotchman’s sixth-inning solo homer.  
If you are only as good as your last game, then Kotchman is coming into Philadelphia on a power barrage.   The Braves first baseman homered for the first time this season during his three-hit performance against the Marlins on Thursday afternoon.  
While compiling a team-high 12 extra-base hits this year, Kotchman has lived up to the billing of being a solid gap hitter with limited power.  But in Hamels’ eyes, the left-handed slugger has plenty of pop in his bat.  
In nine career at-bats against Hamels, Kotchman has collected four hits and three of those have landed over the outfield wall.   Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Delgado and Jorge Cantu are the only other Major Leaguers who have hit three homers against the Phillies ace and each of them have compiled this total with at least 14 at-bats.  
Kevin Millwood is the only other Major League pitcher that Kotchman has  homered against three times.  He has reached this total in a span of 15 at-bats against the former Atlanta right-hander.  
Kotchman is a reserved man who generally hides his emotions.  But this will certainly be a special Mother’s Day weekend for him and his family.  As many of you know, his mother, Sarah, nearly lost her life when her brain began to hemorrhage  last August.  
It was great to see Mrs. Kotchman and her husband, Tom, at Turner Field on Monday.   They are justifiably proud of their son and it was truly a delight to talk to them about the miraculous medical ordeal that they encountered last year.  
I want to thank them for taking time to talk about the event and end this blog by saying Happy Mother’s Day to my mother, Sara Bowman.  
Many of us will say thank you to our mothers this weekend. But can words truly convey the appreciation we have for the women who gave us life and then sacrificed so much with the hope that ours would at least be as great as the ones they’ve enjoyed?   

 

 

Braves getting ready for influential stretch

Welcome to the most influential 10-day stretch the Braves have encountered during this still-young season.  Over the course of the next 10 games, the Braves will have a chance to keep themselves in the thick of the National League East while solely playing the Mets, Marlins and Phillies.  
In the process, they might also have the chance to construct some lineups that include Brian McCann and Garret Anderson, who are both hoping to be activated from the disabled list this week.  Anderson is expected to be activated for Tuesday’s series finale against the Mets and as long as his prescription Oakleys prove to be beneficial McCann could end his DL stint in time to be behind the plate for Friday’s series opener in Philadelphia.  
Braves manager Bobby Cox’s Opening Day lineup had McCann batting cleanup and Anderson sitting behind him in the fifth spot of the order.   That exact lineup has been utilized just three times this year and Cox has had a total of four lineups that have included both McCann and Anderson.
“We miss Anderson and Mac, they’re two of our big thumpers,” Cox said.  “They’ve been out together for a long time. So it’s a lot to overcome.”
Given that injuries have also sidelined both Chipper Jones and Yunel Escobar for at least three games this year, the Braves have even reason to feel fortunate that they are just 2 games behind the front-running Marlins in the NL East race.
With a significant portion of their projected power (Anderson and McCann), it’s easy to understand why the Braves rank 10th in the National League with a .405 slugging percentage and 14th with 19 home runs.  
Of course most of that production occurred during the opening series in Philadelphia when McCann’s vision was still allowing him to perform like one of the game’s top catchers.   In the 21 games that have followed, the Braves  have hit .258 with 11 homers and a .383 slugging percentage.  
Without surprise, the two least productive positions during this 21-game span have been the ones originally reserved for McCann and Anderson.  Since the Philadelphia series, the Braves left fielders have hit .215 with a .642 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) and their catchers have hit .232 with a .763 OPS.  
While David Ross has at least provided some production in McCann’s absence, it’s obvious that the Braves need McCann to return to form and provide Chipper Jones necessary protection.  
Obviously the sore left thumb that he carried out of Spring Training has played a part in the fact that Jones has hit .273 with one homer and an .838 OPS  in the past 13 games.   But so too has the fact that the injury-depleted lineup has given pitchers less reason to provide the veteran third baseman with a chance to hurt them.
Kelly returns to the leadoff spot:  Cox has put Kelly Johnson back in the leadoff spot tonight against the Mets, who are starting right-hander John Maine.   Johnson has three hits, including  a triple and a double, in 12 career at-bats against Maine.  
Coming off the first consecutive three-strikeout performances of his young career, Jordan Schafer is once again batting in the eighth spot.   Schafer’s NL-leading 30 strikeouts are a product of  overaggressive rookie play and the fact that he too often hasn’t shortened his swing when he’s fallen behind in the count.
In the 37 plate appearances that he’s gotten ahead with a 1-0 count, he’s drawn 13 walks, recorded 11 strikeouts and produced a .514 on-base percentage.    In the 51 plate appearances that he’s fallen behind with an 0-1 count, he’s drawn five walks, struck out 19 times and produced a .333 on-base percentage.  
More concerning than the strikeouts themselves is that Schafer has hit .111 (2-for-18) with eight strikeouts and no RBIs in 24 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.  

