Results tagged ‘ Phillies ’

Braves attempt to salvage series

Asked this afternoon if he was worried about his club after losing the first two games of this series against the Phillies, Braves manager responded, “Well we’ve won three of our past five.”

The two losses during this span came when the Braves sent a pair of rookies to the mound to face two members (Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay) of the Phillies Big Three. 

On paper, the matchups were mismatches.  Still the Braves walked away from both games knowing they had a chance to win.  If Martin Prado’s ball hadn’t gone just foul Monday night, we might have seen a different outcome.  And if Brian McCann hadn’t attempted to take third base on Derrek Lee’s sacrifice fly last night the Braves might have overcome Mike Minor’s horrendous start. 

After watching Kenshin Kawakami struggle in Florida on Sept. 3, I didn’t think I’d see another start that proved to be that bad for a while.  Well Minor nearly matched it two days later when he allowed the Marlins seven extra-base hits in just four innings.

They yesterday while throwing 73 pitches in just 2 1/3 innings, Minor proved to be every bit as bad as Kawakami was in Florida.  Fatigued at the end of his first full professional season, the 22-year-old rookie hasn’t been able to use his fastball as a strikeout pitch this month.

Making matters worse, he has not been able to command his change or curve.  Thus when he gets two strikes on a hitter, he’s basically been in throw-and-pray mode. 

The Braves need to win tonight to salvage this three-game set.  In fact with Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe getting these next three starts, they need to carry a three-game winning streak into Sunday’s series finale in Washington. 

When asked if Jair Jurrjens would be able to pitch Sunday, Cox quickly responded, “He better be.” 

This club that has prided itself on pitching all year now heads into its final 10 games with what can be deemed just three reliable starters. 

Thus I’m going to ignore what I wrote two days ago about “importance” during a baseball season and deem Jurrjens’ start against the Nationals Sunday as the most important influence on what transpires over the next few days and weeks.    

Somebody other than Chipper will have to solve Halladay

Now that the Braves have squandered the chance to steal a series-opening victory with Brandon Beachy on the mound, they will return to Citizens Bank Park tonight hoping to take advantage of the recently most-vulnerable member of the Phillies Big Three.

Roy Halladay enters tonight’s start 3-2 with a 4.41 ERA over his past five starts.  It’s safe to say he hasn’t enjoyed the same recent success encountered by Monday night’s victor Cole Hamels  (5-0, 0.49 ERA in his past five starts) or Wednesday’s scheduled starter Roy Oswalt (5-0, 1.25 in his past six starts).

So there is some reason for optimism if you choose to overlook the fact that, well Halladay will be facing the Braves. 

In four career appearances (three starts) against the Braves, Halladay has gone 3-0 with an 0.63 ERA.  The two runs he surrendered in these games were compiled over the course of 11 years and both came courtesy of the solo home runs hit by Chipper Jones  —  July 20, 1999 @ Toronto, July 5, 2010 @ Philadelphia.

Jones’ first-inning homer during that post-Independence Day game played two months ago accounted for the one of the 10 hits Halladay has surrendered while posting complete-game victories in both of the two starts made against the Braves this year.

While pitching for the Blue Jays at Turner Field last year, Halladay fell victim to the National League game and had to be pinch hit for after limiting the Braves to five hits over seven scoreless innings. 

So over the course of the three starts Halladay has made against the Braves within these past two seasons, he has completed 25 innings, surrendered 15 hits and allowed just the one run.

Forget what I said about vulnerable.  The Braves can only hope that the big right-hander is due to prove mortal against them tonight, while opposing the latest Atlanta rookie to be thrown into the thick of a postseason chase. 

When Mike Minor takes the mound tonight to make his eighth career start, he’ll look like a grizzled veteran in comparison to Beachy, who made his 22nd career professional start while experiencing his Major League debut last night.

This is what prompted me to greet Tommy Hanson yesterday with, “What’s up old man?”

Hanson will be making the 53rd Major League start of his career during Wednesday’s series finale.  Beachy and Minor have combined for 55 starts at the professional level. 

Entering this series, the Braves
projected starters had totaled 174 professional starts.
Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels had totaled 376 Major League wins.

