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David O'Brien

Big night: Hank to be honored before home opener

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Let me start by saying Hank Aaron is in the pantheon of five greatest players in major league history in my opinion, with Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Lou Gehrig. They stand above all others in terms of offensive production, overall skills, longevity, the whole thing.

And as we prepare to watch the Braves icon be honored in a pregame ceremony tonight on the 40th anniversary of his 715th home run that beat Ruth’s career record, let’s consider a few stats that jump off the page regarding The Hammer, who is and I’d imagine always will be the real Home Run King in the eyes of most baseball fans, and certainly those here in the South.images

For starters, think about this: Freddie Freeman hit a career-high 23 home runs each of past two seasons. Jason Heyward hit a career-high 27 in 2012, and the next-most Heyward has hit in four major league seasons was 18 homers as a rookie in 2010.

Hank Aaron hit at least 24 homers every year from 1955 (27 homers at age 21) through 1973 (40 homers at age 39).

Future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones had six seasons with 30 or more homers, the last one at age 32. Gary Sheffield, the second-best position player I’ve covered in 20 years as a major league beat writer, had eight 30-homer seasons, the last one at age 36.

Hank Aaron hit 30 or more homers 15 times, including 44 homers at age 35, 34 at age 38, and the aforementioned 40 at age 39.

Chipper had nine seasons with at least 100 RBIs, including a career-high 111. Hank Aaron had nine seasons with at least 118 RBIs, including four seasons when he led the league with 132, 130, 127 and 126 RBIs.

Chipper had 11 seasons with an OPS above .900; Hank had 17 such seasons.

Chipper finished in the top 10 in MVP balloting six times; Hank did it 13 times.

Chipper made the All-Star team eight times. Hank was an All-Star in 21 consecutive seasons, and made 25 All-Star teams counting four years when they had two All-Star games.

Did I mention that Chipper Jones was the best player I’ve covered two decades of doing this, and that I’ll be shocked if he’s not a first-ballot Hall of Famer?

Hank won three consecutive Gold Gloves through 1960. He won a pair of batting titles in 1956 and in 1959, when he hit .355 with 223 hits including 92 extra-base hits – ninety-two! – and a .636 slugging percentage. He had career-highs of 47 homers  and a .669 slugging percentage in 1971 at age 37 despite missing 22 games with injuries. He had an OPS+ of 194 that season. At 37.

Keep in mind, he did this in the era before steroids, and in the era after integration arrived.

Salute the living legend tonight.

Because we are not going to see another like Hank Aaron.

Braves starting pitchers lead the majors with a 1.63 ERA, but the Braves offense has produced the second-fewest runs among the 30 teams with 15, or 2.5 runs per game. Only the Padres, with 12 runs in six games, have scored fewer.

So we asked Alex Wood and Fredi Gonzalez, after Wood pitched seven strong innings in Sunday’s 2-1 loss at Washington, whether the starters might be feeling added pressure knowing there’s been so little margin for error.

“No more pressure than usual,” said Wood, who is 4-3 with a 3.21 ERA in 13 career starts, including 1-1 with a 1.91 ERA (and in two this season. “I mean, when you’re up here (in the majors) you’ve got to go out and throw well to stay here. That’s enough pressure as it is, there’s not really any extra added pressure.

“You’ve just got to go out and compete and give these guys a chance to win every time out. If you do that, you’ve got to be satisfied with your performance.”

The Braves have score one or no runs three times in six games.

Hank and Heyward filming a commercial a couple of springs ago.

Hank and Heyward filming a commercial a couple of springs ago.

Fredi, does that put added pressure on the pitchers, particularly the young starters?

“No, not at all,” the manager said. “I mean, that’s their job. Their job is to do what they’re doing. Both losses, we’ve only given up two runs – 2-nothing in Milwaukee and 2-1 here. But that’s just the way it goes. The offense will pick it up, I’m sure, down the road. There’ll be a stretch where our pitching staff is going to need the offense to pick (the staff) up.

• Braves hitters are 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position and two outs, but consider that the Cardinals are even worse at 0-for-16. Yes, the Cardinals, who last year hit a robust .305 with RISP and two outs, part of their astounding .330 average with RISP, which led the world.

This year they’ve hit .143 with RISP through the first week, second-worst in the NL ahead of only the Padres (.122). The Braves are 12th in the NL at .184 (7-for-38), though five of those hits came in one game Saturday. They’re 2-for-22 in their other five games.

