Results tagged ‘ Phillies ’

Howard continues to destroy the Braves

Welcome back to Philadelphia, the home of Citizens Bank Park or what Brian McCann refers to as “a high school field.”  

McCann has used the offensively-friendly confines here in Philly to account for three of his 17 homers this year.  But this frustration-induced description he provided following Friday night’s loss came in response to watching Ryan Howard lunge over the plate and loop yet another homer the opposite way and over the left field wall.  

Off the bat, Howard’s second-inning homer off Tommy Hanson did indeed appear to be a pop fly that would have been caught at the warning track at most other ballparks.  

As for his fourth-inning, two-run shot off Kris Medlen, it initially appeared to be one that was destined to place another crack in the Liberty Bell.  

There’s obviously no reason for Howard to feel ashamed about the fact that he takes advantage of his power and the dimensions of his park by routinely flipping homers over the left field wall.  McCann just missed two homers while attempting to do the same during a couple of his four plate appearances last night.

Two weeks ago after watching his team hit a number of balls to the wall during a loss to the Phillies in Atlanta, Braves manager Bobby Cox said that the outcome of the game would have been different had they been playing in CBP.   

While that was an arguable statement, there is less reason to argue the possibility that the Braves would be in a much better place in the National League East standings had they recently been as successful  against Howard as they were while holding him homerless during his first 39 at-bats against them.   

In the 11 at-bats that have followed, Howard has damage them with five homers.   In fact, his fourth-inning shot off Medlen gave him four homers in a span of five at-bats against Cox’s pitchers.

Howard’s 29 career homers against the Braves are the most among all active players.  David Wright ranks second with 23.   

While 17 of these home runs produced by the Phillies first baseman have been hit at CBP, he’s also homered once every 11.75 at-bats at Turner Field.

How impressive is this 11.75 ratio?    The only other Major Leaguer to ever produce a better career  ratio against the Braves was Dave Kingman, who homered once every  11.2 at-bats against Atlanta pitchers.

Howard’s career ratio of one homer in every 9.76 at-bats against the Braves is easily the best ever produced.   Willie McCovey hit an all-time best 71 homers against the Braves and did so while hitting one every 12.7 at-bats.   

The next-best ratio was produced by Willie Stargell, who homered once every 13 at-bats against Braves pitchers.  

So the question is, why have the Braves continued to consistently provide Howard the opportunity to beat them?    

While it’s doubtful that Howard’s second-half surge will prove significant enough for him to move past Albert Pujols or Hanley Ramirez for National League MVP consideration, he has already solidified himself as the Most Destructive Force in relation to the Braves postseason hopes.
 
During the three wins the Phillies have tallied in four games against the Braves this month, they’ve scored 11 runs and eight of those have come courtesy of Howard’s five homers.
 
So why would the Braves continue to provide Howard the opportunity to beat them?   The obvious answer is that the two guys hitting behind him have already combined for 56 homers   —   Jayson Werth (29) and Raul Ibanez (27).
 
But it also has something to do with the fact that Adam Dunn is the only Major Leaguer who has struck out more often than Howard dating back to the beginning of the 2005 season.   And this year, the Phillies first baseman’s strikeout total has been topped by only by Arizona’s Mark Reynolds.  

Unfortunately for the Braves, they haven’t been able to find the hole in Howard’s swing as often as most other teams.   He has struck out once every 4.74 plate appearances in his career against Atlanta.  His combined ratio against every other big league club is once every 3.43 plate appearances.
 
And before concluding this Howard evaluation, it should be noted that the Braves have outhomered the Philles 12-8 this year at the high school field known as CBP.  

McLouth update:   Nate McLouth went 0-for-2 in three plate appearances with Double-A Mississippi on Friday night.  The center fielder, who is on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring, will continue playing with Mississippi through Sunday and then fly to meet the Braves in Miami.
 
But even though he is eligible for activation on Monday, the Braves may wait to activate him on Tuesday, after the rosters have been expanded. 
 
When the Braves activate Tim Hudson for his start on Monday, they  will have to make room for him on both the 25 and 40-man rosters.
  
Despite the fact that he’s hitting just .141, Greg Norton won’t be the roster casualty.   To make room for Hudson on the 25-man, the Braves could option Boone Logan or possibly choose to place Kenshin Kawakami on the 15-day disabled list.
   
It’s a little harder to project what the Braves will do to make room for Hudson on the 40-man roster.   But there’s a chance the club could choose to part ways with outfielder Brian Barton, who has fallen out of favor since joining the Triple-A Gwinnett club in April.    

Braves bats have recently slumbered at Turner Field

Had the Padres bullpen kept things relatively clean following Mat Latos’ exit on Tuesday night, it would have been a little easier for the Braves to simply tip their caps and accept the fact that they were on the wrong end of a one-run shutout loss.  