It seems like an obvious mismatch on paper.  But as we witnessed yet again last night, anything can happen on any given night. 

If Jason Heyward secures Shane Victorino’s slicing and knuckling fifth-inning fly ball, Beachy might have allowed just one run in an effective five-inning effort that might have set the stage for these teams to battle beyond the ninth inning.

But Heyward’s three-base error opened the door for the Phillies to tally a pair of unearned runs in the fifth and preserve Hamels’ strong eight-inning effort, which was aided by three double-play groundouts. 

Martin Prado accounted for two of those twin-killings while once again providing the appearance that his body is pretty well beat up as we near the end of the season.  There’s no doubt that his right pinky finger (fractured on July 30) is still bothering him.

But the All-Star second baseman has also provided reason to believe that his legs are fatiguing down the stretch.  He has recorded just eight hits in his past 33 at-bats and been held hitless in five of his past seven games.

Still you can never question the determination and attitude shown by Prado, who still stands as the club’s most valuable player this year. 

Now let’s get back to those double plays.  The most costly was undoubtedly the one that killed the second-inning that started so promising, with the Braves collecting three of the six hits that Hamels would allow. 

Matt Diaz followed Brian McCann’s RBI double with a single that put runners at the corners with nobody out.  Alex Gonzalez struck out before Melky Cabrera grounded into a double play.

Before going any further, I have to ask, was Melky even in the view of the television cameras when Diaz raced into left center-field to rob Placido Polanco with a sliding catch in the first inning?

Maybe the better question would be, “Why was Melky even back in the starting lineup for last night’s game?” 

Dating back to the start of the Cardinals series, I’ve felt the Braves would be best served to have Nate McLouth in the lineup on a daily basis. My thought is that he should play center against left-handed starters and move to left, while Rick Ankiel starts in center when the opponent starts a right-handed pitcher. 

We’ll likely see Ankiel and McLouth in the same lineup tonight.  But when the Braves have faced a left-handed pitcher Cabrera has managed to keep finding his name in the lineup.

McLouth has hit just .135 against left-handers this year.  He’s been hitless in the four at-bats he’s totaled against them this month.  But hasn’t the rejuvenated success he has experienced this month (.324 batting average and three homers) at least earned him more of an opportunity to prove that he can also hit left-handers now?

Cabrera has batted .190 over the course of his past 20 games.  The switch-hitting outfielder  hit .268 against left-handers through the end of July, but has since batted just .152 (7-for-46) against them.

There are no guarantees that McLouth will suddenly prove successful against left-handers.  But it seems pretty safe to assume that he would provide better defense and prove to be at least as productive as Cabrera has been against southpaws. 

 

 

 

 
 

Braves look to extend their success against the Phillies

Contrary to what will likely be repeated when the Phillies visit Atlanta for the last three games of the regular season, this week’s three-game set in Philadelphia is indeed be the most-anticipated series the Braves have experienced since last visiting the postseason in 2005. 

There is no reason to deem this or any other regular season series as being any more important than the others.  Had the Braves been swept this weekend by the Mets, could you still argue that this series was any more important than the one that had just been played in Queens.

The importance of this series against the Phillies was salvaged by what happened over the past three days at Citi Field.  

If the Braves were to take two of three this week in Philly and move to within two games of the Phillies in the National League East race, can you really deem this series any more important than any of the next three remaining on the schedule?

The optimism created this week in Philadelphia could prove to be every bit as influential as the destruction that could be felt if the Braves don’t find a way to finally end their Nationals Park woes this weekend.  

It sounds cliche, but the journey through a baseball season can only be completed one day at a time.  What’s achievable today is based on yesterday’s events.  Tomorrow’s potential is based on what is achieved today.  

Series outlook:  That sense of urgency currently being felt by Braves fans is a product of everything that has transpired since Derek Lowe threw the season’s first pitch on April 5.  The latest bumps  – a pair of series losses to the Pirates and Nationals — on this roller -coaster ride lessened the comfort level, but certainly didn’t destroy the Braves postseason hopes. 

