Results tagged ‘ Jason Heyward ’

Escobar or no Escobar, Braves are the team to beat

Now that Alex Gonzalez has been acquired in exchange for Yunel Escobar, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Phil Sheridan says the Phillies must react by making a move.ESPN’s Buster Olney says the Braves made a great trade with the Blue Jays and labels them as the “team to beat in the National League East.” 

While these beliefs certainly make sense, I’m not sure the Escobar trade significantly altered the NL’s landscape. Sure the Braves got rid of a negative clubhouse presence who hadn’t produced offensively and replaced him with a capable veteran shortstop who is enjoying one of his finest seasons at the plate. 

But regardless of who was playing shortstop in Atlanta, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro was going to spend these next couple of weeks attempting to improve his rotation and bullpen with the hope that his club would become strong enough to kill the optimism that currently rests in Atlanta. 

The Braves improved the strength of their organization yesterday by using two pieces they didn’t want (Jo-Jo Reyes and Escobar)  to gain a Major League-ready shortstop and two respected prospects, who certainly have a chance to get to Atlanta.

But my belief that the Braves enter this season’s second half as the favorites to represent the NL in the World Series, has little to do with the fact that Escobar is no longer around.  It has much more to do with what happened last week, when they took four of six on the road against the Phillies and Mets.

This small stretch legitimized everything that they had accomplished over the course of the previous two months.  While going 39-18 since the start of play on May 10, they have recorded a better winning percentage (.684) than any other Major League club and proven to be four games better than the Dodgers who have compiled the NL’s second-best record (35-22) during this span. 

While gaining eight games on the Mets and 10 1/2 games on the Phillies during this two-month span, the Braves showed their greatest strength — their depth.  Jair Jurrjens and Matt Diaz were sidelined during most of this stretch and after sparking this torrid run Jason Heyward did very little while battling a sore left thumb in June. 

Heyward will be evaluated once he arrives at Turner Field this afternoon and if the medical staff clears him he’ll be in tonight’s lineup against the Brewers.  If this transpires, the Braves will essentially be whole for the first time since April 29, the day they suffered a ninth consecutive loss and also lost both Jurrjens and Escobar to injures that required stints on the disabled list.

As long as Gonzalez stays healthy, this Braves lineup certainly has a chance to be more productive than the one that was saddled by Escobar’s surprising struggles.

Given that he entered this season with a .301 BA and .426 slugging percentage, it’s hard to imagine that Escobar will continue to be the guy who has slugged .284 this year and totaled 12 extra-base hits, none of which have been home runs. 

But as the Braves smelled the chance to win this year, they couldn’t risk remaining patient with Escobar at the expense of seeing his lackadaisical approach or mental mistakes prove detrimental to what they were trying to accomplish. 

It’s obviously no secret that Escobar wasn’t a popular figure among his teammates.  During Spring Training while talking about the team’s chemistry one player said, “We really only have one (jerk) in here.”

There was no reason to ask who he was referencing.

Andy Martino of the New York Daily News wondered if this trade was the product of another example of a culture clash between white and Latino players. It’s a justifiable question.  But within this blog entry, Martino concludes by pointing out the essential fact, which was that Escobar’s problems stemmed from a personality flaw, not cultural differences. 

Just like there are plenty of white players (John Rocker, Bob Wickman Robert Fick) who have drawn the ire of Braves management and seen their time in Atlanta cut short, there are a number of Latin players (Andruw Jones, Eddie Perez and Martin Prado to name just a few) who have drawn admiration and appreciation from the club’s decision makers.

In the classic movie Rudy,  the man playing Notre Dame head football coach Dan Devine said to an uninspired player, “If you had half the heart of Ruettiger’s you would’ve made
All-American.”

Well if Escobar had the heart and drive of his boyhood friend Brayan Pena, he would have already legitimized his potential to be one of the game’s top two or three shortstops.  He also would have escaped the All-Star break without learning that he’ll be spending most of the next couple of months in Canada. 

 

Heyward does not expect to play Tuesday

Jason Heyward will not play a Minor League rehab game with Triple-A Gwinnett on Sunday and the Braves 20-year-old right fielder doesn’t expect to play in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game. 

