Thursday, August 5, 2010

Time for "Championship Caliber Play"

Just after the All-Star break the Atlanta Braves held the best record in the National League and were third with the most wins in all of baseball behind only the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays. In the NL East, the Braves enjoyed a comfortable lead over the then slumping Philadelphia Phillies.

Now, just a couple weeks later, that has all changed. The Braves are in a fight for their lives to hold on to first place as the Phillies are surging and Atlanta is staggering. We (being a lifelong Braves fan I use the term ‘we’ often when referring to them) dropped three consecutive series on the road against the Florida Marlins, the Washington Nationals, and the Cincinnati Reds. Going 3-6 on a road trip this late in the season with the standings this close is not exactly championship caliber play.

What happened? Several things. First of all, in a general sense, all season long the Braves have scored a lot of runs in ‘the big inning’, that is, they very often score 3 or more runs in a single inning. Bunches of runs all at once. All season long the Braves have enjoyed decent starting pitching and an excellent bullpen. In fact, they probably have had the best bullpen in the National League except for possibly the San Diego Padres. Finally, the Braves are second only to the Reds in scoring runs from the seventh inning on. Moreover, they lead the major leagues in winning games in their last at-bat. 17 such wins so far this season. So, they have a tendency to score runs late in the game when they need to.

Not so lately. Here we can get down to specific players. First baseman Troy Glaus was a red hot hitter in May and June, Atlanta’s two best months so far this season. Since the All-Star break Glaus has just plain sucked at the plate. While other hitters like catcher Brian McCann, second-baseman Martin Prado, and Jason Heyward, our superb rookie right-fielder, have maintained their consistent play both offensively and defensively, Glaus has been a big missing piece of the puzzle lately. His slump at the plate was so bad that manager Bobby Cox let him sit out the entire series this week against the New York Mets.

But, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Glaus’ replacement at first, Eric Hinske, while still showing occasional power, has seen his batting average gradually drop almost 100 points since its high-mark earlier in the season. Long-time Braves superstar Chipper Jones is past his prime and has missed a lot of games due to minor injuries. He is having a subpar season at the plate, though he has shown signs of getting hot lately. Chipper also has the lowest fielding percentage of all third basemen in the majors - .930, not good. Prado, who led the National League in hitting for most of the season, has been in a minor slump and is now on the disabled list due to injury. Injuries certainly don’t help but every team has to deal with those.

The big inning requires the big hit, or several of them. Lately, the Braves are leaving a huge number of runners on base. They left 11 on base in Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the New York Mets. Hinske struck out with the bases loaded to end the Braves’ biggest threat of the evening. In the May-June surge, the Braves routinely gave their pitchers 4 or more runs to play with. That’s important because when the Braves score 5 or more runs in a game their record is an amazing 39-2. Conversely, when they score 3 runs or less their record is only 8-33. Since the All-Star break, however, they usually score 3 or less. Again, hardly championship caliber play. The silver lining here, if there is one, is that the Braves team batting average is still 6th out of the 16 NL teams. Also, in a little appreciated statistic, the Braves lead the NL with walks. They are still patient at the plate. So there’s hope.

Errors will kill any ball club. The Braves currently rank 12 out of 16 teams in the NL in this category, most of those coming since June 1. There is no single big culprit here. The errors are spread more or less evenly across the team. But, lately it seems the Braves make about 2 errors a game, so the trend is accelerating. Not a good sign.

Pitching remains the key. Good pitching will keep you competitive no matter what else happens. Great pitching will win you championships, if your defense is decent. This is the time of year when most pitchers have thrown a lot of pitches and those with the most stamina and consistency start to rise to the top. For the Braves, Tim Hudson is having an outstanding season. But after that it is a mixed bag. Tommy Hanson was awesome earlier and now is struggling. Usually one bad inning knocks him out of the game. Derek Lowe has never been overpowering as a Brave but is winning half his games. Kris Medlen has been surprising. The Braves are 12-1 in games where he starts. Unfortunately he was injured in last night’s win over the Mets. The extent is unknown at this time. There’s that injury demon again.