Had Jayson Werth not energized the Philly fans with his walk-off homer yesterday, the Braves would have entered this series just two games behind the Phillies in the National League East standings.

But at the same time, the Braves playoff hopes were seemingly strengthened yesterday when the Dodgers staged their own late-inning comeback and claimed an 11-inning victory over the dangerous Rockies. 

The Braves own a 2 1/2-game lead over the second-place Padres in the National League Wild Card race.  Had the Rockies held on to win yesterday, they would have matched the Padres record. 

Considering the Rockies have won 13 of their past 16 games and the Padres have lost 17 of their past 24, it’s easy to understand why the Dodgers’ walk-off victory might prove to be just as influential to the Braves as the one produced by the Phillies.

Because it gives them a chance to at least win the division, the Braves are embracing the  chance to play six of their last 12 games against the Phillies.  But at the same time, this means they’ll be spending half of these final two weeks playing against this year’s most successful NL club. 

The Braves have won seven of 12, including five of their past six, against the Phillies this year.  But what transpired in the early days of June and July certainly doesn’t guarantee that they will encounter equal success during these final days of the season. 

Remember when the Phillies were swept in a four-game series against the Astros?  Well the two-time defending NL pennant winners have won 19 of the 23 games that have followed, including each of their past seven.

Now they’ll head into this three-game series against the Braves ready to send Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt to the mound to oppose what could be two rookies (Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor) and 24-year-old right-hander Tommy Hanson. 

If Jair Jurrjens’ sore right knee prevents him from making his scheduled start in tonight’s series opener, the Braves will ask Beachy to make his Major League debut in the thick of a tight pennant race and within what is certainly the NL’s most electric environment. 

“We know what we’re getting ourselves into,” Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. “We’ve all been there.  We’ve all played in front of the crowds.  They’re going to be cheering from pitch one.  We’ve got to be ready and I think we will be. 
 
“This is what you play for.  You play the game for these moments.   This is what you train hard  for in the offseason.  Going to Spring Training and all the hours you put into baseball is to play in a playoff-type atmosphere and to make it to the postseason.”  

When Hamels was named the World Series MVP in 2008, Beachy was still trying to figure out what had transpired over the previous few months.  When he left Indian Wesleyan University in late May of that year, he went to the Virginia Valley Summer League with the belief he’d simply return for his senior season to continue his role as third baseman/closer. 

The Braves signed him that summer and sent him to their Rookie Level affiliate in Danville to finish the season.  There certainly wasn’t reason to believe two years later, he’d develop into a quality starter, who would lead the Minors in ERA (1.73) and get a call in late September to join the big league club and possibly aid a pennant race.

But what else did you expect during a season that has been filled with surprsises?

Some within the Braves organization seem hopeful that Jurrjens will be able to make this start. Others seem a little more hesitant to believe it’s a good idea to send him to the mound and possibly risk him aggravating the knee to the point where he might be sidelined for a few more weeks.

Jurrjens has been far from consistent while posting a 7.09 ERA in his past five starts.  But it would seemingly be in the Braves best interest if he arrives at the park and proves that he’s even less bothered by the knee ailment he incurred during a bullpen session Friday night.

Neutralizing Victorino:  It goes without saying that the Braves need to limit the power produced by Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth.  But most importantly, they need to find a way to keep Shane Victorino off the base paths. 

With Jimmy Rollins sidelined, Victorino has found comfort at the top of this potent lineup. Since moving back into the leadoff spot on Sept. 6, he has hit .389 and compiled a .459 on-base percentage.

Now he’s going to attempt to extend this success against a team that has frustrated him all year.  In 12 games against the Braves, he has hit .120 (6-for-50) with a .151 on-base percentage.  Two of his six hits have been homers. 

With the Phillies sending a pair of former 20-game winners and a World Series MVP to the mound, the Braves are certainly at a disadvantage based on the starting pitching matchups.

But if the Atlanta starters can at least hold steady, the advantage could shift in the later innings.   The Braves bullpen ranks second in the NL with a 3.02 ERA.  The Phillies rank eighth with a 4.02 mark. 