Chris Johnson is 0-for-5 with three strikeouts with runners in scoring position, and Justin Upton is 1-for-8 with three strikeouts. Those are the 4-5 hitters behind Freeman. No. 2 hitter B.J. Upton is 0-for-4 with two strikeouts with runners in scoring position,

• Harang tonight: After taking a no-hitter to the seventh inning and winning his Braves debut at Milwaukee, Aaron Harang makes his second start in tonight’s home opener against the Mets, a team he should be fairly familiar with. And he’ll face a pitcher who’s actually five years older and at least a dozen pounds heavier than him, Mets 40-year-old right-hander Bartolo Colon.

Harang is 4-4 with a 5.66 ERA in 10 career starts against the Mets, with whom he finished the 2013 season after being released by the Mariners. Against the big right-hander, David Wright is 11-for-21 with a homer and seven RBIs, Daniel Murphy is 6-for-11 with a homer, Ruben Jejada is 6-for-11, and Eric Young is 4-for-6.

Harang won’t have to face Chris Young, on the DL with a strained quad. Young is 7-for-23 with three homers against him.

Colon is 3-0 with a 1.57 ERA in three starts against the Braves, which is entirely irrelevant considering those starts all came in 2002, when most current Braves were in elementary school. Three Braves have faced him (all former American Leaguers): B.J. Upton is 7-for-23 with a homer, Gerald Laird is 0-for-7, and Ryan Doumit is 0-for-1 with two walks against Colon.

• To whiff, and not whiff: B.J. Upton leads the majors with 11 strikeouts, while Andrelton Simmons has yet to strikeout in 23 PAs, the most plate appearances without a strikeout in the NL. Freeman also ranks among the leaders with only two strikeouts in 25 PAs.

Simmons is first in the NL in percentage of swings put into play at 61.1 (22 of 36), and Dan Uggla has the fifth-highest percentage at 55.9. Meanwhile, Justin Upton (19.4 percent) and B.J. Upton (23.7) have the second- and fifth-lowest percentages of swings put into play among NL qualifiers.

Simmons is first in the NL in percentage of swings put into play at 61.1 (22 of 36), Dan Uggla – yes, Uggla – has the fifth-highest percentage at 55.9, just ahead of ex-Brave Martin Prado (55.2). Meanwhile,  Justin Upton (19.4 percent) and B.J. Upton (23.7) have the second- and four-lowest percentages of swings put into play among NL qualifiers.

Simmons also has the NL’s lowest percentage of swings that missed at 5.6 (2 of 36), while Justin Upton has the second-highest at 40.3 (25 of 62).

• Recent listening: Since the beginning of spring training I’ve picked up quite a few really good CDS. I might be missing one or two, but here’s the list of ones I’d recommend from recent months, many of which will probably show up on my year-end top 50 list: The War On DrugsLost in the Dream, Beck’s Morning Phase, Lydia LovelessSomewhere Else, Guided by VoicesMotivational Jumpsuit, St. Vincent’s St. Vincent, Cloud NothingsHere and Nowhere Else, Rosanne Cash’s The River & The Thread, Drive-By TruckersEnglish Oceans, Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron, Johnny Cash’s Out Amon the Stars, The Hold Steady’s Teeth Dreams, Scott H. Biram‘s Nothing But Blood, Black LipsUnderneath the Rainbow, Nenah Cherry’s Blank Project, Elbow’s The Take Off and Landing of Everything, ChampsDown Like Gold, and 25th anniversary expanded reissues of Lucinda Williams’s self-titled album and Bob Mould’s Workbook.

OK,  let’s close with a tune by Magic Sam, from his masterpiece blues album West Side Soul. Click right here to hear this gem.

“I NEED YOU SO BAD” by Magic Sam

Oh, I need you so bad
Oh, I need you so bad
Well, when we are together, baby
I have more fun than I’ve ever hadimages

Well, I’ve been looking inside
Trying to find someone to call my own
Yes, I’ve been looking inside
Trying to find someone to call my own

But without your love, pretty baby
I would rather be left alone

I know my luck has been bad
It’s been bad so many days
I know my luck has been bad
It’s been bad so many days

Yes, please come to me, baby
Please don’t turn my love away

Well, baby, I need you so
Yes, baby, honey
You know I need you so

Well, look right up
And say you’ll take me
So I can live just once more

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