After completing a pain-free batting practice session the Gwinnett club Saturday evening, Heyward said he didn’t experience any problems with his jammed left thumb.  But he and the Braves decided he is not ready to play in a rehab game Sunday. 

Because of this, Heyward doesn’t believe he will take advantage of the opportunity to serve as one of the National League’s starting outfielders Tuesday night.  He has been sidelined since June 26 with the thumb ailment he suffered while sliding into third base on May 14.  

“I haven’t played any games,” Heyward said told reporters when asked if he still planned to play Tuesday. “I would have liked to rehab in the game [Friday] and [Saturday]. But we figured this was the best timetable for it. It might have been rushing it a little bit.”

Heyward will travel to Anaheim on Sunday to begin enjoying the All-Star Game festivities.  He will likely take batting practice with his National League teammates on Monday and then be unavailable for Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic. 

“I’m just going to go and see what happens,” Heyward said. “We’ll play it by ear. What I’d like to do is be ready to play July 15, the first game of the second half for us. I’d also like to respect the National League team and give them the best chance to win the game. I don’t want to be selfish and play in the game, because this one does count.”

Heyward impressed during Saturday’s batting practice session, which consisted of 50 swings.

“I was able to take that high pitch up and away and stay on top of it and use my top hand to hit it,” Heyward said. “I couldn’t do that before, so that’s a sign it’s feeling better.” 

Thanks to Guy Curtright, a regular MLB.com contributor, for supplying Heyward’s remarks after today’s BP session. 

Infante gains surprise selection

When we awoke this morning, I think it’s safe to say most of us expected Jason Heyward, Martin Prado and Tim Hudson to be named to this year’s All-Star team.  There was also little shock when the players provided Brian McCann his fifth consecutive All-Star selection.

But the biggest surprise and thrill of the day came when it was learned Omar Infante was granted his first All-Star selection.  It’s obvious that the Braves aren’t the only ones who have recognized the value he brings with his dependable versatility as a utility player. 

“I’m so happy for him,” Hudson said. “I was just thrilled when I learned that he made it.  That’s just great.”

The fact that Infante has hit .353 against the Phillies this year likely aided his cause when Phillies manager Charlie Manuel began looking at options to strengthen his bench.

The .345 batting average Infante has compiled with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2008 season ranks fifth among all Major Leaguers who have compiled at least 200 plate appearances in this situation. 

“We feel like we got a good player there, who  is a contact hitter, who can handle the bat,” Manuel said during TBS’s Selection Show.

Making his third All-Star selection and first since 2004, Hudson said he is looking forward to taking his son Kade down on the field to be surrounded by the game’s other greats during the Home Run Derby on July 12.

Prado will start at second base in place of the injured Chase Utley.  Heyward has said that his injured left thumb will likely keep him from playing. 

The five All-Star selections are the most the Braves have totaled since sending seven players to the 2003 Midsummer Classic.

UPDATED:  Billy Wagner is part of the Final Vote Ballot.  You can help the veteran closer make his final All-Star appearance by casting your votes through Thursday at 4 p.m. ET.    
 

Heyward still unsure about status for All-Star Game

As you know by now, Jason Heyward will be spending the rest of the season’s first half on the disabled list. MRI results revealed that he is dealing with a painful bone bruise that will only provide his left thumb more discomfort until he gets a chance to rest for an extended period.

 “It’s a deep bone bruise,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said in reference to Heyward.  “That’s all it is.  The only way it’s going to get better is to get better.”  <p>

Heyward is in good position to be elected to this year’s All-Star Game and if he is, he may at least fly to Anaheim to participate in the festivities.  But at the same time, he is wondering if it would be better for him to spend those days playing in some Minor League games. 

 “Whatever (Major League Baseball) says they would like to have happen.  If I can go and give thanks to the fans by showing up, then I would like to.  If MLB says we respect what the Braves want for Jason and they want him to rehab and play some games before he comes back, then I’m hoping to do that also.”

It would be nice for Heyward to at least fly to California to experience the Home Run Derby/Media Day festivities on July 12 and then at least be introduced before the Midsummer Classic, which will be played the following day at Angel Stadium.

But you have to like the fact that the young outfielder is already looking toward the second half with the understanding that he could benefit from a brief Minor League rehab assignment before returning. 

