WASHINGTON — The Braves hoped that their patchwork starting rotation could hold things together for the first weeks of the season until the reinforcements arrived in the form of veterans Ervin Santana, Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd.
Needless to say, the patchwork guys have done more than hold it together the first time through the four-man rotation, which will become a five-man rotation when Santana is added (which Fredi Gonzalez said they’re hoping will be this Wednesday, as long as his between-starts side session goes without incident and he says he’s ready).
Yes, it’s an extremely small sample size – in case you felt inclined to remind us of that — but entering Saturday the Braves pitching staff led the league in ERA (1.29) and starters ERA (1.09).
And the two fill-in guys of the four, Aaron Harang and David Hale? They gave up a total of seven hits in 11-2/3 scoreless innings over the past two games before Saturday.
Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, the first two in the rotation, the regulars if you will, will start the last two games of the Nationals series Saturday and Sunday before the Braves return home for an off day Monday and a big night Tuesday with the home opener and a pregame ceremony to honor the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run.
Before they finish this trip the Braves have plenty they’d like to accomplish, not the least of which is to get their offense going. Because while the pitching has more than held up its end of the bargain in the first days of the season, the hitters have not put together much of anything, getting just enough big hits – i.e., home runs – and runs to post a winning record through four games.
Six of the Braves’ eight runs have come via five home runs – Freddie Freeman (2), Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson, Evan Gattis — while the other two came on sacrifice flies by Andrelton Simmons and Chris Johnson.
The Braves were last in the league in batting average (.183) and OBP (.234), last in walks (eight), and tied for last in runs (eight) before Saturday. But they were also tied for third in homers. Yes, five homers and a total of eight runs.
Their stalwart bullpen looks stalwart again and has not given up a lead, and the Braves know they’ll start hitting a lot better as a unit. The good news offensively is that Heyward has an OBP over .400, Freeman has picked up right where he left off last season, and Dan Uggla has continued to show the encouraging signs he displayed in spring training, hitting balls hard and to all fields.
The bad? Well, you probably know that, right?
B.J. Upton is off to another rough start, not at all what the Braves had hoped for after his career-worst season in 2013 and the changes he made over the winter in his stance. Changes designed to simplify his approach and swing and get him back to the form he he as a rising talent with the Rays, when everyone thought he’d be an established superstar by now.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez has had B.J. in the 2-hole for most of spring and through the first five games of the season (he’s in there again tonight), and through Friday he was 1-for-16 with nine strikeouts and no walks. His brother Justin Upton hadn’t done much better at 1-for-15 with one walk and seven strikeouts. Neither had a run, an extra-base hit or an RBI.
Most people are confident that Justin Upton will be fine. Maybe not as consistent as some hope, but solid on balance.
B.J.? Well, it’s alarming just how bad he’s been since signing with the Braves after the 2012 season. And entering Saturday his nine strikeouts were tied with A.J. Pollock and Raul Ibanez for the major league lead, and his one strikeout per 1.8 plate appearances was tied with Ibanez for the majors lead.
Since the beginning of the 2014 season, B.J. Upton has hit .179 (73-for-407) with 14 doubles, nine homers, 26 RBIs and 160 strikeouts in 130 games for the Braves. He has a .261 OBP and .280 slugging percentage in that span, which is as bad as you’ll ever see from a lineup regular. He has 13 stolen bases (in 18 attempts) and 44 walks.
He struck out three times in four at-bats in Friday’s 2-1 win, and also failed to get a bunt down to move Heyward to second after an eighth-inning leadoff walk with the score tied. Upton struck out, then Freddie Freeman singled and Johnson hit a sac fly to bring in the go-ahead run before Justin Upton struck out to end the inning.
How long will Fredi keep him in the 2-hole? How long does he play every day if he doesn’t start to hit? Stay tuned. None of us has answers to those questions right now, because it’s probably not something the Braves planned for and certainly not something they would have discussed publicly if they did.
Jordan Schafer is on the bench as a good option if it comes to that, if they have to get B.J. out of the lineup. But the Braves really, really have hope it doesn’t come to that, because B.J. is in the second year of a five-year, $75.25 million contract, and they need him to perform.
• Bug bites (white) bear: Flu bug, that is. Gattis was out of the lineup Saturday with the same stomach virus that affected Wood and Hale on this trip. Wood got it the day after he pitched and is only feeling normal again today (Saturday), and Hale had it for a couple of days before he pitched five innings Friday.
