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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Braves need to get back on track vs. struggling Cubs

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Bad things happened the last time Jason Hammel pitched against them. Bad things, man.

It was June 16, 2012, when Hammel pitched a one-hit shutout for the Orioles at Turner Field, allowing one walk with eight strikeouts. But even worse for the Braves, that was the day that Brandon Beachy, who had a majors-leading 2.00 ERA at the time, left the game with elbow discomfort.

Beachy has had three elbow surgeries including two Tommy John procedures since then. He’s just begun rehab after his second TJ surgery, and tonight Hammel, now with the Cubs, faces the Braves for the first time in 23 months.

Jason Heyward is 6-for-8 against Friday's Cubs starter Jason Hammel. Heyward is also really large, as this photo of him next to third-base coach Doug Dascenzo illustrates. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Jason Heyward is 6-for-8 against Friday’s Cubs starter Jason Hammel. Heyward is also really large, as this photo of him next to third-base coach Doug Dascenzo illustrates. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Provided the rain holds off enough to play this series opener tonight at Turner Field, it should be a dandy of a pitching matchup between Julio Teheran (2-2, 1.80 ERA) and Hammel (4-1, 2.43) as the Braves try to break out of a funk that’s seen them drop eight of their past nine games and lose three consecutive series, two by sweeps. They’ve dropped five of six on a nine-game homestand that runs through Sunday before they head West to San Francisco and then to St. Louis.

Hammel has begun the season with six consecutive quality starts, and he’s 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA and .197 opponents’ average  in his past three. After allowing just one run and seven hits in 14 innings against Arizona and Milwaukee, he gave up seven hits and three runs in six innings of his most recent start Sunday at home against the Cardinals and got no decision in the Cubs loss.

What made his one-hit shutout in his last start against the Braves all the more notable was how completely improbable it was at the time. Hammel had been – are you ready for this? — 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA and .419 opponents’ average in five starts against the Braves before he blanked them for nine innings on one hit two Junes ago.

Before that game, he had pitched 22 innings in five starts against the Braves and allowed 44 hits and 22 earned runs with seven walks and 14 strikeouts. And on that fateful day, he allowed just one hit in nine scoreless innings. Crazy game, this baseball.

Jason Heyward is 6-for-8 against Hammel, Justin Upton is 7-for-23 with a homer, Freddie Freeman 2-for-3, and Dan Uggla 3-for-12.

His counterpart tonight has been the Braves’ Mr. Unlucky. Now granted, none of the Braves starters have received good run support this year from an offense that’s been absolutely anemic, but Teheran has been particularly affected by the team’s scoring malaise. He has a 1.46 ERA and .192 opponents’ average in his past five starts, but just 1-1 to show for it.

His only win in that stretch came in a three-hit shutout April 16 at Philadelphia, which was the only regular-season shutout by a visiting pitcher at Citizens Bank Park since it opened in 2004. Lately, it just about takes a shutout for Teheran to win.

The Braves have scored a total of four runs in his 31 innings pitched over his past four starts.

Teheran is 0-1 with a 1.93 ERA in his past four home starts,  including a Saturday loss against  the Giants when he gave up three runs and four hits with no walks and seven strikeouts in seven innings. The runs against him came on three solo homers, the first time in his career that Teheran allowed more than two homers.

He’s 1-0 with a 4.91 ERA in two starts against the Cubs, both last season. He gave up five runs and eight hits including two homers in five innings of an April 6 no-decision against them in Atlanta, then limited the Cubs  to four hits and one run with seven strikeouts in six innings of a Sept. 22 win at Wrigley Field.

By the way, in his past 34 starts, Teheran is 16-10 with a 2.58 ERA and .230 opponents’ average, with 191 strikeout and 47 walks in 219 2/3 innings. Not bad for a guy who’s in his second full season and who just turned 23 in January.

The Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo is 2-for-6 with a homer against Teheran, while Justin Ruggiano is just 1-for-10 with four strikeouts.

Rizzo has been on quite a roll lately, going 10-for-28 (.357) with four homers, eight RBIs, nine walks and four strikeouts in his past eight games, for a .518 OBP in that stretch.

  • Two teams, scant offense: For the second series in a row, the Braves will face a team with scoring woes similar to its own…. OK, not that awful, but pretty bad.

The Cubs are 5-9 with a 3.74 ERA in its past 14 games, having hit .211 and scored 57 runs in that span, with 12 of runs coming in one game Thursday against the crosstown rival White Sox. Before that, the Cubs had scored three or fewer runs in eight of 12 games.

The Braves, of course, would love to score three runs a game. They have hit .204 and totaled a measly 17 runs in their past 10 games. That includes one or no runs six times in that horrific offensive stretch.