One solution and I’m simply thinking out loud is to have him enjoy those two days in California and then return on a red-eye flight to prepare to begin a two-game Minor League rehab stint on July 14.  This would mean he wouldn’t be available for the July 15 game against the Brewers.

But that’s just one game that can be won without him. Heyward will never again have a chance to experience the thrill of experiencing his first All-Star Game as a 20-year-old rookie. 

Or maybe Heyward’s thumb improves quickly enough that he is actually able to start rehabbing the weekend before the All-Star Game.  This would allow him to reacquaint himself with the speed of the game and still participate in the All-Star festivities. 

After Monday night’s win, the Braves also announced that Kenshin Kawakami will go to the bullpen when Jair Jurrjens returns to the rotation on Monday night. 

Matt Diaz will take Heyward’s roster spot tomorrow night.  When Jurrjens is activated, the Braves will likely send Cristhian Martinez  back to Gwinnett.  Martinez has been available to serve the long relief role that Kawakami could now fill.   

Braves set to conclude a memorable May

Before looking at how the Braves have positioned themselves to move into first place within any of the next three days, I want to thank my father, uncle and each of you who have given us this opportunity to take time today to remember why we have been afforded the chance to enjoy the freedoms provided us here in the United States. 

Based on the way the Braves have played over the course of the past three weeks, there was growing reason to believe there could come a point where they would start seriously challenging Philadelphia’s National League East supremacy.  But two weeks ago, when they sat a season-high 6 1/2 games back, there certainly wasn’t much reason to think they could enter June as the division leaders. 

With the Phillies having scored a total of seven runs while losing six of their past eight games, their manager Charlie Manuel brings a staggered bunch into Turner Field this week.  Winners of 15 of their past 19 games, the Braves enter this afternoon’s series opener just a half-game back in the NL East race. 

Over the course of the previous four seasons, the Braves never even held a share of first place after May 15.   In fact during the 2006, 2008 and 2009 seasons, they never sat above second place this late in the season after April 12.

Now if Phil Niekro can get his arm loose and find some of his get his knuckleball to start dancing again this week, the Braves might really be able to prolong Philadelphia’s offensive woes this week.  

The Phillies have been shutout five times over the course of their past eight games and the only time they scored during any of the six losses that encompassed this span was when they tallied three ninth-inning runs after knuckleballer Tim Wakefield blanked them for eight innings on May 23.

Forty-eight hours after being handcuffed by Wakefield’s knuckler, the defending National League champs were blanked by the one delivered by R.A. Dickey.   This prompted Bobby Cox to playfully tell one of the members of his club’s media relations staff, “why don’t you throw Niekro in there as one of our probables for the Phillies series.”

“With that lineup, it’s just a matter of time before they bust loose,” Chipper Jones said. “Fortunately I like our pitching staff and I think our pitching staff can continue to hold them down.”    

With Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe set to take the mound this week, the Braves seemingly match up much better than the Phillies, who will not be sending Roy Halladay or Jamie Moyer to the mound during this week’s series. 

Like knuckleballers have been Philadelphia’s kryptonite, Moyer arguably had the same effect on the Braves when they endured their nine-game losing streak at the end of April.   The 47-year-old left-hander has allowed at least four earned runs in six of his first 10 starts this year.  But in two outings against Atlanta he has completed 15 innings without surrendering an earned run. 

Halladay marked the beginning of that nine-game losing streak and the next night Moyer prolonged it by throwing six scoreless innings at Turner Field.  Seven days later, the Braves had endured a nine-day stretch during which they had hit .223 and totaled 17 runs.

As miserable as that span seemed to be, the potent Phillies offense has actually been even worse recently.  During their past eight games, they have batted just .186 and tallied seven runs.

Within these eight games, the Phillies have missed Jimmy Rollins’ presence at the top of their lineup and seen Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth combine to hit .130 (11-for-84) with two extra-base hits  (a double and a triple). 

In the 16 games played since Martin Prado began handling the leadoff role on virtually an everyday basis, the Braves have hit .289 and scored 5.6 runs per game.  Whey exited Philadelphia on May 9, they had gone through the season’s first 31 games hitting .232 and scoring 3.9 runs per game. 