During Latos’ seven scoreless innings, the Braves recorded two hits and moved just one baserunner (Matt Diaz in the sixth) into scoring position.  During each of the next three innings that followed the 21-year-old hurler’s exit, they put a runner in scoring position with one out and still managed to register just one run.
 
While recording just one hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position during those three innings, the Braves prolonged a troubling trend that has factored heavily in the that they’ve produced a pedestrian  7-6 record in their past 13 home games.   During this same span, which dates back to July 31, they’ve won seven of 10 road games.

Within their past 13 games at Turner Field, the Braves have compiled a .224 batting average and hit .223 (23-for-103) with runners in scoring position.  During their past 10 road games, they’ve batted .297 and been successful at a .397 (33-for-87) clip with runners in scoring position.

This glaring discrepancy comes within a small sample size.  But at the same time, it’s not as if the Braves possess the margin of error that will allow them to continue experience these kind of offensive struggles at Turner Field and still catch the Phillies or the Denver-based Rock-offs. 

With a second consecutive extra-inning, walk-off victory last night, the Rockies moved 5 games in front of both the Braves and Marlins, who are once again tied for third place in the National League Wild Card standings. 

Even with all of Colorado’s recent success,  it’s too early for the Braves to panic.  While they’re spending the next two nights facing a couple of Padres starters not named Latos, the Rockies will be facing the greater challenge presented by the Dodgers, who have the luxury of serving as the opposition when Josh Fogg makes his first big league start of the season tonight. 

If Fogg channels 2007 and once again becomes the “Dragon-Slayer”  that he was down the stretch that year, then Denver can prepare for another Rocktober and Atlanta can only hope the Dodgers continue to slide or that the Phillies send Brad Lidge to the mound to protect ninth-inning leads on a nightly basis.

Obviously before the Braves can make a serious push toward the postseason, they’ll need to get healthy.  With Ryan Church likely returning tonight and Nate McLouth confident that he’ll be ready when he’s eligible to come off the DL on Monday, they’re at least moving in the right direction.
 
While Martin Prado went hitless in six at-bats last night, it was at least encouraging to hear that he was able to complete a 12-inning game without dealing with any of the headaches or dizziness that had bothered him over the previous 10 days. 

The Braves also welcomed Garret Anderson back to the lineup on Tuesday night and watched him gut through a 1-for-5 performance.    Obviously outfield range isn’t one of Anderson’s assets.  But last night, it was apparent that he was still dealing with some of the lower back discomfort that has kept Church sidelined the past three games.
 
A healthy Anderson wasn’t going to get the game-winner that David Eckstein placed in the  left-center field gap.  But had Church or McLouth been in center, instead of Omar Infante, I think there’s a chance we might have at least seen a 13th inning.
 
Speaking of health, Chipper Jones certainly has said that he’s feeling some of the aches and pains that develop toward the end of a season for a 37-year-old man.  But it’s not as if his offensive struggles simply started over the course of the past nine games, during which he’s recorded one hit in 28 at-bats. 

This nine-game stretch doesn’t seem as concerning when he you account for the fact that he’s walked seven times in his past 18 plate appearances —  largely a product of the fact that the Marlins made it their mission not to let him hurt him this past weekend. 

Plus in the six games that preceded this nine-game slide, Chipper recorded 13 hits, including a pair of homers, in 23 at-bats. 

Concerns about Jones should focus on the fact that he’s hit just .241 with a .384 slugging percentage during his past 62 games.  Within this stretch, which dates back to June 10, he has seen his batting average drop from .335 to .281 and his slugging percentage drop from .565 to .462. 

Making this stretch even more maddening for Jones is the fact that he’s struggled from both sides of the plate and whether at home or on the road. 

Here are some of Jones’ splits during this 62-game stretch:
Vs. LHP   .235 (18-for-91) batting average, .330 on-base percentage, .395 slugging percentage
Vs. RHP  .244 (33-for-135) BA, .384 OBP, .378 SLG
Home:   .239 (28-for-117) BA, .343 OBP, .385 SLG
Road:    .242 (24-for-99) BA, .389 OBP, .384 SLG

Now that the Braves are returning to health, Jones might be given more opportunities to benefit from the rest provided by a day off.   But at the same time, this wouldn’t guarantee an immediate revival.  After straining his left oblique muscle on Aug. 7, he missed three games and didn’t return to the lineup until Aug. 11.
 
If Jones feels that he needs a day off, Braves manager Bobby Cox will likely be more apt to give him one during one of these final two games against the Padres. 

With the Braves heading to Philadelphia this weekend knowing just how significant it would be to exit with a three-game sweep, they’ll need Jones in the lineup  for each of those three games against the Phillies. 

