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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Can Braves sustain this? Well, yes and no

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Every pitching staff in the majors had given up at least 15 home runs before Sunday, except one. The Braves. Their pitchers had allowed just nine homers, while Atlanta hitters had 29 homers including three in Saturday’s 4-1 win against the Reds.

Seventeen teams had allowed at least 20 homers, and a couple (Yankees, Diamondbacks) had served up at least 30.

Nine for the Braves. Nine in 23 games.

Take a 29-9 home-run differential and a majors-leading 2.14 ERA and majors-leading .564 opponents’ OPS, and it’s not hard to see how the Braves had compiled the second-best record (16-7) in the majors before Sunday, despite once again not being the most fundamentally sound team in the land when it comes to manufacturing runs or playing “small ball.”

They got your small ball right here.

Reds pitcher Mike Leake gave up three homers before he'd recorded his ninth out in Saturday's 4-1 Braves win. And it could've been four homers if Freddie Freeman didn't have won robbed by Ryan Ludwick's catch above the left-field fence.

Reds pitcher Mike Leake gave up three homers before he’d recorded his ninth out in Saturday’s 4-1 Braves win. And it could’ve been four homers if Freddie Freeman didn’t have won robbed by Ryan Ludwick’s catch above the left-field fence.

Can it be sustained? Well, it’s safe to say Braves starting pitchers can’t keep up their current pace for an entire season, given that their 1.65 ERA through Saturday was on pace to be one of the best months recorded by any group of starting pitchers in baseball’s modern era. But the hitters, the power numbers? Why not? They are who they are, and they’ve done what  they’ve done so far without much offensively from Jason Heyward, who has started to heat up in the past week and a half.

As for the starting pitchers, while they won’t compile a sub-2.00 ERA for the season, there’s no reason to think the Braves starters can’t remain at or very near the top of the league rankings all year, since Atlanta has more depth than any team and will add last year’s team innings and strikeout leader (Mike Minor) to the rotation soon. And here’s the thing: The bullpen can be better than it has been, and has been much better the past couple of weeks than it was the first couple.

The Braves’ 3.41 bullpen ERA ranked 11th in the bigs before Sunday, and they’ve steadily trimmed that number. Jordan Walden is dealin’ now after struggling a bit at the outset of the season. Craig Kimbrel got his annual early season blip out of the way and should be good to go now that he appears to be back in overwhelming mode.

As long as Luis Avilan can be consistent and close to what he’s been in the past, and guys like David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro and rookie lefty Ian Thomas keep doing what they’ve been doing, the ‘pen should be back in its accustomed top-five spot before much longer.

And don’t forget, Jonny Venters continue to progress toward a possible late May or June return. While it’s impossible to know how close he’ll be to the dominant beast of a lefty he once was, if Venters can be even close to his old self, he’ll give the Braves another big-time lefty setup option that should be a big help in keeping Avilan fresh.

The only team with a better record than the Braves is the Brewers (18-6), who’ve gone 17-4 since losing two of three to the Braves in Milwaukee to start the season.

The Braves beat the Brewers before Atlanta’s big bats really got going. Their pitching has since continued at a ridiculously good pace, while the thumpers in the lineup have also started to do damage. The combination has been something to see: The Braves are 11-3 with a 1.98 ERA, 65 runs and 21 homers in their past 14 games.

Enjoy it, Braves fans. Once again, your team was picked by almost everyone to finish behind the Nationals, and so far the Braves again lead them and have a heavy advantage in the head-to-head matchups. Again, the preseason pundits raved about the Nationals’ rotation and criticized the Braves for their lack of a true ace.

Entering Sunday, Braves starters had an ERA more than two runs lower than Nationals starters (3.91).

Yeah, it’s early. Way early. But at some point, it’s not one-tenth of the season anymore. It’s one month gone, five to go.

Could be a fun summer watching this Braves team, don’t ya think?

 • J-Up likes home: Be it home in Arizona, or now in Atlanta, Justin Upton definitely likes hitting in his home ballpark.

When I noted before the Braves traded for Upton that he had a big disparity between his home and road stats, many dismissed that and said it was more a product of some pitcher-friendly ballparks he played in on a regular basis in the NL West, including San Francisco, San Diego and, to a lesser degree, Dodger Stadium. (He also played a lot of games in Coors Field, at the other  end of the spectrum).

Anyway, in his final season with the Diamondbacks in 2012, Upton hit .313 with 11 homers, 47 RBIs, a .390 OBP and .534 slugging percentage in 71 home games at Chase Field, compared to .252 with six homers,  20 RBIs, a .326 OBP and .344 slugging percentage in 79 road games.

In his first season with the Braves in 2013, his home-road splits were almost even, and Upton actually had more homers (14) and a higher slugging percentage (.488) on the road than at Turner Field (13 and .440).

David Hale allowed just two hits  in eight innings Saturday as the Braves' remarkable early season run of starting pitching continued unabated.

David Hale allowed just two hits in eight innings Saturday as the Braves’ remarkable early season run of starting pitching continued unabated.