It appears this is a much different Braves club than the one that lost four of its first six games to the Phillies this year.   But if they are going to maximize the dividends created by the turnaround they have enjoyed this month, they need to make a statement this week at Turner Field. 

Exiting this series in first place would simply be a by-product of the more important opportunity to gain further confidence by claiming a series victory against these Phillies, who are currently vulnerable and always dangerous. 

NOTES:  If the Braves are able to claim a victory with Hanson on the mound this afternoon, they will have gone 20-8 in May.  In other words no matter what happens in this series opener, they will not lose more games during this 31-day stretch than they did during that forgettable nine-game stretch in April…Jason Heyward enters this series opener with an NL-best 1.017 OPS.  He’s legitimized his candidacy for an All-Star bid and also given reason to be an early MVP favorite…Prado leads the NL with a .325 batting average. Back when they were playing in the Minors, Brian McCann predicted Prado would win a batting title.  We’ll see if his words prove prophetic this year.

Rainy update from PNC

While we’re sitting through a rain delay here at PNC Park, here are some tidbits that were gathered this afternoon.

Braves manager Bobby Cox opted to rest Troy Glaus tonight and start Eric Hinske at first base tonight.  While Glaus could certainly benefit from a break, I think Cox also saw this as an opportunity to give Melky Cabrera a chance to get rolling.  With Hinske at first base, Cabrera will be be in left field. 

The switch-hitting Cabrera is hitting just .200 this season but has posted a .237 mark against right-handed pitchers.  Virtually everybody has hit Pirate starter Charlie Morton this year.  But he has had his greatest troubles against left-handed hitters, who have compiled a .350 batting average against him.

Heyward’s improved approach:  It does seem like Jason Heyward has been a little less selective since Cox suggested that he be more aggressive early in the count.  But Heyward thinks the success he has experienced over the past three weeks is just a product of the natural development process.  

During the first 20 games of his career, Heyward hit .224 (15-for-67) with four homers 25 strikeouts and a .358 on-base percentage.   In the 18 games he played since Cox expressed his desire, the Braves 20-year-old right fielder hit .367 (22-for-60) with five homers, five strikeouts and a .458 on-base percentage.   <p>

His ability to significantly improve his on-base percentage seems to be product of the fact that he struck out once every 2.68 at-bats during his first 20 games and just once every 12 at-bats during the 18 games he has played since Cox told media members that his young outfielder needed to start swinging the bat a little more often.  <p>

“You can’t hit with two strikes against you every at-bat,” Cox said. “Especially with runners on, if you get a pitch to hit, you better hit it.  He’s smart.  He’s got a great idea at the plate every at-bat.  He’s not going to swing at the first pitch, unless it’s a great pitch.”    <p> 

To his credit, Heyward didn’t then immediately evolve into a free-swinger.  He still has put the first pitch of an at-bat in play just six times in his career.   But it does feel like he is drawing hitter’s counts much more frequently than he did during the early weeks of the season.

Entering Saturday, he was hitting .192 (14-for-73) when ending an at-bat with a two-strike count.  But when he had put a ball in play when ahead in the count, he had hit .356 (16-for-45).

Kimbrel needs more time:   The decision to send Craig Kimbrel back to Triple-A Gwinnett further proved why the Braves felt the need to hire Dave Wallace as their new Minor League pitching instructor this offseason.  

With Kent Willis handling this role over the course of the past few years, the Braves too often found themselves stocking their Major League pitching staff with young pitchers who still hadn’t learned the finer points of their craft.  

There are still some concerns about Kimbrel’s control.  But the six walks he issued in 3 1/3 innings for Atlanta were likely a product of nerves.  The kid threw strikes while at Gwinnett earlier this year and he’ll likely show this same kind of control when he returns to Atlanta. 

More alarming to the Braves Major League coaching staff was the fact that Kimbrel proved to be very slow to the plate while throwing all of his pitches from the stretch.   In order to maximize the potential of his tremendous arm, the 21-year-old right-hander will spend the next few weeks and possibly months developing a delivery that will allow him to be less susceptible against opposing basestealers.

Kawakami Update: Kenshin Kawakami’s back discomfort has subsided over the past few days and he is expected to make his start against the Marlins on Tuesday.