 

Braves playoff hopes still alive

Within yesterday’s offday story, I pointed out that based on the developments that occurred during the previous two seasons, you can’t completely rule out the possibility that the Braves could still win the National League East.

At the same time, I provided a couple of recent examples (2007 Rockies and 2004 Astros) to reinforce the belief that the Braves are still very much alive in the National League Wild Card race.   Of course, I wrote that approximately 12 hours before the Rockies completed their 14-inning marathon against the Giants with Ryan Spilborghs’ walk-off grand slam.

While playing golf, fishing or resting tired muscles yesterday, the Braves lost a half-game in both the National League East and Wild Card races.  They now trail the Phillies by seven games and sit 4 games behind the Rockies.  

Having won seven of their last eight and 17 of their past 24, the Rockies aren’t providing any indication that they’re ready to release their stranglehold atop the Wild Card standings.   But at the same time, they’re providing reason to wonder if they may eventually fall out of this equation and catch the NL West-leading Dodgers, who have gone 10-12 this month and seen their lead over the Rockies shrink to three games.

The Dodgers, who owned an eight-game advantage over the Rockies entering this month, have hit .266, compiled a .330 on-base percentage and scored 4.5 runs per game in August.  From a pitching perspective, they’ve posted a 3.23 ERA.  

In the 24 games the Rockies have played since being shut out in consecutive games by the Mets, they’ve hit .274, compiled a .359 on-base percentage and tallied 5.79 runs per game.  During this span, their pitchers have posted a 3.95 ERA.  

While winning 14 of the 21 games they’ve played this month, the Braves have hit .272, reached base at a .348 clip and tallied 5.29 runs per game.   In the process, their pitchers have posted a 3.41 ERA.  

Looking at a larger sample size, the Cliff Lee-aided Phillies (3.04) are the only NL team that has posted a better ERA than the Braves (3.23) since the All-Star break.  With Spilborghs’ walk-off shot, the Rockies (5.30) became the only NL team that has scored more runs per game since the break than the Braves (5.28).   

Yesterday’s offday story also pointed out that the Braves current record of 66-58 matched the ones the Phillies had tallied on the way to winning the NL East both of the past two seasons.  In addition, I’ve since noticed that the 2006 world champion Cardinals also posted this same mark through their first 124 games.  

On the way to winning the Wild Card and advancing to the 2007 World Series, the Rockies possessed a 63-61 record and sat 3 games back in the Wild Card standings.  

Obviously the variables differ from year-to-year and the Braves certainly aren’t guaranteed the luxury the Phillies gained while the Mets collapsed both of the past two Septembers.   But recent history proves that they are still very much alive with the hope they’ve created courtesy of the recent success that they’ve encountered.  

Red-hot Roachy:  When the Braves acquired Mark Teixeira before the 2007 trade deadline, many immediately compared it to the trade that brought a first baseman named Fred McGriff to Atlanta for the final two months of the 1993 season.

While hitting .289 with nine homers, 26 RBIs and a .711 slugging percentage through his first 20 games,  Teixeira provided the similar immediate impact that McGriff did while hitting .364 with seven homers, 15 RBIs and a .753 slugging percentage during his first 20 games in Atlanta.  

When Adam LaRoche was acquired before this year’s trade deadline, there wasn’t any reason to put pressure on him to produce these kinds of outrageous numbers.  But through his first 20 games back as Atlanta’s first baseman, Roachy has hit .406 with seven homers, 16 RBIs and a .739 slugging percentage.  

Based on this success, the Braves will certainly attempt to keep  LaRoche in Atlanta after he hits the free agent market this offseason.  But with Freddie Freeman just a year or two away from reaching the Majors, they aren’t likely to offer him more than a two-year deal.  

Speaking of Freeman, he’s been placed on the seven-day disabled list with a bruised left hand.   During his first 41 games with Double-A Mississippi, the 19-year-old first baseman has hit .248 with two homers and a .650 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).  

For those of you who looked at yesterday’s box score and also noticed that Jason Heyward didn’t play for Mississippi, he simply got a day to rest.   Through his first 43 games at the Double-A level, Heyward has hit .338 with seven homers and a 1.046 OPS.  

These numbers are even more impressive when you account that he’s hit just .162 with one homer and three RBIs in his past 10 games.   The fact that he’s hit .243 with four homers and an .847 OPS this month should simply be a reminder that even the greatest 20-year-old prospects are going to encounter some form of struggles as they make their march toward the big leagues.  

Medlen’s turnaround:
  While Brian McCann provided the necessary offense, Sunday afternoon’s game against the Marlins couldn’t have been won without the two scoreless innings provided by Kris Medlen.  His effort negated the fact that Derek Lowe was forced to exit after five innings and just 67 pitches   —  a combined product of ineffective mound work and a short bench.
 