But now that he’s had a year to get accustomed to his new home environment, J-Up is starting to resemble the home hitting monster that he was at Chase Field. So far this season, it’s been rather stunning — both what he’s done at home and the disparity in his home and road splits.

Entering Sunday’s game, Upton was 18-for-37 (.486) with six home runs, 12 RBIs and a 1.027 slugging percentage in 11 home games. His home average is second in the majors behind Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki (.563). Meanwhile, Upton is 9-for-47 (.191) with one homer, four RBIs, 23 strikeouts and a .298 slugging percentage in 12 road games.

Since heating up April 10 with two homers and the first of three consecutive three-hit games, Upton has gone 16-for-29 (.552) with six homers and eight strikeouts in nine home games, with no strikeouts in five of those games. In that same span on the road, he’s 5-for-25 with one homer and 13 strikeouts in six games, including multiple strikeouts in five of those six road games.

For his career, Upton’s home-road splits look like this:

Home: 448 games, .304 average, 86 homers, 265 RBIs, .384 OBP, .541 slugging percentage

Road: 455 games, .250 average, 56 homers, 184 RBIs, .332 OBP, .417 slugging percentage

I asked him about hitting at Turner Field, where he had homers in consecutive games Friday and Saturday. For those who’ve been to Chase Field, it’s hard not to notice the similarities in the “batter’s eye” backdrop in straightaway center at Chase Field and Turner Field. Both are large, dark walls soaring 40 feet or more.

“It’s a good ballpark to hit in,” he said of Turner Field. “Good batter’s eye, good backdrop, and it’s pretty fair. So it’s a good place to hit.”

• Sunday’s matchup: It’s a beauty, with Julio Teheran facing Reds ace Johnny Cueto, who ranks among NL leaders in ERA (1.38), opponents’ average (.140), strikeouts (39) and innings pitched (39).

Cueto is coming off consecutive three-hit complete games, both against the Pirates. (He’s the only NL pitcher with two CGs entering Sunday.) He allowed just one run in 18 innings of those wins, with 16 strikeouts and three walks. His 2-2 record is a reflection of run support: the Reds scored zero runs while he was in the game in his two losses.

The Braves have handled him better than most teams over the years. Cueto is 1-2 with a 4.15 ERA in five starts against them, but all of those were before last season including three before 2011.

Speaking of Justin Upton, he’s 4-for-15 with two homers against Cueto. The only other Braves with more than five at-bats against him are Chris Johnson (4-for-14), Ryan Doumit (6-for-22, HR), Dan Uggla (3-for-9) and Jordan Schafer (2-for-8).

Teheran’s 1.80 ERA ranks eighth in the NL, and he allowed just one run, eight hits and one walk with 12 strikeouts in 16 innings over his past two starts against the Phillies and Marlins. Included was the only regular-season shutout by a visiting pitcher at Citizens Bank Park since it opened in 2004.

In his past 32 starts, Teheran is 16-9 with a 2.65 ERA and 179 strikeouts in 204 2/3 innings.

His only start against the Reds was last summer, when Teheran gave up five runs and seven hits, including two homers, in a July 14 loss at Turner Field.

Jay Bruce is 2-for-3 with a homer against him, and Roger Bernadina (0-for-5, two strikeouts) is the only Red with more than three at-bats against Teheran.

Etc.

 Evan Gattis was 15-for-41 (.366) with five homers and 11 RBIs in his past 11 games before Sunday, with a .395 OBP and .780 slugging percentage…. After a woeful start to the season, B.J. Upton has made undeniable progress. He was 12-for-49 (.245) with a .351 OBP in his past 13 games before Sunday, with two extra-base hits, three stolen bases, eight walks and 12 strikeouts. Nothing spectacular, for sure, but the Braves will take that kind of production, coming off last season.

JazzFest is in full swing in New Orleans. So, here’s one from the Queen of the Blues and a woman I always identify with NOLA, particularly this song (it was a loooong night many years ago, but I can’t get into it here). It’s been done by many artists. Many, many artists. But none quite like it was by Ms. Taylor and the great Willie Dixon.  Click here to hear the cut .

“WANG DANG DOODLE” by Koko Taylor

Tell Automatic Slim , tell Razor Totin’ Jim
Tell Butcher Knife Totin’ Annie, tell Fast Talking Fanny
A we gonna pitch a ball, a down to that union hall
We gonna romp and tromp till midnight
We gonna fuss and fight till daylight

Koko Taylor

Koko Taylor

We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long
All night long
All night long
All night long
Tell Kudu-Crawlin’ Red, tell Abyssinian Ned
Tell ol’ Pistol Pete, everybody gonna meet
Tonight we need no rest, we really gonna throw a mess
We gonna to break out all of the windows, we gonna kick down all the doors
We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long
All night long
All night long
All night long
Tell Fats and Washboard Sam, that everybody gonna to jam
Tell Shaky and Boxcar Joe, we got sawdust on the floor
Tell Peg and Caroline Dye, we gonna have a time.
When the fish scent fill the air, there’ll be snuff juice everywhere
We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long
All night long
All night long
All night long
All night long
All night long
All night long
All night long

 

 

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