Looks like we’ll get this game started at some point tonight.  But as of 7:50 p.m. ET, the tarp was still on the field.
 

Suddenly rejuvenated offense returns home

While mixing Mucinex, Zyrtec  and a couple of cough drops this week, I could have sworn that I saw the Braves go into Milwaukee and score 28 runs over the course of just three games. 

Had I also seen Jo-Jo Reyes come off the disabled list to earn one of those three wins over the Brewers,  I would have certainly been moved to immediately check myself into the nearest hospital.  

With their first road sweep of the season, the Braves may have saved hitting coach Terry Pendleton’s job and given us reason to believe they are capable of scoring at least one earned run against Jamie Moyer at some point this season.  

Had Pendleton been chosen to be the fall guy, there likely wouldn’t have been a significant public backlash.   When a preseason contender hits .232 and compiles a .337 slugging percentage through the season’s first 31 games, you find yourself nearing a point where change seems imminent.  

Fortunately for Pendleton, the Braves did what they were supposed to do against Doug Davis on Monday night and then gladly put Jason Heyward back in their lineup for the final two games in Milwaukee.  

Instead of saying Heyward is a difference maker for the umpteenth time this year, I’ll point out that despite totaling just three at-bats while battling a sore right groin over a six-game stretch last week, he still enters tonight’s series opener against the D-backs with more RBIs (28) than the combined totals of Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Yunel Escobar.  

Looking at one of the new-age stats, Heyward’s 2.70 WPA (win probability added) ranks second in the Majors only to the 2.88 mark posted by Miguel Cabrera, the early favorite to win the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award.  

FanGraphs.com defines WPA as the difference in win expectancy (WE) between the start of the play and the end of the play. That difference is then credited/debited to the batter and the pitcher. Over the course of the season, each players’ WPA for individual plays is added up to get his season total WPA.

If this stat still seems confusing, just ignore it and accept the fact that your eyes haven’t deceived you.  It certainly doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that the Braves lineup is severely weakened whenever it doesn’t possess Heyward’s presence.  

Now with Chipper Jones expected to return tonight and  Yunel Esobar likely coming off the disabled list in time to start Saturday’s game, where should Heyward sit in the lineup over the course of the next couple weeks or months?

Given that Chipper Jones has hit .231 with 12 homers and a .736 OPS over the course of his past 123 games, there is certainly reason to wonder if the Braves would benefit from replacing him in the third spot of the lineup with Heyward.  

But this isn’t something that is going to happen immediately and when you look at the recent results maybe it is time to believe Jones’ contention that he feels good at the plate and is seeing the ball much better than he did during the second half of the 2009 season.  

Jones has hit .350 (7-for-20) with three doubles in his past seven games.   When he first felt some discomfort in his hip on April 23, he was hitting .295 with a .959 OPS.  Over the years, the veteran third baseman has drawn criticism because of the amount of time that he has spent out of the lineup.  

But the numbers certainly provide reason to believe that his current statistics are a product of the fact that he chose to play through some pain because the team was enduring a rough stretch (the nine-game losing streak).  

From April 24-May 2, Jones recorded just one hit in 24 at-bats.  Take away that eight-game stretch and he would currently be hitting .313, which is right in line with the .307 career batting average that he carried into this season.   

If Jones continues to hit third, the Braves could put Heyward in the second spot and move Martin Prado into the leadoff spot.   Bobby Cox loves all the skills that Prado provides in the second spot.  But there isn’t much need to have the  ability to hit the ball to the right side of the infield or consistently advance runners when the guys (leadoff hitters)hitting in front of you have compiled an NL-worst .253 on-base percentage.  

Nor should it matter that Prado isn’t much of a threat to steal a base.  The Jimmy Rollins-less Phillies and Cubs are the only National League clubs with fewer stolen base attempts than the Braves this year.

The Braves simply need to supply a table setter for Heyward, Jones, McCann, and the suddenly red-hot Troy Glaus.  To give Escobar a chance to continue being the solid run producer that he was last year, I think the best choice is to at least try Prado in that leadoff role for a week or two.  

If it doesn’t work, they could flip-flop him with Escobar, who has .307 with a .370 on-base percentage in his career as a leadoff hitter.  During his first plate appearance in  the 78 games he has started a game as the leadoff hitter, he has hit .395 with a .410 on-base percentage.  