In his 13 appearances since the All-Star break, Medlen has worked 19 1/3 innings, posted a 0.93 ERA and limited opponents to a .197 batting average and .250 on-base percentage.
 
This obviously isn’t the same kid who was a nervous wreck when he arrived in the Majors in May.  Much more relaxed, Medlen has proven to be a funny dude in the clubhouse and a talented pitcher, who is going to continue to have chances to provide major impacts as the Braves continue to march into the heat of the postseason races.

Braves starters look to continue success vs. Phils

Nothing will be won.  Something could be gained and a lot could be lost.   

This seems to be the easiest way to break down the consequences entering this weekend’s key series against the Phillies.    

If the Braves can take two of three from the Phillies this weekend, they’ll trail the defending world champs by four games in the National League East and also prolong the momentum they’ve gained while winning seven of their previous eight games.   

Obviously sweeping the Phillies for the second time in a little more than a month at The Ted would truly increase the intrigue of the National League East race, within which the Braves would be just two games away from the top spot.

But if the Braves were to be swept and suddenly find themselves eight games back, it will be time for us once again to solely focus on the Wild Card race.

While winning seven of the first nine games they’ve played against the Phillies this year, the Braves starters have gone 5-1 with a 2.38 ERA.   That’s more than a  full run better than the ERA they’ve compiled against any of their other NL East opponents   —  Nationals (3.41   Mets  (3.79), Marlins (5.74).  

During these nine games against the Phillies, the Braves starters have allowed two earned runs or less seven times.  The only game during which one of their starters allowed more than three runs against the potent Philadelphia offense occurred on May 8, when Jo-Jo Reyes was charged with four earned runs.  

With Jair Jurrjens opposing Joe Blanton in tonight’s series opener, the advantage seemingly has to go to the Braves.

Blanton is 0-1 with an 8.74 ERA in three starts against the Braves.  .   Blanton surrendered 13 earned runs in his first 12 innings against Atlanta this year and then realized some improvement on June 30, when he was charged three earned runs and eight hits in five innings.  

As for Jurrjens, when he last faced the Phillies on July 30, he allowed one hit over seven scoreless innings and that lone hit he surrendered was Paul Bako’s soft single to right with two outs in the seventh.  

This dominant effort wasn’t exactly anything new for Jurrjens, who has blanked the Phillies during three of his six career starts against them.  During his two outings against them this year, he has worked 12 1/3 scoreless innings.

All you loyal readers who have been reading this blog dating back to Spring Training should understand when I say that this seems to be a perfect spot to indicate there is no reason to believe that the law of averages won’t sneak up and bite Jurrjens tonight during this series opener.  

Looking at the stats, it’s not hard to figure out how the Braves have found so much success against the Phillies this year.  They’ve limited Jimmy Rollins to a .100 batting average (4-for-40) and a .143 on-base percentage.   As for Shane Victorino, he  has hit just .132 with a .195 on-base percentage against Atlanta this year.

And the always-dangerous Ryan Howard has gone homerless in his first 36 at-bats against the Braves this year.  Entering this season, Howard had homered once every 9.75 at-bats against Bobby Cox’s club.

Since being swept out of Atlanta on July 2, the Phillies have gone 25-11, compiled a .263 batting average and hit 50 homers.  They have averaged 5.47 runs per game during this span.  

During this same span, the Braves have gone 22-14, compiled a .279 batting average and hit 41 homers.  They’ve averaged 5.05 runs per game and managed to fall one-half game further behind the Phillies during this 36-game stretch.
 
There won’t be any need for the Braves to do any scoreboard watching this weekend.  For the first time since 2005, it truly feels like a key series will be staged at Turner Field and by the time Sunday night concludes the city of Atlanta will have a much better idea about whether there’s truly a reason for them to believe the NL East title is a realistic possibility this year.

FRIDAY’S LINEUP
McLouth 8
Prado 4
Jones 5
McCann 2
Anderson 7
Escobar 6
LaRoche 3
Church 9
Jurrjens 1

Braves still quiet on the trade front

All remains quiet on the Braves trade front and there’s no reason to expect that the Phillies acquisition of Cliff Lee is going to force Frank Wren to feel like he has to make a deal before Friday’s deadline.
 
The Braves have spent the past couple days inquiring about some relievers and primarily found the ones that interest them aren’t available.   This isn’t to say Wren won’t pull the trigger within the next 48 hours.  But at this time, it appears that he’ll stand pat. 

While Lee will certainly upgrade the Phillies rotation, his presence in Philadelphia doesn’t exactly significantly alter the challenge the Braves face in their bid to advance to the postseason.   Entering Wednesday, they were eight games behind the front-running Phillies in the National League East race and understanding the reality that it would be wise to worry more about the 3 1/2 -game deficit they face in the Wild Card race.  