The Braves are tied with the Dodgers and Nationals for eighth-most homers in the majors with 34. But while the Dodgers rank ninth with 148 runs and the Nationals are 13th with 143, the Braves have scored just 99 runs, the Braves are 29th in scoring with 105 runs, ahead of only the Padres (92). No other  team has scored fewer than 120. Not even the Astros. Think about that.

How does a team that has Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis and Andrelton Simmons, all considered to be among the top-tier offensive talents at their respective positions, or at least among the top power hitters at those positions, rank 29th in the majors in runs scored?

That’s a rhetorical question. We kind of know how. They don’t manufacture runs. They don’t steal many bases. They rarely bunt or otherwise advance runners. They don’t hit sac flies at a high rate when they do get a runner at third base with less than two outs.

They don’t do much particularly well at the plate other than hit homers, and even that proficiency has been down this year and particularly in recent weeks. And if the bunch that they’ve assembled isn’t going to hit for a lot of power, then it’s below-average OBP tendencies are going to be particularly glaring. And this year that OBP stands at .293, tied with Seattle for third-lowest in the majors and ahead of only San Diego among NL teams.

In four years, this team’s offensive identity has changed so drastically, along with its personnel obviously. Back in 2010, the last season with Terry Pendleton as hitting coach, the Braves had a .339 OBP that tied Boston for third in the majors.

They could live with a poor OBP now if they were hitting taking a lot better advantage of opportunities when they do get runners on base. The Braves’ woeful performance with runners in scoring position has been well-documented here, so I want wear you out with all the details again. Suffice to say, the Braves’ 70 runs in those runners-in-scoring-position situations is the lowest in the majors, and their .201 batting average (47-for-234) with RISP is third-lowest in the majors, ahead of only the Cubs (.199) and Padres (.184).

And when two outs are added to the situation, the Braves get inexplicably, unbelievably bad, batting .121 (14-for-116). That’s 31 points lower than the majors’ next lowest (Cleveland, .152) and 53 points lower than the NL’s next-lowest (Washington, .174).

Freeman is 6-for-11 with runners in scoring position and two outs, while the rest of the Braves are 8-for-105 (.076) with 34 strikeouts.

• Uggla update: The Braves appear to have moved into something of a platoon situation at second base, though manager Fredi Gonzalez refuses to chategorize it as that or anything else. He says it’s a day-to-day thing, depending on matchups and the like. But it looks like Dan Uggla, for now, will play against lefties and perhaps a few righties he’s had success against.

The Braves seem likely to use Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky in the other games at the position, unless and until they decide to call up Tommy La Stella from Triple-A Gwinnett, where he’s hitting .300 with a .372 OBP in 129 plate appearances (albeit with only three extra-base hits, all doubles) in his first stint above Double-A.
While I really like La Stella and his approach and maturity, and I understand that plenty of Braves fans want to see La Stella in the big leagues as soon as possible, here’s something to think about: Pastornicky had a higher OPS (.716) in 167 PAs at Triple-A Gwinnett at age 22 in 2012 than La Stella (.699) has at age 25. Pastornicky had a .747 OPS last season at Gwinnett at age 23.

 Etc.

Chris Johnson is 12-for-60 (.200) with no extra-base hits and one RBI in his past 17 games, with three walks and 13 strikeouts…. Freeman is 12-for-59 (.203) with one homer, four walks and five RBIs in his past 15 games…. The Braves went 8-5 with a 2.76 ERA against the Cubs over the past two seasons including 5-2 at Turner Field, where thousands of Cubs fans always turn out when their squad is in town. Last season, the Braves swept an April 5-7 series against them in Atlanta.

The Replacements are in town for Shaky Knees Festival. They’re just one of the greatest bands that ever was. Enjoy this  classic from Westerberg and Co. Seeing them live back in their early/mid ’80s heyday was an unforgettable experience.

“HERE COMES A REGULAR” by The Replacements

Well a person can work up a mean mean thirst
after a hard day of nothin’ much at all
Summer’s passed, it’s too late to cut the grass
There ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall

The Replacements

The Replacements

And sometimes I just ain’t in the mood
to take my place in back with the loudmouths
You’re like a picture on the fridge that’s never stocked with food
I used to live at home, now I stay at the house

And everybody wants to be special here
They call your name out loud and clear
Here comes a regular
Call out your name
Here comes a regular
Am I the only one here today?

Well a drinkin’ buddy that’s bound to another town
Once the police made you go away
And even if you’re in the arms of someone’s baby now
I’ll take a great big whiskey to ya anyway

Everybody wants to be someone’s here
Someone’s gonna show up, never fear
’cause here comes a regular
Call out your name
Here comes a regular
Am I the only one who feels ashamed?

Kneeling alongside old Sad Eyes
He says opportunity knocks once then the door slams shut
All I know is I’m sick of everything that my money can buy
The fool who wastes his life, God rest his guts

First the lights, then the collar goes up, and the wind begins to blow
Turn your back on a pay-you-back, last call
First the glass, then the leaves that pass, then comes the snow
Ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall

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