Escobar will make a rehab appearance for Triple-A Gwinnett tonight.   Reyes is scheduled to start for Gwinnett, which will also likely welcome Jordan Schafer to its roster at some point this weekend.  Schafer has hit .294 with three doubles in the nine rehab games he has played for Class A Rome and Double-A Mississippi this year.

Braves attempt to get healthy in Philly

After suffering their ninth loss in their past 10 road games on Thursday night, the Braves players had a chance to gain at least an ounce of optimism.   As their train rumbled from Washington to Philadelphia, they passed through Baltimore and had the chance to think, “well things could be worse.”  

Sitting 13 games behind the front-running Rays in the American League East race, the 8-21 Orioles have already given the Baltimore fans reason to anticipate the kickoff of the NFL season.  Despite losing 11 of their past 15 games, the Braves still enter this weekend’s series in Philadelphia just five games behind the first-place Phillies.  

Given that they spent most of the season’s first month without their spirited leadoff hitter (Jimmy Rollins), their closer (Brad Lidge), and two-fifths of their projected starting rotation (Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ), the Phillies are thrilled to be approaching the regular season’s sixth week in a familiar spot atop the NL East standings.  
 
And as the hits keep coming (well, at least off the field), the Braves find themselves limping into this weekend’s series without their run-producing shortstop (Yunel Escobar), a projected co-ace( Jair Jurrjens) and the concern that they may need to wait a few more days before putting Jason Heyward (sore right groin) can do anything more than serve as a pinch hitter. 

Heyward has lived up to the expectations of those who boldly predicted that he could prove to be an immediate difference maker.   But as he enjoys a stellar rookie season , he is starting to understand what Michael Jordan felt before Scottie Pippin started running with the Bulls.

Through his first 27 Major League games, Heyward has compiled eight homers and 26 RBIs.   Simply referring to these stats as team-high totals provides just a portion of the story.
 
While primarily hitting in the sixth or seventh spot of the lineup, Heyward has compiled more RBIs than the combined totals of Brian McCann (9), Chipper Jones (7) and Yunel Escobar (8).   His eight homers match the combined totals of McCann, McLouth, Jones and Glaus, who have each gone deep twice, or two fewer times than Heyward has over the course of the past seven games.

Regardless of how the rest of the Braves fare over the course of this season,  the story of Heyward’s rookie season seems destined to be memorable.
  
But if McCann, Jones and Troy Glaus continue to combine for 31 RBIs over the course of 28-game stretches, the story of Bobby Cox’s final season will be one that Stephen King could pen.

Still while there has been plenty of doom and gloom surrounding the Braves recently, the makeup of a 162-game season still provides them the opportunity to exit Philadelphia on Sunday with the belief that they still have a chance to prevent the Phillies from winning a fourth consecutive division title. 

Given the benefit of not having to face Roy Halladay this weekend, the Braves could certainly at least take two of three and reduce their division deficit to four games. 

But with Kris Medlen making a spot start on Saturday and Kenshin Kawakami going up against a recently-rejuvenated Cole Hamels on Sunday, it feels like the Braves have to win tonight, when they send Derek Lowe to the mound to face Jamie Moyer. 

The 47-year-old Moyer has allowed at least four earned runs in four of his first five starts and carries a 5.70 ERA into this series opener.   Further proving how anemic Cox’s offense has been,  Moyer’s only strong effort of the year came on April 22, when he limited the Braves to two unearned runs and four hits in six innings. 

Dating back to the beginning of the 2009 season, Moyer is 15-12 with a 5.06 ERA.    In three appearances against the Braves during this span, he is 2-1 with a 2.93 ERA. 

But with Lowe on the mound tonight, isn’t the Braves offense due to erupt?
 
Uh, no. 

Yes the Braves have scored seven or more runs in four of Lowe’s first six starts this year.  But while he was allowing the Phillies on five runs  —  four earned —  in five innings a couple of weeks ago,  Moyer was helping limit the Braves to just three runs.
 
As I was leaving Nationals Park last night with the AJC’s Carroll Rogers, I was reminded of one of the best goodbyes I’ve ever heard in a press box. 