“You hate to see the team that you’re chasing get better,” David Ross said.  “But if you want to make the playoffs and reach the World Series, you’re going to have to beat the Roy Halladays, Cliff Lees and Josh Becketts.  In one sense, I wish the Phillies hadn’t gotten better.  But in another sense, I don’t think that he’s unbeatable.”

Obviously Lee’s presence presents the possibility that the head-to-head matchups against the Phillies will prove to be more challenging.  But the Braves have gone 20-15 against left-handed starters this year and they have won seven of the nine games they’ve played against the Phillies this year.

Braves starting pitchers have allowed two earned runs or fewer in seven of the nine games played against the Phillies this year.  If they can continue this success during the final nine games played against the defending world champs, Lee won’t have much of an effect on their hopes to at least gain entry to the postseason via the Wild Card.  

When Rafael Soriano entered Tuesday night’s game against the Marlins with the responsibility of protecting a one-run lead, it was easy to draw the same assumption that was present when the Braves used to send John Smoltz to the mound to close games.
 
The Braves had won 29 of the previous 33 games during which Soriano had pitched and he hadn’t allowed a run or hit during two of the four losses suffered during that span.    The only other blown save he’d experienced in 15 previous opportunities  occurred during the May 13 game that the Braves won when Martin Prado doomed the Mets with a 12th-inning homer. 

But while pitching with three days of rest last night, Soriano showed some signs of impending trouble when he issued Cody Ross a four-pitch, leadoff walk.   He hadn’t issued a walk to any of the previous 33 batters that he’d faced and during his previous five appearances, he’d thrown 53 of his 67 pitches for strikes. 

After Soriano recorded just three strikes in this 10-pitch appearance against the Marlins, Braves manager Bobby Cox complained about Jerry Meals’ strike zone.   But really the only thing that mattered at the end of the night was the fact that Soriano grooved a 3-1 fastball that Ross Gload turned into a two-run, walk-off homer. 

With Josh Johnson set to oppose Kenshin Kawakami tonight, this certainly wasn’t an opportune time for Soriano to prove to be mortal.  But at the same time, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to worry about how this one shaky outing will affect the stone-faced closer.  

Tonight’s lineup:
McLouth 8
Prado 4
Jones 5
McCann 2
Anderson 7
Escobar 6
Kotchman 3
Church 9
Kawakami 1

Looking back on Teixeira trade

Things are obviously much quieter along the Braves trade front than they were both of the past two years, when they were dealing with the acquisition and departure of Mark Teixeira.
 
Still with the Phillies still playing a lead role in the daily developments that surround Roy Halladay, these final days leading up to the trade deadline could prove to be interesting for the Braves and their fans.
 
Or if Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi does stick with his self-imposed deadline, this trade-deadline excitement might simply extend for another 24 hours.
 
If the Phillies were to land Halladay, there’s certainly reason to believe that a third consecutive National League East pennant will appear in Philadelphia.  But his acquisition seemingly would have more of an effect on the potential of a second consecutive world championship.
 
When MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki asked if the Phillies should continue their pursuit of Halladay, Cole Hamels responded:
 
“It depends on if you want to try to win the World Series the next two years because that’s what he’s going to be here for,” Hamels said. “Winning the World Series or at least attempting to win the World Series the next two years will please us, please the organization and please the fans. You can’t really complain about that. I think it would be a step in a good direction.”

It appears the Jays need a multi-player package that is headlined by both J.A. Happ and Kyle Drabek.  The Phillies have balked at including both of these promising young pitchers.

But this certainly doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually opt to pull the trigger.  As Braves president John Schuerholz reminded me last week, he and his aides experienced a number lively debates before ultimately appeasing the Rangers with the five prospects that it took to bring Teixeira to Atlanta
.
With the Halladay trade talk in focus, MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan wrote a story looking back on the 2007 trade that made Teixeira a Brave.

As the years progress, you can twist and turn the analysis of trades in many different directions.  But at the end of the day, I don’t think you can truly bash a trade unless it’s one you bashed at the time it was completed.
 
My initial thoughts were that the Braves had given up too much for Teixeira.  But two years later, I actually find myself feeling that Schuerholz made a calculated gamble that was worth taking.
 
As has been pointed out countless times, with Yunel Escobar and Brian McCann in place, there was no room in Atlanta for Elvis Andrus and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.   This analysis has proven to be even stronger as Escobar continues to develop into one of the game’s top shortstops.
 
Matt Harrison might have been a nice Band-Aid last year, when the Braves rotation was wrecked by injuries.  But scouts and others who have had a chance to watch the soft-spoken left-hander on a regular basis don’t seem to be too high on his future.