 
 

McCann has ditched contacts

Brian McCann has come to the realization that he can’t cure his impaired vision with contacts. Thus the All-Star catcher will explore one more alternative before facing the possibility that he’ll have to once again undergo Lasik surgery.

McCann has ordered a pair of prescription Oakley glasses that should arrive in time for him to begin another Minor League rehab assignment next week.  He’s hoping to get better results than he gained with the contacts on Tuesday and Wednesday, while playing for Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach.

“The contacts didn’t work,” McCann said. “They made my eyes too dry.  I tried using drops and it would be fine for a while, but then it would be blurred again.  We’re going to try the glasses as a last resort.”

McCann, who is eligible to come off the disabled list on May 8, has experienced blurred vision in his left eye since Opening Day.  He has attempted multiple of remedies with the hope that he won’t have to undergo the same Lasik procedure that was performed on him after the 2007 season.  

McCann has been told that his inability to wear contacts is a result of the original surgery.

“When you do Lasik, it changes the shape of your eye and right now the contacts don’t fit the shape of my eyes,”  McCann said. 

Although his problem has been with his left eye, McCann was prescribed contact lenses for both eyes earlier this week.  While he played two games for Myrtle Beach, the power in his left lens was  -.50 and the power in his right lens was -.25.

McCann will likely begin his next rehab assignment on Monday or Tuesday.

Twitter @mlbbravesscribe 

The old Gonzo is back

Watching Mike Gonzalez record three strikeouts against the heart of the Cardinals lineup on Tuesday night brought back memories of  the pure dominance he displayed on consecutive August nights three years ago at Turner Field. 

While notching a pair of perfect innings for the Pirates those evenings, he collected five strikeouts.  His final three strikeouts came during an 11-pitch span against Adam LaRoche, Matt Diaz and Marcus Giles. 

Unfortunately after throwing another perfect inning in Houston the following day, Gonzalez began experiencing elbow soreness that would prevent him from proving dominant again until now.

On the way to notching Tuesday’s save, Gonazalez needed just 15 pitches to record consecutive strikeouts of Colby Rasmus, Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick.  His fastball is once again resting around 94 mph and his breaking pitches are consistently sharp.

“That’s the old Gonzalez from Pittsburgh that I remember,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said. “He was outstanding.”

Always confident and upbeat, Gonzalez seemed to truly regain his swagger when he gained a 3-2 count by getting  Pujols to look at consecutive fastballs.  This brought the crowd to its feet and led the left-handed closer to exagerate his pre-delivery sway before unleashing a slider that the St. Louis monster simply watched. 

In the seven career at-bats Pujols has registered against Gonzalez, he’s recorded one hit and struck out three times.  When asked about this success, the left-handed closer said that guys like Chipper Jones and Pujols bring out the best in him.

Look Jones is one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen and it’s been a pleasure to have had the opportunity to cover him over the course of the past nine seasons.  But it still makes you pause when anybody is placed in the same category of King Albert. 

Still somehow the Braves have managed to limit Pujols to one hit in eight at-bats during the first two games of this series.  

“We try hard,” Cox said. “He’s going to be one of the greatest players in the game’s history.  There’s nothing he can’t do.”

When Gonzalez displayed limited velocity during Spring Training, he said he would be fine once the bright lights were shining on him during the regular season.  While wanting to believe him, I heard him say some of the same things just two years ago, when he eventually had to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Doubts about Gonzalez grew when he allowed four earned runs in his first five innings this season.  But since surrendering a two-run, eighth-inning homer to Nate McLouth on April 17, he’s struck out nine of the 13 batters that he faced.