The Braves have won 17 of the 30 games played against the Phillies since the start of the 2009 season.  Along the way, they have won eight of the 15 games played in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think any of us are looking at it as ‘oh my God we’ve never been here before,'” McCann said. “I got to play in the playoffs when I was 21 (years-old).  I can’t imagine it being any more nerve-wracking than it was then.   There’s a lot of young guys in here.  But we all expect to be here.  We all expect to produce at this level.  I don’t  think anything is going to take us away from that.” 

     
 
 

Without Holliday, Coors Field might feel like a vacation spot for Lowe

Once Todd Helton retires or at least ends his long career with the Rockies, Tim Hudson will finally understand what it’s like to exit Coors Field without frustration.   This belief is strengthened by what transpired last year when Derek Lowe learned how tranquil Denver can be without the presence of Matt Holliday.
 
Against Lowe, Holliday hasn’t matched the perfection that Helton has produced while recording hits in each of the eight at-bats he’s ever recorded against Hudson at Coors Field.  

But Holliday is certainly a primary reason that Lowe will return to Blake Street tonight having gone 3-4 with a 5.66 ERA in nine career starts at Coors Field.    The All-Star outfielder batted .650  (13-for-20) with a 1.167 OPS against the veteran sinkerballer in Denver.  He has been just a .333 (5-for-15) hitter against  him in environments that don’t include the thin Rocky Mountain air.

When Lowe made his Coors Field debut for the Red Sox during Holliday’s 2004 rookie season, he tossed seven scoreless innings.  He has allowed four earned runs or more in five of his other eight starts at this spacious park that is an offensive haven, with or without the humidor. 

When Holliday was a member of the A’s on July 10 of last year, Lowe exorcised some of his Coors Field demons by limiting the Rockies to one run and four hits over six innings.  During his third start of this season,  he recorded yet another win against  the Holliday-less Rockies.  

Lowe has gone 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA in his past five starts against the Rockies, dating back to June 2, 2008.   It should be noted that just one of these starts was made in Denver. 
Another thing going for Lowe is the fact that the Rockies aren’t planning to wear “Nationals” across their chests tonight.  

Lowe has gone 3-6 with a 3.65 ERA in his past 13 starts.   In the 10 starts that weren’t made against the Nationals during this span, he has gone 3-3 with a 2.93 ERA.  

Heyward heating up
:  Before grounding into a double play to end the seventh inning last night, Jason Heyward had reached base safely in 10 consecutive plate appearances and recorded hits in seven consecutive at-bats.
  
Over his past three games, Heyward has recorded nine hits in 13 at-bats.   Not bad considering he had totaled just nine hits in his previous 56 at-bats this month.   Before starting this mini-surge on Saturday, the rookie All-Star had hit .171 over his previous 21 games. 

After Sunday’s four-hit, two-homer performance at Wrigley Field, Heyward admitted  he’s still feeling some discomfort in the bruised right thumb that plagued him throughout June and sidelined him during the two weeks leading up to the All-Star break.  

Still while health has played a part, his inconsistencies are also a product of the fact that this 21-year-old outfielder is still going through the sometimes cruel initiation process that has welcomed almost everybody who has had the opportunity to play in the Majors. 

Through May, Heyward was on pace for a 30-homer season and seemingly destined to be named the National League’s Rookie of the Year.   The thumb injury opened the door for Giants catcher Buster Posey and Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez to join the Braves outfielder as top NL ROY candidates.

If the past couple days are an indication of things to come, Heyward could certainly end the season hitting above .280 with 18-20 homers and 80-plus RBIs.  Entering his first Major League season, I don’t think much more should have been expected from him.

One more late night:  If any of you need to go to bed before the conclusion of tonight’s game, but still want to know the outcome before you wake up, I suggest you simply watch what transpires in Philadelphia tonight.
 
Since trading wins and losses on Aug. 13 and 14, the Braves and Phillies have experienced the same verdict during each of the past eight days that they both have played games.

The Braves own the same 2 -game lead they held over the Phillies at the end of play on Aug. 1.  They are also 3 1/2 games in front of the Cardinals and Giants, who both sit a game behind the front-running Phillies in the NL Wild Card race. 
 