Obviously the most consistent knock about the trade centers around the fact that the Braves included a 19-year-old right-hander, who had recorded 28 strikeouts and allowed 18 hits in 27 1/3 innings for their rookie level Danville club that year. 

Two years later, that 19-year-old is now the 21-year-old right-hander that the baseball world knows as  the flame-throwing Neftali Feliz.  Still even with a fastball that has reached 100 mph, Feliz’s future success at the big league level is clouded by the fact that he’s struggled to find consistent command with a secondary pitch. 

Feliz, who has been moved into a relief role with Texas’ Triple-A affiliate, and Andrus still have the potential be superstars at the Major League level. 

But even if they both reach this status, wasn’t it worth taking the gamble on the acquisition of a first baseman, who would hit .295 with 37 homers in the 157 games that you placed him in your lineup.

Forgettable anniversary:  Today marks the one-year anniversary of when Teixeira’s career in Atlanta essentially came to a close.  One year ago today, the Braves blew a five-run lead against the Phillies for a second consecutive day.

With those consecutive losses, Frank Wren faced the reality that his club wasn’t a postseason contender and had to find a club willing to exchange a Major League-ready first baseman for Teixeira.

It’s still hard to believe that the return the Braves gained from the Angels in exchange for Teixeira was limited to Casey Kotchman and Minor League reliever Stephen Marek.

But while hitting .328 with three homers and a .492 slugging percentage in his past 19 games, Kotchman has at least contributed to the offensive awakening the Braves have realized this month.   In the 104 games he’d previously played for the Braves, he’d hit .254 with four homers and a .349 slugging percentage.  

With Kelly Johnson back in the mix and at least showing some indication that he got himself right during his Minor League rehab assignment, Martin Prado’s versatility could prove to be even more important.  

During those days that the Braves are facing a top left-handed pitcher, Bobby Cox could choose to put Prado at first base and give Johnson the opportunity to prolong the success he’s found while facing southpaws during the past two seasons.
 
When asked who has been the most valuable offensive performer for the Braves this month, it’s easy to determine the distinction belongs to Yunel Escobar, who has produced a team-leading four homers, 19 RBIs, .461 on-base percentage and .662 slugging percentage.   His .369 batting average has been bettered only by the .370 mark that Matt Diaz has compiled in 11 fewer at-bats.
 
Chipper Jones (.294) and Nate McLouth (.259) are the only Braves regulars who haven’t hit at least .300 this month.   Still Jones’ 15 RBIs rank as the team’s third-highest total and McLouth is one of five players who have hit three homers.  The others being Jones, Brian McCann, Kotchman and Garret Anderson.  

Home Run Derby prediction and other ASG Monday odds and ends

If home-field advantage for this year’s World Series was determined by the winner of tonight’s Home Run Derby, then I’d have to say the National League should be feeling good.

Because I’d like for you to read more than two sentences of this entry, I’m not ready to pick my individual winner for tonight’s event.  But if you were simply looking at it from an NL vs. AL perspective, this would be a mismatch.

In fact, I’d probably take Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder against most any other Major League foursome.  Thrown up against Carlos Pena, Brandon Inge, Joe Mauer and Nelson Cruz and it’s apparent why the NL should plan to at least carry bragging rights into tomorrow night’s game.

My prediction is that Pujols, Fielder, Howard and Pena will advance to the semifinals.  Pujols will edge a fatigued Fielder in the finals.

If you haven’t caught today’s story about Brian McCann, check out some of the praise the Braves catcher got from other NL All-Stars.

Here are some interesting quotes from today’s media session:

Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino on last week’s  Jeff Francoeur-for-Ryan Church swap between the Braves and Mets:

“It kind of caught me by surprise. I’m not saying that I hadn’t heard that the Braves might be trying to move Francoeur.  But to do it between the Braves and the Mets just caught me off guard. But you know what, I think they’re both good players and sometimes a change of scenery can help a guy.  It happened last year with us, with (Brad) Lidge.  A change of scenery and one year later he’s perfect.  So I think sometimes things like that happen for a reason.”

Mets third baseman on how Francoeur might fare in New York:

He came up and played so well that the expectations were placed so
high.  He’ll help us immediately defensively with as much ground as he
can cover and with his throwing arm.  With that spacious outfield,
that’s going to help us immediately. If he can back to that form from a
few years ago, you’re talking about an All-Star-caliber player year in
and year out.

Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira about how the New York scene might affect Francoeur:

I don’t know exactly what’s inside his head, but hopefully this is kind
of a new beginning for him and he can just let his talent play through.

If you’re losing and you’re playing bad, it doesn’t matter where you
are. Whether you’re in the American League, National League, New York
or wherever, you’re not going to be happy.  But if you’re playing well
and your team is winning, there’s no better place in the world to play
than New York.