After watching the Braves blow a five-run lead for the second straight day in Philadelphia on July 27, 2008, Rogers drew the attention of  the  Philadelphia Daily News’ Paul Hagen and said “I’m sure glad that I don’t have to cover 81 games in this ballpark.” 

The quick-witted Hagen responded, “I’m sure glad I don’t have to cover your team’s bullpen for 162 games.”
 
As the Braves head into tonight’s series opener, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that most of you are hoping to spend the next five months following something different than what you’ve witnessed during this season’s first 28 games.   
 

Kawakami draws another tough assignment

If Kenshin Kawakami was currently on a Minor League rehab assignment, the odds are that he would have been the one opposing Stephen Strasburg on Friday night, when the Nationals young phenom makes his Triple-A debut in Syracuse against the Gwinnett Braves.  

Through his first four starts this season, Kawakami has already been opposed by Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo No-No Jimenez and Jaime Garcia, who has posted a 1.13 ERA in his first five starts for the Cardinals.  

Thus it is only fitting that Kawakami will make his fifth start tonight against Livan Hernandez, who is the only National League pitcher with a better  ERA than Garcia or Lincecum.   The 0.87 mark that he carries into this start matches Jimenez for the league lead.
 
There was a time when the Braves had little reason to fear a matchup against Hernandez, unless of course Eric Gregg was calling balls in strikes for him in a National League Championship Series game. 

During his first 24 career regular season starts against the Braves, Hernandez went 3-15 with a 5.63 ERA.   In 15 starts that stretched from 2001-2005, he went 0-11 with a 5.95 ERA against this same organization that he dominated for the Marlins during the 1997 NLCS.  

But the 35-year-old Hernandez managed to go 2-0 with a 3.32 ERA in the three starts he made against the Braves last year.
 
As you’ve likely already heard, Hernandez  and the rest of the Nationals pitching staff won’t have to deal with Yunel Escobar this week.   The Braves placed Escobar on the 15-day disabled list on Tuesday and promoted Brandon Hicks from Gwinnett to fill his roster spot.
 
Considering that Escobar is 5-for-10 with a double and a triple in his career against his fellow Cuban, the Braves might have benefitted from his presence in the lineup tonight.  But he certainly isn’t the only Atlanta player who has experienced success against Hernandez. 

This might be a good night for Chipper Jones to cure the swing that has produced just one hit in his past 24 at-bats.   The Braves veteran third baseman has hit .354 with 10 doubles and a homer in 65 career at-bats against Hernandez. 

Martin Prado, who enters the evening with the NL’s fourth-best batting average (.354) has four hits, including a double, in seven career at-bats against Hernandez.   On the flip side, the veteran right-hander may be able to prolong Nate McLouth’s struggles. 

McLouth has one hit and five strikeouts in 13 career at-bats against Hernandez.
  
This much-improved Nationals club has also experienced some offensive struggles since facing Jimenez.  In the 10 games that they’ve played dating back to that assignment against the Rockies righty, they have hit .218 and scored 2.9 runs per game.  

Just received word that Jason Heyward was named the National League’s Rookie of the Month.  I’ll post tonight’s lineups when I get to the park. 

 

Braves hope their offensive woes stayed in Atlanta

It’s early, but based on the frustration I could sense in the clubhouse after last night’s loss to Jamie Moyer and the Phillies, I’d have to say the Braves players and coaches share many of the worries you developed while watching them split this recent homestand.

Yes, the Braves managed to win win three of six on this past homestand.  But at the same
time, they needed two dramatic ninth-inning comebacks to prevent going
1-5 during this stretch against the Rockies and Phillies.

It will be a homestand remembered for the two clutch hits that Jason Heyward provided to erase deficits with two outs in the ninth inning.  But even Heyward encountered struggles during this homestand, hitting .211 (4-for-19) with seven strikeouts.  

During this six-game stretch at Turner Field, the Braves hit .225, which is actually better than the .214 mark they have compiled over the previous 10 games entering tonight’s series opener against the Mets. 

Yes,  the Braves were burdened by the fact that they faced Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay and Ubaldo No-No Jimenez during this stretch.  But in the seven games that they didn’t face these elite hurlers, they managed to hit just .249, a mark that would rank as the 11th-best in the 16-team National League this year.  