Other than Hanson of late, the biggest disappointment is Jair Jurrjens who missed about two months of the season with an injury. Since coming back he has been inconsistent. Sometimes he his practically unhittable. But, he has a bad habit lately of getting to the fifth or sixth inning and giving up the ‘big inning’ just like Hanson.

Our bullpen has been shining all season with the seemingly successful comeback of Billy Wagner, one of the game's greatest relievers. The Braves took a chance in signing Wagner for what he claims is his final season. The risk has paid off for the most part. Unfortunately, since the All-Star break Wagner has not only blown three of five save opportunities and he has personally lost two games that we had in the bag. Those really hurt. Two more wins would make things a bit more comfortable right now. Plus, just the fact that Wagner is even struggling makes you wonder how he’s going to fare as we get into the home stretch of the long season.

The rest of the bullpen has been fairly solid, however. Rookie Jonny Venters has been nothing short of sensational. Sidearmer Peter Moylan is also the hallmark of consistency. Takashi Saito usually looks great out there, though he has had momentary difficulties throughout the season.

As a team, the Braves rank 4th out of 16 NL teams in earned runs allowed, 3rd in total hits allowed, and 2nd in home runs allowed. The Braves pitching could be stronger but, clearly, it is not the reason for the recent swoon. The simple fact is that lately we are not giving our pitchers enough runs to work with.

If we are going to best the Phillies and win the NL East, we have got to keep pitching consistently and start hitting the ball when we have runners in scoring position. Of course, any team in baseball could say this. But, not every team is in first place of their division and not every team went through 8-9 weeks of the season so far doing all those things well. So, the Braves are capable of better. Much better.

Despite sloppy play by the Mets last night, the Braves demonstrated that they could perform at a higher level with timely hitting and another great bullpen performance after Medlen was injured. We ended up winning the series. Hopefully, that’s a sign of things to come. We’ll need to pick it up a notch against a very hot San Francisco Giants team that comes to Atlanta for a four-game series starting tonight.

Bobby Cox has done a terrific job managing the Braves so far in 2010. He effectively dealt with a horrible start in April which saw the team in last place. For example, he won two games earlier in the season on suicide squeezes – always fun to watch, if a bit old-fashioned. There were a lot of key moves that helped reposition us to start winning. He moved Henski, normally a first baseman, to left field early on because at the time he was one of the few Braves hitting the ball. He managed his pitchers well when Jurrjens and Saito were injured. He went with Venters, an unproven commodity at the time, as a key setup man out of the bullpen. He managed around injuries to Matt Diaz, Jones, and Heyward and is now shuffling his lineup to try to get the Braves hitting again with Prado out on the DL for 15-days and Glaus slumping.

In the last season of his career, Cox is proving once again he knows how to manage a team. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Whether his skill is enough to keep the Braves on top of the NL East remains to be seen. It has happened before, however, most recently in 2005.

Even when the Braves were in the middle of their horrible April, I kept telling my baseball savvy friends that I thought they had a good team. Heyward looked like a possible Rookie of the Year candidate. McCann looked solid again. Prado was off to a great start. The pitchers looked pretty good except for a few mistakes. More importantly, the team seemed to have the right “chemistry.” They seemed to be having fun despite the early loses. They worked well together. There was genuine, noticeable enthusiasm. You need that to win. It all seemed manageable and correctable. I had hopes for the last season of Bobby Cox and followed the Braves with heightened interest largely because this was going to be the end of their manager’s successful career.

As good as he is, though, it still takes hitting the ball, catching the ball, and pitching the ball. Game by game. Bobby can only give his players their best opportunity to win. It is up to them to perform. Championship caliber management isn’t easy. But, we have that. Now, let’s see if we can give Bobby one more trip into the postseason. Playing well these next four games against the Giants might be a great indicator for us. We face one of the game's premiere pitchers in Tim Lincecum tonight. Lincecum has historically owned Braves hitters.

Meanwhile, the Phillies play the Marlins tonight then go home for a weekend series against the slumping Mets. They have it much easier over the next four days. We only have a two-game lead on the Phillies. So, it is definitely time for my team to show some championship caliber play.

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