After surrendering that homer to McLouth, Gonzalez sat motionless at his locker, simply staring forward.  A little more than a week later, he finds himself confidently serving as the anchor for a much-improved Braves bullpen.

Change of emotions
:  As 9:30 p.m. ET approached last night, the Braves were seemingly destined for another frustrating evening.  But Peter Moylan, who had issued a costly walk in Tuesday’s loss, pitched a perfect eighth inning and Matt Diaz produced the clutch hit the offense has too often lacked over the course of its two-week slumber, during which they’ve scored two runs or less in eight of 12 games.

From afar, there was also reason to worry about the fact that Brian McCann was hitless in three at-bats for Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach in a Minor League rehab assignment.  But   after writing my recap of what had occurred in Atlanta, McCann called to say that his vision was better than it had been since his left eye had started to bother him.

With a -.50 contact lens in his left eye and a -.25 lens in his right eye, McCann will make one more rehab appearance for Myrtle Beach and then return to Atlanta.  He believes he’ll be fine by the time he is eligible to come off the disabled list on May 8.

While it was nice to see Jo-Jo Reyes pitch so effectively on Tuesday night, the evening’s real feel-good moment occurred when McCann revealed that he was encouraged about his improved vision. 

As time progressed and doctors weren’t able to pinpoint the reason for his left eye ailment, you couldn’t help but worry about the possibility that he might be dealing with something that would at least hamper him throughout what appears to be a very bright future.

McCann is great baseball player and an even better person.  Let’s hope he provides another encouraging call tonight.

Hampton returns Friday:  It’s going to be interesting to see how Mike Hampton is received when he returns to Turner Field on Friday night to pitch against Derek Lowe and the Braves.  What do you think?  Will the crowd boo the injury-plagued hurler, who was on the disabled list throughout most of final four years in Atlanta?

Or will he just receive an apathetic welcome from a fan base that began to forget him as his injury woes mounted from 2005-2008?

Follow me on Twitter @mlbbravesscribe 

Waiting on updates from McCann and Glavine

Regardless of how Jair Jurrjens fares against Albert Pujols and the Cardinals, this should be an interesting day for the Braves.  We should learn more about Brian McCann’s condition and Tom Glavine may provide some information about his future.

McCann was scheduled to visit Dr. Alan Kozarsky this morning to gain more clarity about why he’s been experiencing blurred vision in his left eye since the season started.  Hopefully, the remedy will prove to be as simple as once again undergoing Lasik surgery.

It’s understandable that his vision could have changed since he initially underwent this procedure at the age of 23 at the end of the 2007 season.  But while admitting I can’t spell ophthamology without Google’s assistance, I still have to wonder what has caused the dry sensation he’s complained about.

While McCann is in the early stages of a career that could one day be preceded by the words “Hall of Fame”, Glavine is simply hoping for the opportunity to enhance the numbers that will be linked to him when he’s immortalized in Cooperstown. 

Tomorrow will mark the two-week mark since Glavine asked for two more weeks to evaluate the status of of his troublesome left shoulder.  If he hasn’t realized some improvement this week, he’s not interested in waiting around another couple of weeks before resuming  preparations.  This would essentially take him back to the point he was when he arrived at Spring Training in early March and set up the likeliehood that he wouldn’t be ready to make his first start until some time in June.  

Thus within the next two days, we can expect to  hear him say that he’s going to begin another Minor League rehab within the next week or that he’s ready to put an end to his storied career that has included 305 wins. 

Even before Glavine found some success during Spring Training, there was reason to believe there should be fewer concerns about him than Kenshin Kawakami.  This was based solely on the fact that he’s spent the past 20-plus years learning exactly what it takes to retire Major League hitters.

The 7.06 ERA that Kawakami has notched in four starts isn’t nearly as concerning as the fact that he’s allowed at least one homer during each of his outings.  This development hasn’t exactly been surprising.  During the early days of camp, it was apparent that he has a tendency to live up in the zone with far too many pitches. 

That’s a recipe for disaster while facing hitters that physically stronger than the ones that served as the opposition during his successful days in Japan.

