Results tagged ‘ Ryan Howard ’

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 welcome Phillies and Howard back to The Ted

As much as the Braves might like to make an early statement and exit this week’s three-game series against the Phillies sitting atop the National League East standings, it’s still far too early to put too much importance on what transpires at Turner Field over the course of the next three days.  

Through the first 12 games of the 2009 season, the Braves were 6-6 and five games behind the front-running Marlins in the NL East standings.  The Phillies sat 5 games back of this same Marlins club that ended up finishing six game back when all was said and done.  

Oh yeah and in case you forgot, the Braves won seven of the first nine games played against this Phillies team that sat seven games in front of them when the regular season concluded.

The only three-game series against the Phillies that the Braves necessarily want to deem as “important” is the one that will be staged at Turner Field during the final weekend of the regular season (Oct.  1-3).

With this being said, in order to be in position to end Philadelphia’s three-year run as the NL East champs, the Braves certainly could benefit from the opportunity to make a statement against the injury-depleted Phillies club that is in town this week.  

Yes Roy Halladay will toe the rubber during Wednesday night’s game.  But in the other two games this week, the Braves will be challenged by Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer.  

Kendrick has posted a 17.47 ERA and completed just 5 2/3 innings in his first two starts of the season.  The 47-year-old Moyer has split a pair a decisions and surrendered five earned runs in six innings during both of his first two starts.

The Phillies will also be without the leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins, who is on the disabled list with a strained right calf.  Of course seeing how Rollins hit .205 with a .250 on-base percentage through the first 70 games last year, it’s obvious that the Phillies can survive without him serving as a catalyst at the top of the lineup.  

Looking back at how the Braves managed to win seven of the first nine games played against the Phillies last year, Rollins’ early-season struggles obviously played a part.  But so too did the fact that the Atlanta pitchers managed to limit Ryan Howard to a .250 batting average and ZERO homers.  

While losing six of their last nine games against the Phillies, the Braves saw Howard hit .438 (14-for-32) 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 last 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 home runs.

Tommy Hanson, who surrendered one of those eight homers drilled by Howard, will take the hill for the Braves during tonight’s series opener.   Hanson lost just twice in his final 11 starts last year and both of those setbacks came during rain-interrupted outings against the Phillies.  
When Hanson took the mound at Turner Field last year, he was serenaded by Green Day’s “Know Your Enemy.”  

As I mentioned in October,  I suggest the Braves to provide a friendly reminder to their pitchers by playing this song whenever Howard strolls to the plate.  Or maybe they should just cut to the chase and play Aerosmith/Run DMC’s  “Walk This Way”.  

Braves manager Bobby Cox has Matt Diaz back in the leadoff spot for tonight’s series opener against the Phillies.  Diaz has three hits in four career at-bats against Kendrick, who has surrendered a pair of homers to both Chipper Jones and Nate McLouth.

Cox has also moved Heyward up to the sixth spot today and dropped the slumping Yunel Escobar to the seventh spot.  Escobar has tallied just three RBIs since his five-RBI performance on Opening Day. 

BRAVES LINEUP for 4/20 vs. Phillies

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

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.  

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.    

Soriano battling some right shoulder discomfort

Mike Gonzalez was ready and somewhat expecting to pitch the ninth inning of Friday night’s loss to the Phillies.  He knew the situation would allow him to begin the inning against two left-handed batters and was also cognizant of the fact that Rafael Soriano had been battling some discomfort behind his right shoulder.
 
But after Gonzalez prolonged his recent success with an impressive eighth-inning escape act, Braves manager Bobby Cox opted to stick by the book and insert his closer into the ninth inning of a tie game at home.
 
Four pitches later, Ryan Howard prolonged Soriano’s recent struggles against left-handed hitters with a game-winning leadoff homer. 

When Soriano arrived at Turner Field on Saturday, he admitted that he’s been feeling some muscular discomfort behind his right shoulder.  But the once-dominant closer wasn’t willing to use this ailment as an excuse to explain the fact that he’s now allowed three game-winning homers over the course of his past eight starts. 

“He’s just tired,” Gonzalez said.  “He’s been used a lot.  I know how Soriano works and I think these couple of days are going to be great for him.”

The Braves wouldn’t say that Soriano wasn’t available for Saturday afternoon’s game.   As for the right-handed reliever, when asked about his availability, he said that he thought he could pitch again as soon as Sunday.  
Soriano was pitching on Friday night with five days rest.   After he felt some fatigue after pitching for a fourth straight day last Saturday night in Los Angeles, he asked the Braves not to make him available during Tuesday and Wednesday night’s games against the Nationals. 

“He’s throwing 95 (mph) with every pitch,” said Cox in reference to Soriano, who did hit at least 94 with each of the five four-seam fastballs he threw during Friday’s ninth inning.
 
While he may have possessed his ability to maximize the velocity of his fastball, Soriano is still looking to regain the success he’d possessed while limiting left-handed hitters to a .179 batting average and zero homers before the All-Star break. 

Since the break left-handed hitters have hit .435 (10-for-23) against Soriano and accounted for each of the game-winning homers that he’s surrendered.   As for right-handed hitters, they have gone hitless in the 18 at-bats they’ve recorded against the stone-faced right-hander since the break.
 
“When he’s on, nobody hits against him,” Gonzalez said. 

With the Phillies sending two left-handed hitters (Howard and Ibanez) to the plate to begin the ninth inning, Gonzalez admits he was among those who wondered if he’d be given a chance to make his third multi-inning appearance of the season.  He hasn’t allowed a run during the previous two he’s completed this year. 

“I was definitely ready to go and in that situation, I kind of thought that also,” Gonzalez said after being told many fans questioned why he wasn’t used. “But then again, it was the ninth inning and you know you’ve got to put your closer in there. 

“I would have totally understood (going two innings) it if would have given Soriano another day.  Another day is huge.  I would have sacrificed two innings yesterday and then come back today to see how I felt.” 

Howard, who has hit .193 and accounted for just three of his 28 homers  against left-handed pitchers this year, took advantage of Cox’s decision to go with Soriano.  The Phillies first baseman is now hitting .311 against right-handed pitchers.  

Since July 1, Howard has hit .150  (6-for-40) with zero homers against left-handed pitchers and .337 with eight homers against right-handed pitchers.

Meanwhile Gonzalez has limited left-handed hitters to a .159 (7-for-44) batting average and just two extra-base hits (two doubles) since June 1. 

Soriano rebounded from Howard’s homer by striking out the next three batters he faced, including Ibanez, a left-handed threat, who is hitting .289 with 17 homers against right-handed pitchers this year.  But by then, the damage had already been done.

“(Soriano) didn’t have any trouble against Ibanez and he’s a much better hitter than most lefties,” Cox said. 

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

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