J.D. Drew, Aramis Ramirez, Mark Teixeira and reigning National League Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan have provided the reminder that many talented players can find their batting averages resting below the Mendoza line during this early stage of the season. 

But as Braves manager Bobby Cox will certainly attest, you can’t have too many key players falling into this category at one time.  

Through the first 15 games of the season, Nate McLouth (.171), Troy Glaus (.170), Matt Diaz (.167) and Melky Cabrera (.125) all find themselves serving as the holes that Jeff Francoeur, Jordan Schafer and Kelly Johnson were during the early portion of the 2009 season. 

McLouth has shown some recent promise and at least provided indication that it’s time for him to play everyday and prove he can be the leadoff hitter the Braves envisioned entering Spring Training.  Yes, he hit just .200 (3-for-15) during the homestand. 

But he followed Tuesday’s walk-off homer with what I thought was a solid 0-for-4 effort against Halladay.  He put good wood on the ball with each of the four balls he put in play. 

As for Glaus, I haven’t exactly seen him benefit from the clutch two-run homer he hit in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s thrilling victory.   That stands as the only hit he’s tallied in his past 23 at-bats  —  a span that includes eight strikeouts. 

Last impressions are always the strongest and the fact that I think there’s more reason to worry about Glaus than McLouth, might just be a product of the fact that the Braves first baseman accounted for two of the 11 strikeouts Jamie Moyer has posted in 18 innings this year.  

Diaz’s early-season struggles aren’t anything new.  On the way to hitting .313 last year, he hit .216 in April. 

Cabrera’s early struggles only seemingly confirm the belief that he will be best utilized as a fourth outfielder, whose versatility will allow him to platoon with Diaz and occasionally give McLouth or Jason Heyward a breather.

Making matters worse for the Braves is the fact that Yunel Escobar is hitting .203 and has totaled just three RBIs since driving in a career-high five runs on Opening Day.  His offensive woes have seemingly affected his body language. 

But as I mentioned in last night’s game story, if the Braves do indeed decide to put Omar Infante at shortstop for tonight’s series opener against the Mets, it won’t be solely because Escobar has struggled from an offensive standpoint. 

During Wednesday night’s game against Halladay, the Braves loaded the bases with one out and then saw Escobar rip a sharp grounder that hit the mound and landing in the glove of a diving Chase Utley, who flipped to first base to begin the run-preventing, inning-ending double play. 

Escobar appeared to be pacing himself down the first base line and a National League scout later told me that he had him clocked at 4.54 going down the line.  Just to give you an idea of what that means, I mentioned that to one of the Braves coaches and they playfully responded, “isn’t that what Eddie (Perez) ran?” 

Then Escobar played a role in the three-run third inning the Phillies constructed against Derek Lowe on Thursday night.  While the official scorer gave Martin Prado the error, there were some in the Braves clubhouse who felt that his double-play feed to Escobar was certainly good enough for a double-play to have been turned. 

My thought was that Prado’s feed was certainly good enough to account for at least one out.  But seemingly preparing to leap over the oncoming runner, Escobar dropped the feed and consequently allowed the Phillies to score two of the three runs they tallied that inning. 

Escobar is a tremendous talent, who has the capability of proving to be one of the game’s best shortstops.  But as the Braves leaned last year while benching him at least three times, there are times when it’s best to make him sit and think about things for at least one game.

As for Glaus, some of you have suggested that the Braves platoon him at first base with Eric Hinske.  I haven’t gained a sense Cox is ready to do this. But the career numbers indicate this is something that might work if Glaus continues to struggle.

GLAUS 
vs. LHP   1267 ABs  .275 BA  87 HRs  .949 OPS
vs. RHP   3784 ABs  .247  219 HRs   .820 OPS

HINSKE 
vs. LHP   673 ABs  .221 19 HRs  .667 OPS
vs. RHP  2439 ABs .263 BA 94 HRs .805 OPS

With Glaus having basically missed all of last year, the Braves are
certainly going to give him more than 15 games to get re-acquainted to
the speed of the game.  But this might be an arrangement that Cox occasionally at least toys with over the next couple days and weeks. 

    

 

 

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