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, when asked if his skipper was pretty excited about having the chance to direct the NL team tommorow:

He’s played it pretty low-key so far.  He hasn’t danced yet.  He hasn’t stripped naked yet.  I’m hoping he doesn’t do that.

Where will this three-game winning streak lead?

Welcome back to Braves Mountain.  We once again ask you to keep your hands and feet inside the car as we continue this ride includes both quick ascents and frustrating descents.   And we are happy to announce that the early portion of this week’s journey has provided more reason to believe that the light at the end of the tunnel will still be lit after the All-Star break.
 
With last night’s win over the Phillies, the Braves once again matched a season-best three-game winning streak and if this year’s trend continues, you may want to put your hands in the air and at least attempt to enjoy the rush created by the descent that could follow. 

“We’ve proven both ways that momentum doesn’t help us or hurt us,” Matt Diaz said after highlighting his three-hit performance with a homer and two RBIs last night. 

After sweeping the Nationals (April 10-12) to move to 5-1 on the season, the Braves immediately followed with a five-game losing streak and an eight-game stretch that included just one win. 

When the Braves gained another three-game losing streak April 22-25, they soured those positive vibes by enduring a nine-game stretch that included just two wins. 

How about that inspiring three-game sweep of the then-American League East leading Blue Jays in May?  Well as you likely painfully remember, that was followed by an 11-game stretch that included just three wins. 

But providing reason at least some reason for optimism is the 7-4 stretch that followed the three-game winning streak achieved (May 9-11) against the Mets and Phillies. 

“We’ve gotten excited before and then went on a losing streak,” Brian McCann said. “So we’ve just got to keep playing and see what happens.  We can’t worry about what we have or haven’t done.” 

While taking the first two games of this week’s three-game series against the front -running Phillies, the Braves are now just three games out of first place for the first time since May 27.  Considering that they’ve gone 14-17 since that date, they have to be greatly appreciative of the generosity provided by the Phillies and Mets.
  
Dating back to May 28, the Mets have gone 12-19 and the Phillies have gone 14-16. 

Regardless of what happens against the Phillies tonight, Braves fans should guard against saying anything like, “this is a great time to be playing the Nationals.”  This was a popular cry after the Braves lost of five of six to the Marlins and Pirates in April. 

Then we all watched as the Braves managed to lose two of three games in Washington D.C.  But this wasn’t anything new.  They’ve lost nine of the first 12 games they’ve played at Nationals Park and seven of the 12 games they’ve played against the Nationals since last year’s All-Star break.

Remember when the Braves lost 14 of the first 16 games they played against the Phillies last year?  Well, while winning six of the first eight games played against the defending world champions this year, they’ve moved to 10-16 against them since the start of the 2008 season.   During this same span, they’ve gone 10-14 against the Nationals.
 
All-Star stuff:  With All-Star voting set to close tonight at 11:59 p.m. ET, it would be nice to see Braves fans show some final-hour support by voting  for Brian McCann, who has seen Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina take a more commanding lead when results have been updated both of the past two weeks.

McCann leads all NL catchers in batting average (.310) and OPS (.906) and despite battling left-eye vision problems throughout the season’s first five weeks, he ranks second and both homers (8) and RBIs (33).  With 44 more at-bats, Molina has totaled five homers, tallied 24 RBIs and compiled a .728 OPS. 

While the St. Louis fans have taken advantage of the opportunity to see Molina behind the plate for the start of the July 14 All-Star Game at their own Busch Stadium, McCann seems to still be a lock to gain his fourth consecutive All-Star selection in what is his fourth full Major League season. 

Whether he’ll be joined by Javier Vazquez, Jurrjens and/or Rafael Soriano remains to be seen.  But all deserving pitchers were given more reason for hope on Wednesday, when Major League Baseball announced that the rosters would be expanded to 33 players to accommodate a manager’s selection for one extra pitcher.

Player balloting will determine eight reserve position player and eight pitchers (five starters and three relievers) for both rosters.  Eight more selections, including the extra pitcher, will be made by the managers, with input provided from league officials.

Soriano has actually produced the best credentials among Braves pitchers to pitch in this year’s Midsummer Classic.  
Along with being perfect in his six save opportunities, Soriano ranks third among NL relievers with a 1.23 ERA, third in OPS (.457) surrendered, fifth in both batting average allowed (.160) and slugging percentage allowed (.216),  and sixth with a 0.90 WHIP.  

Having watched Jurrjens limit his Phillies to a two-out, seventh-inning single on Wednesday night, NL manager Charlie Manuel might be further persuaded to include the 23-year-old right-hander, who ranks fifth in the NL with a 2.73 ERA. 
 
