DARK STAR, Fla. — As the Braves try to figure out the best way to fill a patchwork starting rotation for the first weeks of the season and hope they can weather the potential early storm until reinforcements arrive off the disabled list, you, Mr. or Ms. Braves Fan, might be asking yourself what is something that you can cling to, something to make you feel better about the team’s chances.
And I’m here to provide you with not one, but two such items: 1. Us-against-the-world mentality, otherwise known as a team coming together in the face of adversity and becoming more driven and determined to prove skeptics wrong; and 2. (admittedly this might be even more important, especially if you don’t believe in that rah-rah stuff from No. 1) The schedule.
But first, that us-against-the-world mentality. A team’s collective psyche is usually steered by the outspoken veterans. These Braves have one in backup catcher Gerald Laird, who spoke with teammates recently after Medlen and Beachy went down, about how his 2011 Cardinals team lost returning 20-game winner Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery in February. And went on to win 90 games and a wild card berth, then won three postseason series including the World Series.
A year ago, the Nationals were a near-unanimous pick among baseball pundits to win not just the NL East, but the league pennant. The Braves held a 4-1/2-game lead after 13 games (including an April 12-14 sweep in Washington) and were 10 games ahead of Washington by July 30, which is where they were when the season ended – with a 96-66 record and the division title, 10 games ahead of the Nats.
Now, after the Braves’ injury-marred spring training and the loss of their planned opening-day starter Medlen along with former and they had hoped once-again top-of-rotation guy Beachy, plus the early absence of Minor, it seems to have shifted public opinion back toward the Nationals, once again a popular NL East favorite among seemingly a majority of national writers and pundits.
“We’re in the same spot as last year,” Laird told me a few days ago. “We won the division. When we were healthy (entering camp this year), we were really good – everybody was saying, ‘The Braves are still a really good team.’ But now everyone’s really picking the Nationals like they did last year, saying, ‘Oh, they’ve got the rotation.’ Well you know what? They had the rotation last year. I’m not saying anything bad about them – that’s a great ballclub over there. But that’s why you play 162 games. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Laird added: “We are the the definitely National League East champions, and we’re not just going to fold. We’ve got a good ballclub. You add a frontline starter (Santana) and now we have a really good ballclub. We’re going to be tough to beat.”
So that’s No. 1. Now, the potentially more important No. 2.
The Braves’ early schedule a year ago was brutal, the most difficult road schedule in baseball for the first two months. And they handled it superbly.
Now, with a pitching staff diminished by injuries and the Braves needing to hold it together and at least stay close until they get Ervin Santana in the second week and Minor and Gavin Floyd as soon as late April, the Braves could benefit from a schedule that’s the inverse of the one they handled so well with their strong, healthy rotation early last season.
Here’s some points about this year’s schedule by comparison:
Last year, the Braves played 16 of their first 24 games on the road, including Washington, Pittsburgh, Colorado and Detroit. This year, 12 of the first 25 are home, and Washington is the only April road opponent with a winning record in 2013.
In May, the Braves have a pair of nine-game homestands, and the May 12-14 series at San Francisco is the lone trip out west before June 4. Again, the contrast: In 2013, the Bravos played 11 games in Mountain or Pacific time zones before May 16.
By June, the Braves could have their rotation humming, with Floyd in his second month back from Tommy John and a potentially strong back-of-rotation in a unit that could – barring further injuries – be among the league’s best with Teheran, Santana, Minor and Alex Wood. Operative words: Could and potentially.
It would certainly benefit them to be at full strength by June, when the Braves have only nine home games in June. That’s not good for attendance – it’s usually the first month the Braves draw well during the week, since kids are out of school. There is but one home weekend series in June, while there are three apiece in May and July.
The Braves should have opportunities to pile up some wins on both sides of the All-Star break – they have a seven-game trip against the Mets and Cubs before the break, and a season-long 11-game homestand after it against the Phillies, Marlins and Padres.
It would help to have a lead entering August, or at worst to be close to the lead, because that month shapes up as probably the roughest on the Braves schedule: a West Coast trip (San Diego, Seattle), followed by a 10-game homestand against the Nationals, Dodgers and Athletics, then a 10-game, 11-day trip to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and New York (Mets).
If the they are in a division race entering September, the Braves could benefit from a schedule that has 12 games against the Phillies, Marlins and Mets, plus six head-to-head games with the Nats. Plus, 10 of their final 13 games are at Turner Field.