With this being said, Kawakami has the potential to be a successful fourth or fifth starter in the Majors.  The first homer he surrendered to Jay Bruce on Sunday came courtesy of a mistake he made in a situation when he should have issued a walk.  The opposite-field shot snuck inside the left field foul pole. 

From there it seemed like Kawakami allowed his emotions to get the best of him.  He could have easily escaped the fifth inning unscathed.  But as the adversity built with an intereference call on a potential double-play grounder and an infield single, he began to throw more high strikes, much to the delight of Joey Votto and Bruce, who has now hit .609 with four homers in six career games against the Braves.

Still regardless of what occurs with Glavine or Kawakami during the next few weeks and months, the Braves rotation is shaping up nicely for the final months of the season.  

While regaining his aggressive approach during his past two outings, Jurrjens has enhanced the strength of a rotation that has been solidly anchored by Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez.  And of course, it won’t be long before we start to see Bobby Cox sending Tommy Hanson to the mound every five days.

Through his first four starts for Triple-A Gwinnett, Hanson is 0-3 with a 2.18 ERA.   He has allowed one earned run or fewer in three of those outings and opponents are hitting just .205 against him. 

It was encouraging to see Hanson complete six innings with 95 pitches against Charlotte on Friday night.  During his two previous outings, he had reached the 95-pitch mark before completing five innings and was removed to preserve the arm strength that could prove to be so benefiical in Atlanta during the season’s final months.

Kelly’s inconsistencies:  During the first eight games of the season, Kelly Johnson hit .333 with a .412 on-base percentage.  But in the past 10 games, the current leadoff hitter has batted .111 with a .220 on-base percentage. 

This better explains why the Braves have scored two runs or fewer in six of their past 10 games.  It hasn’t helped that Chipper Jones missed three of those games or that McCann’s bat has essentially been absent since the end of the season’s four game. 

But Johnson’s inability to serve as a catalyst in the leadoff spot during the past 10 games, has certainly played a factor. 

With McCann absent,  Johnson and Yunel Escobar have to find a way to consistently provide Jones with run-producing opportunities.  Casey  Kotchman has spent the past three games in the cleanup spot and he’s still on pace to go homerless this year.

During the just-completed nine-game road trip, the Braves received a .135 (5-for-37) batting average, .220 on-base percentage and .162 slugging percentage from the batters hitting in the leadoff spot.  Those players batting in the ninth spot of the order hit .167 with a .333 OBP and .208 SLG.  

Getting back to work

If you are not complaining, then you are not watching.  Or is it more appropriate to say, if you are not complaining, then you are not blogging?

Whatever the case, even if the Braves had started this season 11-4 (as opposed to 7-8), we’d all still be voicing our concerns about a specific aspect or aspects of the club.  To truly enjoy the splendor of a 162-game season, you basically have to treat every day like a new episode of “24”.

Of course in relation to “24”, we all know that Jack Bauer is going to eventually escape or overcome any and every terrorist attack that he encounters.  In the baseball world, we’re not so sure about tomorrow will bring.

The suspense of this current season has us wondering when Brian McCann might regain his optimal vision and help the slumbering Braves offense to awake.

During the last nine games, the Braves have scored 24 runs (11 in one game), batted .229, recorded a .312 on-base percentage and produced a .345 slugging percentage.   The sample size is too small to provide reason to worry.  But it is somewhat telling to see that left-handed hitters have batted just .181 during this span. 

That number is a direct reflection of the recent struggles encountered by McCann, who has just one hit in the 19 at-bats he’s totaled over the past nine games.  The Braves can only hope that his vision continues to improve to the point that he’s able to prove why many believe he’s the game’s top offensive catchers. 

We’ve all discussed how losing Chipper Jones for an extended period would be a crushing blow to this club’s postseason aspirations.  While this is true, you could argue that McCann’s presence is even more important because his absence directly affects Jones’ potential production. 

As long as opponents are fearing McCann in the cleanup spot, Jones is going to have the necessary protection that will allow him to see good pitches on a regular basis.  

If McCann continues to struggle or is forced to miss time, you’ll either see Jones’ walk total rise or his impatience grow to the point that he’s chasing bad pitches far too often.

In the event that McCann is forced to miss an extended period, Jeff Francoeur might be the best option to fill the cleanup spot.  It would be interesting to see how often opposing pitchers would be willing to challenge him to find out if he truly has turned things around. 