All is quiet on the Braves trade front

Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of TheJeff Francoeur Trade.  The Braves will  commemorate the event by spending this weekend playing against Francoeur and his Mets teammates at Citi Field.

Here at Bowman’s Blog, we chose to recognize the event Thursday, when we drew a steady wave of page hits courtesy of a player, who has previously drawn comparisons to Francoeur.

Once MLB.com’s Peter Gammons mentioned Mike Minor and Corey Hart in the same tweet yesterday, Braves fans buzzed with curiosity.  From all indications, Frank Wren and his lieutenants simply sat back and recognized the fact that we are indeed in the middle of July’s rumor season. 

If there is a group of untouchables within the Braves organization, Minor ranks near the top of that list.  The 22-year-old hurler will likely be projected to be part of the 2011 Atlanta rotation. 

Yes, somebody will likely have to be moved to create a spot for Minor next year.  But for now, we should just focus on the belief that he will stay with the organization unless the Braves are blown away by the offer of a young affordable position player that they could control for at least three years. 

In other words, Minor, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado will be sticking with the Braves unless another club is willing to offer a Jason Heyward-type player.  Last time I checked, the Marlins (Mike Stanton) and Tigers (Brennan Boesch) aren’t going to be willing to do this. 

The direction the Braves take leading up to the July 31 deadline will be heavily influenced by what Heyward shows when he returns from the disabled list after the All-Star break.  If he proves to be healthy and capable of being as productive as he was during the season’s first two months, there will be less need for Wren to pursue and everyday outfielder.

If Heyward provides confidence about what he could provide down the stretch, the Braves may simply look to add a bat to a bench that has been recently weakened while Eric Hinske and Omar Infante have been in the lineup much more often than originally projected. 

Matt Diaz’s return has already solidified the outfield mix.  If Nate McLouth is able to return from his concussion and provide some indication that he will be much more productive during the season’s second half, the Braves would then have the option of using either Melky Cabrera or Gregor Blanco as a trade chip. 

Blanco obviously has more trade value than the more-expensive Cabrera.  But more importantly, his performance over the past couple of weeks has given every reason to believe he can capably handle the center field position if McLouth isn’t able to regain his health or show the promise that was expected when the Braves acquired him last year.

If the Braves reach a point where they are seeking an outfielder to play on an everyday basis, Hart won’t be high on their wish list.  While producing a career-best season this year, Hart is setting himself up to earn $7-8 million via arbitration next year. 

The Braves would be hesitant making this kind of commitment to a player, who combined to hit .265 with 32 homers and a .757 OPS during the 2007 and ’08 seasons.  But the primary reason they wouldn’t offer the Brewers a highly attractive packages stems from the fact that Hart will be eligible for free agency at the end of the 2011 season. 

The Brewers have spent the past couple of years attempting to get the Braves to trade for Hart. Right now, it appears they’re still not ready to bite. 

Still the odds of Hart landing in Atlanta might actually be higher than those surrounding the possibility that Yunel Escobar will be traded before the trade deadline.   The Braves simply aren’t willing to sell low on a guy, who they still view as the game’s top defensive shortstop.

Manager Bobby Cox complimented Omar Infante the other day by saying he could be an everyday shortstop.  But it’s quite obvious that Infante wouldn’t bring the same defensive value as Escobar, whose presence strengthens the value of Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, who both rank among the top three NL starters in groundball/flyball ratio. 

While the Braves may not currently be major players on the trade market, they could see one of their former hurlers influenced if the Yankees conclude their current negotiations to land Cliff Lee. 

If the Yankees do land Lee (and it appears they will), they will likely trade Javier Vazquez. One scout told me this morning that he was hearing Vazquez would be dealt to the Phillies in exchange for Jayson Werth. 

But with Chase Utley sidelined until at least the latter portion of August, I find it hard to believe that the Phillies would be willing to trade another key piece of their lineup to strengthen their shaky rotation. 