In his ESPN.com blog, Buster Olney ranked the Braves’ early season schedule as the easiest among the 15 National League teams, just ahead of the Diamondbacks and Dodgers (yes, the Dbacks and Dodgers had to go to Australia and disrupt their spring routines and all, but at least their schedules once they get home are less-than-demanding in April and May).
Buster noted that the Braves play only 12 of their first 40 games against teams with .500 or better records in 2013.
Speaking of Medlen: Most of you know what a really good guy he is, funny and unpretentious, big in the community with charities and all that. But to give you an example of why teammates love him, and a glimpse at how much he cares about teammates and wants the best for them, consider his answer when I asked him last month, in the immediate aftermath of the fifth and final long-term extension that the Braves gave out, about what he thought of those contracts.
And you should know that I didn’t have to leave anything out here, no off-the-record bitterness, no him saying or insinuating that he deserved a multi-year deal himself – nothing like that. Honestly. (If I did, I wouldn’t be bringing this up, I’d just have let it pass. And let me say, if the roles were reversed and I was the guy in his shoes, I’d have told the reporter, off record, that I, the pitcher with the second-best ERA among MLB starters since the 2012 All-Star break, was getting the short end of the stick and deserving of at least a two- or three-year deal.)
Anyway, this is what Medlen said. I started by asking him about the difference in contracts between what Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons got from the Braves (seven years, $58 million) and former Braves shortstop prospect Elvis Andrus got from the Rangers (eight years, $120 million) and which one of those guys he’d rather have on his team.
“I’ve played with both of them. I’m a little bias, but I love the guy we have,” Medlen said, then continued with a comment about all of the Braves’ contract extensions, all given to players 25 or younger. “I just think the situation with all of them, it was either going to be at this time or they were going to start getting very, very expensive. So I think the organization made a smart move that helps out both sides. I mean, I know all the guys are happy with (the deals) because they agreed to them, but I know the team needed to do that to keep them around, especially the way this market is and what guys are getting now.
“I’m extremely happy for all these guys. They’re some of the best in the league. They’re this organizations’ future, and I’m just excited for them.”
Did he think the Braves might give him one next? No, he didn’t. But he left it at that, no complaint whatsoever. On or off record. Medlen had his second Tommy John surgery last week, and he’s on a one-year, $5.8 million contract. There is no guarantee he will be re-signed.
By the way, just one more thing about Medlen. He provided one of the funniest moments for me all spring when I asked him about Beachy, whose locker is next to his in the spring-training clubhouse. This was in late February, when Beachy’s recovery from September arthroscopic elbow surgery was going well, a few weeks before he blew out again and had his second TJ surgery last week.
I was asking Medlen about Beachy’s work habits and how he appeared to be in about the best condition of anyone on the team, save for perhaps Jason Heyward. And Medlen couldn’t resist poking fun (Beachy wasn’t around) at his pal, who is, let’s just say, popular among much of the female portion of Braves fans in a way that Javy Lopez was.
“I mean, I’m in shape but I don’t look like that,” Medlen said. “Body types and whatever else. He could be the, I mean you’re walking through the mall and your hear the (and this is where it got hilarious, as Medlen suddenly broke into human beatbox thing, emulating electronic or heavy-bass music or something) at Abercrombie & Fitch and you look over and smell all that cologne in that little part of the mall, and you look over and Brandon Beachy is doing a shirtless flex job on the pictures for Abercrombie. I mean, he’s that guy. I think even if he weren’t a baseball player, he would still look exactly the same and all that.
“I mean, wait a second. He’s one of the hardest workers in the clubhouse, but he’s also gifted with the rack, as they would say.”
Don’t ask. Medlen is a Southern Cali guy. Straight brim and regional slang. Words don’t mean the same for us all.
But a funny, funny dude. And obviously a great quote. Damn you, Tommy John.
• OK, here’s a great tune by the band Girls, off of their Album 3. Click here to hear it.
“ALEX” by Girls
Alex has blue eyes,
well who cares? no I don’t
If somebody somewhere cries,
well who cares? No you don’t.
and Alex has a band,
so who cares about war?
If somebody somewhere dies,
well who cares? No you don’t.
Alex has black hair,
and who cares? well I do.
You’ve got a lovely smile,
I could spend a while with that smile.
and Alex has a boyfriend,
oh well, I’m in hell.
I’ll sing you a song,
Would you listen to a lover’s song?
Would you hold my hand?
I’m as cold as the snow
If you said let’s go,
I would follow.
Could we fall in love?
Well who cares about love.
Could we run away?
Anywhere, anyway, only you …