In a team-high 60 at-bats, Francoeur has batted .317 with a .795 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).   As long as he stays patient, the power numbers will increase as the summer progresses and you’ll likely once again see him produce another 100-RBI season.

The most encouraging aspect about Francoeur’s start stems from the fact that he’s hit .471 (8-for-17) with runners in scoring position.  While the sample size is small, there’s at least indication that he’s no longer pressing like he did when he hit .193 with RISP last year.  

(While looking for Francoeur’s stats, I noticed Andruw Jones has five hits in his first six at-bats with RISP.   It’s still amazing to think that Andruw had 128 RBIs while hitting just .207 with RISP in 2005.)

Rotation producing optimism:   Most of the optimism the Braves possessed entering the season centered around their reconstucted rotation.   So far this new group of starters has lived up to expectations.  They rank second in the National Leauge with a 3.27 ERA and the 88 innings they’ve completed are five fewer than the League-leading total completed by the Pirates. 

Javier Vazquez could have won each of his first three starts and Jair Jurrjens has been nothing but impressive since proving fortunate to win his first two outings. Derek Lowe showed his potential dominance on Opening Night and provided more reason to believe he’s at his best during big games.

The only two losses Lowe has incurred during his past 14 starts have occurred at excitement-starved Nationals Park.  But it should be noted that he pitched effectively during both of those outings. 

The Braves haven’t provided any indication that they’re going to promote Tommy Hanson within the next week.  They are in position where they can continue to let the 22-year-old right-hander gain more season at the Minor League level. 

Obviously Hanson has the potential to be a valuable asset during the stretch run and because of this, the Braves haven’t allowed him to exceed the 100-pitch limit during his first three starts with Triple-A Gwinnnett.   Unfortunately because of high pitch counts during the early innings, this has prevented him from completing at least five innings during two of those outings. 

Once Hanson is promoted to the Majors (my best guess remains first week of June), the Braves should have a rotation that would rival the Marlins for the division’s finest.   The Mets haven’t found any consistency behind Johan Santana and the entire Phillies rotation is going to have neck problems before the season is complete. 

Philadelphia’s starters have accounted for 22 of the 31 homers the club has surrendered this year.  Kenshin Kawakami has accounted for three of the seven homers the Braves pitching staff has surrendered this year.

It was nice to have a few days to visit family and relax this week. But it’s time to get back to work and see if the Braves can alter the mood of this road trip, which has so far proven to be forgettable.   

McCann dealing with blurred vision

Brian McCann isn’t ready to discuss the possibility that he might need to go on the disabled list. But the Braves All-Star catcher is concerned about the blurred vision he’s experienced in his left eye since Opening Day. 

After returning from Philadelphia last week, McCann visited an eye doctor who told him that there’s a chance that his vision has changed since he underwent Lasik surgery in Nov. 2007.  But while wearing a contact over the last week, the 25-year-old catcher didn’t experience improved vision.

Essentially, McCann’s left eye has been dry and he hasn’t benefitted from the use of eye drops.  On Saturday morning, he began using a prescribed ointment. 

If this latest treatment doesn’t work, McCann may have to have the vision in his left eye re-adjusted and there’s certainly a chance this would necessitate him to miss at least one week and possibly experience a stint on the 15-day disabled list. 

McCann began this season with six hits, including two homers and three doubles in his first 15 at-bats.  But he recorded just one single in the 17 at-bats that followed. 

While experiencing better vision during the day, McCann entered Saturday’s game hitting .167 (4-for-24) in night games and .375 (3-for-8) in day games. 

Boyer DFA’d:  Blaine Boyer didn’t seem too surprised when he walked in the clubhouse on Saturday morning and was told that the Braves had designated him for assignment.   To make room for Jo-Jo Reyes, Boyer had established himself as the obvious roster casualty. 

While making 51 appearances before last year’s All-Star break, Boyer posted a 3.93 ERA and saw opponents hit .237 with a .301 on-base percentage.   In the 28 appearances that have followed, he’s posted a 13.06 ERA, seen opponents hit .330 with a .402 on-base percentage.