NOTES: Julio Teheran was scratched from his latest start with Class A Myrtle Beach to allow him to be ready to pitch in this weekend’s Futures Game. Mike Minor is also scheduled to pitch for the U.S. team. The game will be shown live by MLB.TV and ESPN 2 at 6 p.m. ET Sunday…Highly-regarded, 18-year-old shortstop Edward Salcedo has hit .269 with two doubles and two triples in his first 26 at-bats since being promoted to Class A Rome. 

      

Times have changed since last visit to Philly

When Roy Halladay tossed his five-hit shutout against the Braves on April 21, he was the odds-on-favorite to win the National League Cy Young Award.  When the Braves left Philadelphia on May 9, they were five games below .500 (13-18) and six games behind a Phillies club that seemed destined to win a fourth consecutive NL East crown.

Oh, how times have changed. 

When Halladay takes the mound tonight, he’ll be aiming to halt his recent woes and close the gap on the first-place Braves, who are five games in front of the injury-depleted Phillies in the NL East race. 

The Phillies, who will be without Chase Utley until at least the latter part of August, have won just 14 of the 31 games they’ve played since coming to Atlanta on May 31 with a half-game lead over the Braves. 

Since tossing his perfect game against the Marlins on May 29, Halladay has gone 2-4 with a 3.27 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .302 against him.  During his last outing, he recorded 10 strikeouts over eight innings and held the Reds scoreless through five innings. 

Then while allowing four runs in the next three innings, Halladay saw Joey Votto and Jay Bruce prolong his recent longball woes. Seven of the 10 homers surrendered by the Phillies right-hander have been hit during his past four starts.  He allowed just three in his first 13 starts of the season.

Troy Glaus, who is one of the four current Braves who has one career homer against Halladay, will rest his sore left knee again tonight.  But it appears he could return to the lineup as soon as Tuesday. 

Nate McLouth will be re-examined within the next two days and if it appears he is no longer bothered by post-concussion symptoms, he could be cleared to begin a Minor League rehab assignment later this week. 

McLouth was able to complete batting practice outdoors without any problem the past couple of days.  Hopefully, this was a sign that he is recovering.  But it also could have been a product of the less-humid conditions that were in Atlanta this weekend. 

One of the reasons the Braves signed Willy Taveras to a Minor League deal was to provide some insurance in case McLouth isn’t able to return and prove to be more productive than he was before he suffered the concussion after colliding with Jason Heyward. 

But for now, Gregor Blanco is providing reason to believe he can serve as a dependable option in center field.  The speedy outfielder has always been able to cover a lot of ground.  But this year, he seems to be taking better routes and cutting down on the mental errors that he displayed in the past.

Oh yeah, Blanco also hit .450 in the six games he played last week.

Heading down to the clubhouse.  I’ll let you know if Omar Infante heads over to the Phillies dugout to give Charlie Manuel a big hug.   

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.

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.   
 

Will the starting rotation live up to expectations?

After suffering his Major League-high fifth loss on Tuesday night, the still-winless Kenshin Kawakami actually used the word pathetic (or that was at least what was interpreted) while describing how he has pitched this season.
 
If you agree that the tough-luck Kawakami has been “pathetic” this season, then how would you describe the path that Derek Lowe has traveled on the way to winning four of his first 6 decisions?
   
Lowe   4-2,  5.18 ERA   .264 BA .350 OBP  .774 OPS  33 IP, 33 hits and 17 BBs
Kawakami  0-5, 5.47 ERA  .298 BA .342 OBP .852 OPS   26 1/3 IP  31 hits and 8 BBs

Lowe has been opposed by six pitchers who have combined to go 10-12 with a 5.74 ERA this year.   The five pitchers who have served as Kawakami’s mound opposition have gone 18-3 with a 1.94 ERA.

Even though he has been awarded more than a third of the 11 wins the Braves have recorded this season, should we say that Lowe been “slightly less-than-pathetic?”

Or should we simply look at the big picture and realize that the early-season offseason woes have overshadowed the possibility that this Atlanta rotation might not be as strong as we projected entering the season? 

Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson, who will combine to start the final two games of the current three-game series against the Nationals, have provided indication that they are capable of being the ace-like pitchers the Braves believed they would be.  