Gonzalez penciled switch-hitter Ryan Doumit in the lineup at catcher Saturday to get another left-handed bat in the lineup against Nats starter Stephen Strasburg, and said Gerald Laird would likely catch Sunday’s series finale to give Gattis another day to rest.
Gattis, whose homer Friday was his third in eight career games at Nationals Park, was available to pinch-hit Saturday but was probably going to stay in the clubhouse instead of sitting in close proximity to everyone else on the bench. Gonzalez said he asked the Braves’ head trainer if they should just have him stay back at the hotel, but was told that if they hadn’t already gotten what he had by Friday night, they probably weren’t going to get it from being in the same relatively large visitor’s clubhouse on Saturday.
• Teheran vs. Strasburg: Saturday’s matchup features aces Teheran and Strasburg, who has had more bad days against the Braves than against any other team. Strasburg is 3-4 with 3.68 ERA in 12 starts vs. Braves, his most losses against anyone and his second-most starts (he’s 6-3 in 14 starts against the Marlins). Oddly, has only five starts against the Mets and six vs. the Phillies.
It must be noted that most of his rough starts against the Braves have come at Turner Field, where he’s 1-2 with a 5.69 ERA in six starts, with 16 walks and 28 strikeouts. Against the Braves at Nationals Park, he’s 2-2 with a 2.29 ERA in six starts, with 43 strikeouts and six walks.
Uggla is 11-for-27 with two homers against Strasburg, Jason Heyward is 9-for-20 with a homer, and Freeman is 7-for-17 with a homer against him. But Andrelton Simmons is 0-for-9 and and B.J. Upton is 1-for-10 with five strikeouts.
Teheran is 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA in five starts against the Nats, all last season, including 1-0 with a 3.75 ERA in two at Nationals Park.
Against Teheran, Bryce Harper is 5-for-10 with two homers, Denard Span is 7-for-15, Jayson Werth is 2-for-11, and Ryan Zimmerman is 0-for-9.
Etc. The Braves were 18-6 with a 1.97 ERA in their past 24 games against the Nationals before Saturday. The Nats hit .212 with 11 homers and 57 runs in those 24 games, while the Braves hit .231 with 24 homers and 92 runs…. Washington’s Ian Desmond was 0-for-12 with nine strikeouts against closer Craig Kimbrel before Saturday.
• Let’s close with one from our man Jason Isbell, who has proposed the rather spectacular nickname “Redneck Rivera” for Kimbrel, his fellow Alabama native. (It’s a play on words, referring to the so-called Redneck Riviera around Panama City Beach). When I asked Kimbrel about it in the clubhouse today, he seemed ambivalent. Actually, he just seemed busy, on his way to doing something and not ready to consider or chat about it. Anyway, click here to hear Jason sing one of the bigger hits he ever wrote when he was with Drive-By Truckers.
“DECORATION DAY” by Jason Isbell
t’s Decoration Day.
And I’ve a mind to roll a stone on his grave.
But what would he say.
Keeping me down, boy, won’t keep me away.
It’s Decoration Day.
And I knew the Hill Boys would put us away,
But my Daddy wasn’t afraid.
He said we’ll fight till the last Lawson’s last living day
I never knew how it all got started
A problem with Holland before we were born
And I don’t know the name of that boy we tied down
And beat till he just couldn’t walk anymore.
But I know the caliber in daddy’s chest
And I know what Holland Hill drives.
The state let him go, but I guess it was best
‘Cause nobody needs all us Lawson’s alive.
Daddy said one of the boys had come by
The lumber man’s favorite son.
He said, beat him real good but don’t dare let him die
And if you see Holland Hill run.
Now I said, they ain’t give us trouble no more
That we ain’t brought down on ourselves
But a chain on my back and my ear to the floor
And I’ll send all the Hill Boys to hell.
It’s Decoration Day
And I’ve got a family in Mobile Bay
And they’ve never seen my daddy’s grave.
But that don’t bother me, it ain’t marked anyway.
‘Cause I got dead brothers in Lauderdale south
And I got dead brothers in east Tennessee.
My Daddy got shot right in front of his house
He had no one to fall on but me.
It’s Decoration Day
And I’ve got a mind to go spit on his grave.
If I was a hill, I’d have put him away
And I’d fight till the last Lawson’s last living day.
I’d fight till the last Lawson’s last living day.
I’d fight till the last Lawson’s last living day.