The Braves saw the tremendous physical skills that will likely lead another club to claim Boyer off the waiver wire.  But as time progressed, they became convinced that his mental shortcomings were going to prevent him living up to his potential in their organization.

Chipper and Escobar updates:  Chipper Jones is still aiming to return to the lineup on Sunday and there’s a chance that he could be joined by Yunel Escobar, who has missed the past two games with a strained abdominal muscle. 

Escobar was able to perform just one situp on Friday.  But by Saturday morning, the 26-year-old shortstop’s strength had improved to the point that the Braves gained the belief that he’d be available for Sunday’s series finale against the Pirates.  

Lowe set the tone

While enjoying some idle time in Philadelphia yesterday, one of the Braves coaches asked me, “what was the most important thing that happened last night?”  Thinking it might be a trick question, I initially thought about Jordan Schafer’s homer, Jeff Francoeur’s homer and Mike Gonzalez’s ability to escape the ugly ninth-inning mess that he created.

Another comical bystander said, “I think it was McCann’s monstrous first-inning homer.  That just intimidated everybody.”

But while the homers hit by Francoeur and Schafer created nice story lines, Derek Lowe’s masterful performance undoubtedly was the most important Opening Night development.  He allowed just two Phillies to reach base over the course of eight innings. SI.com’s Tom Verducci reported that no pitcher had previously allowed two baserunners or fewer while throwing at least eight innings at Citizens Bank Park.

Whether or not you want to call Lowe an ace, you can’t dispute the fact that his performance trumped any other produced by any other pitcher so far this season.   With that being said, Felix Hernandez’s effort with a bum ankle yesterday was certainly masterful. 

During Spring Training, one veteran observer told me that Hernandez was the best young pitcher he’d ever seen and that Tommy Hanson ranked right behind King Felix.  Hanson and the Triple-A Gwinnett team will get things started on Thursday morning in Charlotte.  First pitch is set for 11:15 a.m and you’ll be able to follow the game via the Gameday feature provided on Milb.com.

Enough about the future ace.  Let’s turn our attention back to Lowe, who undoubtedly set the tone for the Opening Night victory that allowed the Braves to truly enjoy yesterday’s rain-filled offday in Philly. 

If McCann hadn’t drilled his first-inning two-run homer into the second deck, there’s a chance that Lowe could have once again been undone by the emotions that had felled him during his previous two Opening Day starts. 

But straying away from the “if my aunt had a beard” line of thinking, Lowe didn’t and consequently allowed the Braves to begin the season in a near-perfect manner.   While evaluating that game, critics could only point toward the stress-filled ninth-inning that Gonzalez experienced while attempting to protect a four-run lead.

After the game, manager Bobby Cox talked to Gonzalez about the need to bounce his breaking pitches when ahead in the count.  The two singles surrendered by the left-handed closers came on sliders that were thrown during at-bats that began with first-pitch strikes.  

When pinch-hitter Eric Bruntlett fell behind with a 1-2 count and then laced a single into left field, it was impossible to forget about last year, when the Phillies claimed four of their 14 wins over the Braves in games that they were once trailing by at least three runs.

But after Chase Utley drew a five-pitch walk to bring Ryan Howard to the plate as the potential tying run, Gonzalez began pitching like he did during the 2006 season, when he successfully converted each of his 24 save opportunities, despite allowing opponents to produce a .325 on-base percentage.

With runners at first and second and the Braves holding a two-run lead, Gonzalez recorded game-ending conseuctive strikeouts of Howard and Raul Ibanez.  He utilized nine sliders (including five of six pitches to Howard) during this 12-pitch sequence and recorded both strikeouts with fastballs that registered 93 mph.

That was the best velocity we’ve seen from Gonzalez at any point this year.  But I think it’s becoming more apparent that his success will be better dictated by his control and ability to efffectively throw his breaking balls. One positive he can draw from Sunday is the fact that his slider certainly improved as the inning progressed. 

By the way, during the 2006 season with runners on first and second base, Gonzalez limited opponents to four hits in 24 plate appearances, recorded eight strikeouts and issued one walk.   There’s no doubt that he has the abilty to thrive under pressure. 

But for the sake of Cox’s blood pressure, let’s hope that some of his ninth innings prove to be a little less stressful. 

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