But entering Wednesday night’s game, the Braves starters ranked eighth in the National League with a 4.28 ERA and 13th with just 143 2/3 innings completed through the season’s first 26 games.   An Atlanta pitcher has completed seven innings just three times this season with Hanson, Hudson and Jair Jurrjens accounting for those outings.

In comparison, the Phillies have seen their starting pitchers complete at least seven innings nine times already.  Yes, Roy Halladay has accounted for six of these outings.  But with Cole Hamels going eight innings in two of his past four outings, can the Braves still confidently say that their starting rotation is better than that injury-depleted one that supports the lethal offense that exists in Philadelphia? 

While Joe Blanton made his return to the Phillies rotation on Monday, the Braves currently don’t know who will be starting the final two games of this weekend’s series in Philadelphia.   Jurrjens doesn’t believe his strained hamstring will allow him to pitch on Saturday and Kawakami is at least questionable for Sunday’s start because of the blister that formed on his right foot during Tuesday night’s fourth inning.

Less than a week removed from a nine-game losing streak the Braves now find themselves battling a lack of depth in the starting pitching department.  James Parr could make Saturday’s start.  But if he does can the Braves be confident that he would eat enough innings for them to not have to call upon either Kris Medlen or Jonny Venters, the relievers who could be asked to make a spot start on Saturday. 

The Braves knew they couldn’t complete an entire season with all of their starting pitchers healthy and at this point, they can at least take solace in the fact that neither Jurrjens or Kawakami will miss any significant time. 

But as fate would have it, the Braves find themselves battling this potential dilemma during a weekend that could provide them a chance to remain within striking distance of the Phillies. 

Still I guess things could certainly be worse for the Braves.  I mean it’s lot like they suffered a 43-point loss during the first game of a conference semifinal last night.  

Speaking of yesterday, a loyal Braves fan, James Reese, snapped this picture of Tom Glavine, Frank Wren and  Dr. Joe Chandler watching Class A Rome’s home game on Tuesday.

glavwren.jpg 

Just like with his previous trip to Rome, Glavine returned to Atlanta having not allowed a run. But this time, it appears that he will incur a different fate. 

As of 2:07 p.m. ET on Wednesday, there was no indication that the former hurler has since been told that he has been released from his duties as a broadcaster and special assistant to the president. 

Sorry Frank, it was too easy.

Wren and Glavine are spending some time in Rome this week evaluating some of the club’s young prospects and Jordan Schafer, who has gone 2-for-7 in his first two Minor League rehab games.  The young center fielder will continue to strengthen his surgically-repaired left hand before joining Triple-A Gwinnett’s roster.  

The big league Braves will have the benefit of sending Hanson to the mound tonight to oppose Luis Atilano, who has gone 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA in his first three career starts.   The Braves selected Atilano with their first pick (35th overall) in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft and then traded him to the Nationals on Aug. 31, 2006 for pinch-hitter Daryle Ward.

BRAVES LINEUP vs. Nats 5/5/2010

McLouth, 8
Prado, 4
Chipper, 5
McCann, 2
Glaus, 3
Heyward, 9
Diaz, 7
Infante, 6
Hanson, 1

Follow me on Twitter @mlbbowman

  

Let the Hot Stove season begin

When I arrive at Citizens Bank Park for this afternoon’s  Division Series workout,  I’m going to present Ryan Howard with the First Annual White Flag  —  an award that will be presented to the player that proves to be the most destructive to the Braves over the course of the regular season.

Howard won this year’s award in a close battle against Dan Uggla and Jeff Bennett, who  will receive an autographed picture of Kevin Brown to recognize that he was  unanimously chosen as the Braves player who was most destructive against clubhouse property this year.

When the Braves won seven of the first nine games they played against the Phillies this year, Howard hit .250 with two RBIs, seven strikeouts and a .659 OPS.  The powerful first baseman didn’t homer or walk during this span

While dropping six of the final nine games played against the defending world champs, the Braves saw Howard hit .438 with eight homers, 14 RBIs, eight strikeouts, two walks (one intentional) and a 1.776 OPS.

Despite his early struggles, Howard still hit more homers (8) and  collected more RBIs (16) than any other player against the Braves this year.  Among those who registered at least 20 plate appearances, his .794 slugging percentage ranked fourth behind Jay Bruce (1.000), Ryan Braun (.833) and Andre Ethier (.800).