Jurrjens’ 6-6 record is a product of the same inconsistent support that has saddled the 5-7 Vazquez, who will get his own opportunity to audition in front of Manuel while attempting to retake the NL strikeouts lead during tonight’s series finale against the Phillies.
 
Along with currently being just seven strikeouts shy of the NL-leading mark posted by Tim Lincecum, Vazquez also ranks second in the NL with a 1.06 WHIP (walks plus hits/innings pitched).  His 3.03 ERA ranks eighth and with 11 quality starts, he’s and Jurrjens both rank eighth among the Senior Circuit hurlers.

Along with his losing record, Vazquez’s candidacy could be further burdened by the fact that he’s scheduled to start just two days before the All-Star Game.  Jurrjens is slated to go one day earlier. 

Hanson has put himself in ROY race

Before this season started, many journalists wanted to know whether Tommy Hanson would be introduced to the Major League scene in time to warrant Rookie of the Year consideration.  

Consumed by what Jordan Schafer had displayed over the previous six weeks, I primarily told them that Schafer’s contributions over a six-month period would likely trump those that Hanson would be able to provide during the regular season’s final four months.  

But as the first month of Hanson’s big league career comes to a close, you can already argue that he’s running neck-and-neck with St. Louis’ Colby Rasmus at the front of the chase to be named the NL’s Rookie of the Year.   

Five starts into his career, Hanson still hasn’t enjoyed that utterly dominant outing that he’s capable of providing on a regular basis. But while limiting the Red Sox to two hits and issuing just two walks in six innings on Sunday, we at least got a glimpse of how effective his stuff can be against one of the game’s top lineups.  

If the Red Sox don’t possess the game’s top lineup, then that distinction would have to be given to that Yankees bunch that saw Hanson work his magic last week, while pitching around five walks and holding them scoreless over 5 1/3 innings.   

After Sunday’s performance, a fan tweeted, “could Tommy Hanson be a candidate for Rookie of the Year if he keeps pitching this well?”   My response was, “if the Braves turn things around, he’s the club’s MVP.”  
Hanson has started five of the nine games the Braves have won since he joined the rotation.   His four wins this month exceed the combined totals of Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami and Javier Vazquez, who have each totaled one more victory in June than the winless Jair Jurrjens.   

While going 1-3 with a 1.98 ERA and limiting opponents to a .197 batting average and .554 OPS, Vazquez was undoubtedly Atlanta’s most impressive starter in  June. But because the Braves scored just six runs during the 37 innings that he was on the mound this month, he also has to wear the unenviable tag of being  “the most unlucky”.  
 
During a four-start stretch that has seen him allow opponents a .356 on-base percentage and surrender just two runs, Hanson has obviously been somewhat lucky.  But the game’s greatest pitchers will tell you that you can often create your own “luck” and the big right-hander has done so while limiting opponents to two hits in 19 at-bats with runners in scoring position. 

Hanson’s current streak of 20 consecutive scoreless innings dates backto the fourth inning of his June 12 start against the Orioles.  Since allowing that final run at Camden Yards, he has allowed opponents to load the bases five times and then managed to escape unscathed. 

With 17 walks and 18 strikeouts in his first 29 career innings, Hanson has provided every indication that he needs to improve.  Of course, given the results that he’s gained while battling inconsistent control with his fastball, he’s also provided even more reason to wonder just how great he could prove to be. 

During Spring Training, Guy Hansen, a long-time pitching coach in the Braves Minor League system, compared Hanson to Toronto’s Roy Halladay.  Then Sunday, Chipper Jones echoed this comparison to the former AL Cy Young Award winner. 

Going from the impressive to the least impressive, we now turn our attention toward Derek Lowe, who will attempt to end his three-game losing streak against during tonight’s series opener against the Phillies. 

Lowe, who has posted a 12.34 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .433 against him in his past three starts, will be looking to begin anew in the same impressive fashion that he displayed while tossing eight scoreless innings against the Phillies on Opening Night.   <p>

While winning just seven of their previous 21 games, the Phillies have hit .240 with a .399 slugging percentage.  Still the 29 homers they’ve hit during this span is exactly half of what the Braves have totaled throughout this season.
 
From a pitching perspective,during this 21-game stretch, the Phillies have posted a 4.84 ERA and allowed 29 homers, which is just 20 fewer than the Braves have allowed through their first 75 games this season. 

Thanks to the Phillies and Mets, the Braves have lost 20 of their last 32 games and still enter this week’s series just five games behind the front-running Phillies.
  
While the visits made by the Red Sox and Yankees created a great buzz around Turner Field last week, this week’s series will prove much more influential.  The Phillies won each of the nine games they played in Atlanta last year and if they leave town celebrating another three-game sweep this week,  the Braves will be staring at an eight-game deficit and their focus may have to toward the 2010 season. 
 

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.   

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