During their final six wins against the Braves this year, the Phillies totaled 27 runs.  Howard drove in 11 of those runs and each of these RBIs came courtesy of the longball.

When Tommy Hanson took the mound during home games this year, he was serenaded by Green Day’s “Know Your Enemy.”

My suggestion would be for the Braves to provide a friendly reminder to their pitchers by playing this song whenever Howard strolls to the plate at Turner Field in the future.  Or maybe they should just cut to the chase and play Aerosmith/Run DMC’s  “Walk This Way”.  

Before flying to Philadelphia last night, I went to Turner Field to talk to Bobby Cox and Frank Wren.  Here are some of their interesting thoughts that weren’t included in the story I wrote for MLB.com and  braves.com.

At the All-Star break, I chose Yunel Escobar as the team’s first-half MVP and I think I’d have to say he deserves he still deserves this distinction when evaluating the entire season.   (We’ll debate that in a blog I’ll post later this week).

Anyhow, those mental mistakes that tarnished Escobar’s tremendous talents during the first half were basically non-existent during the second half.  He committed just two errors in his last 75 games and continued to take advantage of a healthy percentage of the opportunities he was provided to drive in runs.

When I asked Cox if Escobar made some impressive strides this year, he chose not to address the improvement element.  But he does now share the opinion that Chipper Jones expressed last year, when Escobar’s name was being included in the Jake Peavy trade talks.  
“He’s the best shortstop in baseball right now,” Cox said.  “I can’t think of anybody better honestly.”

Another guy who would draw consideration as the club’s MVP this year is Martin Prado, whose value extended far beyond his .307 batting average.   He’s not  a Gold-Glove infielder, but he certainly enhanced the club’s defense after he was provided a chance to play second base on a regular basis.

When asked about Prado, Cox talked about what he’s heard about the defensive skills Prado has shown while playing the outfield in Venezuela.

“They say he’s a real good outfielder ,” Cox said. “That’s why we weren’t hesitant to put him out there  (on Sunday)) when we had to pinch-hit  (Brooks) Conrad to try to win the game.  He plays right field on a regular basis in Venezuela.  He has for the past couple of years.  So he’s a possible candidate.”  

Yes the Braves will be looking for a power-hitting, right-handed outfielder.  But I wouldn’t expect Prado to ultimately fill this need.  

Cox’s comment likely had something to do with the fact that the Braves don’t know what they’ll do with Kelly Johnson.  Despite his struggles this year, Johnson is still drawing attention from a number of clubs, who recognize his talents and believe he can still experience some of the success  that has been on display in the past.

So I would think they’ll be able to trade him before reaching a point where they may have to debate whether to tender him a contract.

“We just can’t give up on Kelly,” Cox said. “He had too solid of a season last year.  I think if he’d have gotten the at-bats, he’d have been close with all of those numbers (from 2008), except for the batting average maybe.  But the homers, doubles and triples, if you add another 250 at-bats would have probably been the same.

“I feel bad about Kelly Johnson, not being able to get him in there at all. After Prado got in there, you couldn’t take him out.  He was the hottest hitter we had.”

Next week, Jason Heyward will begin competing in the Arizona Fall League.  At the same time while the Braves are holding their planning meetings in Orlando, the 20-year old top prospect’s name will be a hot topic of discussion.  Or that’s at least Cox’s expectation.  

Heyward has just 173 at-bats above the Class A level.  This was Wren’s response when he was asked if the club could go into Spring Training with an open mind about the possibility of the young phenom starting the 2010 season in the Majors:  

“I think it’s premature to have any mindset about Jason,” Wren said. “We know that he’s an outstanding  young talent.  We just want him to go play in Arizona and get as much experience as possible.  We’ll see where that takes him.”  

I’ll be covering the Phillies-Rockies Division Series and the NLCS.  But obviously I’ll be keeping up with the Braves-related news and updating this blog frequently.    The Hot Stove season will allow us to keep this forum just as lively as it was during Spring Training and the regular season.  

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