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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Braves in 1st despite lack of production atop lineup

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ST. LOUIS – You want the good news or the bad news first regarding the Braves’ weekend series against the Cardinals that starts tonight? The good news? OK, the good news is that they face neither Adam Wainwright nor Michael Wacha.

Wacha pitched seven innings for the win Thursday against the Cubs here in St. Louis, while the Braves were in town with a full day off after traveling from San Francisco following Wednesday’s day game. The ace, Wainwright, had his scheduled Sunday series-finale start pushed back after the Cardinals were rained out Wednesdayhave a three-game series against the Cardinals starting tonight.

Entering Friday night's series opener  against the Cardinals, the Braves' Ervin Santana in all but two starts this season had allowed one or no runs and six or fewer hits in six or more innings.

Entering Friday night’s series opener against the Cardinals, the Braves’ Ervin Santana in all but two starts this season had allowed one or no runs and six or fewer hits in six or more innings.

So no Wainwright or Wacha, and the Braves instead get to face veteran lefty Jaime Garcia on Sunday in his first big-league start since shoulder surgery 12 months ago.

Now the bad news: both weekend games are day games. If you haven’t noticed, the Braves, who’ve not hit much this season to begin with, have been particularly brutal in day games.

And since we’re a quarter of the way into the season already, the sample size is at least large enough to make note of what I’m talking about here and wonder aloud whether the Braves need to drink more coffee, get more sleep — something.

The Braves and Pirates have hit .199 in 12 day games, tied with the Pirates for worst average in the majors, and the Braves’ .578 OPS in day games is third-lowest in the majors ahead of only the Padres (.559) and Pirates (.550).

The league average for day games is a .238 BA, and six of 15 NL teams are hitting above .250. Which explains how the Braves can have a majors-best 2.22 ERA in 12 day games, yet only a .500 record (6-6). The next-best day-game ERAs belong to the Reds (2.43), who are 10-7 in day games, the Athletics (2.50), who are 11-6, and the Brewers (2.55), who are 9-5.

The Braves’ .245 team batting average in night games is just below the .253 NL average and tied for ninth in the league. Braves pitchers have a majors-best 3.01 ERA in night games and a 16-11 record.

Here’s something else to illustrate statistically how bad Braves hitters have been in day games: Of the 138 National League players with at least 25 plate appearances in day games, the Braves have six of the bottom 35 batting averages

More than half of the Braves’ regulars are hitting .200 or lower in day games, including their best hitter: Yes, Freddie Freeman has hit .200 (9-for-45) with with one homer and .288 OBP in 12 games.

The rest: Gerald Laird .182 (4-for-22 in seven day games); Justin Upton .179 (7-for-39 with one homer, 16 strikeouts, .273 OPB in 11 day games); Evan Gattis .167 (4-for-24 with two homers, .200 OBP in eight day games); B.J. Upton .150 (6-for-40 with one RBI, 16 K, .209 OBP in 12 day games) and Dan Uggla .147 (5-for-34 with no extra-base hits and .211 OBP in 11 day games).

The only Braves with an on-base percentage as high as .290 in 10 or more at-bats in day games are Chris Johnson (.286 average, 11-for-41, one homer, .326 OBP); Jason Heyward (.220 average, 9-for-41, one homer, .327 OBP), and Laird (.182, 4-for-22 with .333 OBP). Again, that’s OBP – just three Braves with an OBP as high as .300, which isn’t real good, in as many as 10 at-bats.

 •Bigger issue: Of course, it’s not as if the Braves have been blowing up the scoreboard in night games, either. This offense has simply been woefully underperforming so far, and there’s no bigger reason than the lack of production at the top of the order.

If the first and second spots in the lineup are considering the table-setters, then the Braves are operating with a relatively barren table on way too many occasions. Because they have the National League’s worst batting average at not just the leadoff spot, but also the No. 2 spot in the lineup. League-worst in both the top two spots in the batting order. That’s tough to overcome on a regular basis.

The Braves’ .213 average from the leadoff spot – Jason Heyward in all but two games — is 12 points lower than the next-worst in the NL. OBP is more important than average at the top of the order, and the Braves’ .305 OBP from leadoff hitters is the fifth-lowest in the NL, and includes a .304 OBP from Heyward, who has hit .205 (30-for-146) with three homers, 20 walks and 35 strikeouts  in the No. 1 spot.

Heyward isn’t a leadoff hitter, but the Braves don’t have any obvious better candidates. Or maybe they do now, if Tyler Pastornicky is going to get most of the starts at second base (And if Pastornick is going to get those starts, as Fredi Gonzalez indicated this week, then really, how much longer will this Dan Uggla saga play out before the Braves release or trade him and eat almost all of his remaining salary? Stay tuned.)

Pastornicky had a couple of infield hits Wednesday in his first game at the leadoff spot, with Heyward out of the lineup for only the second time to get a rest against a lefty and in a day game after a night game. Heyward has struggled against lefties, and you might think Gonzalez would consider batting Pastornicky leadoff against lefties, but so far Fredi has indicated Heyward will stay atop the order.

The only other Brave to bat leadoff this year was Andrelton Simmons (1-for-5), who doesn’t strike out, but also doesn’t draw walks and isn’t a base-stealing threat.

Meanwhile, the 2-hole problem has been painful to watch again lately. The Braves rank 29th in the majors and last in the NL with a .214 average from the second spot in the order, where B.J. Upton has had two-thirds of the at-bats. The Braves’ .297 OBP in the 2-hole is fourth-lowest in the NL, and their .325 slugging percentage from 2-hole hitters is the league low.

B.J. Upton has hit .213 with a .303 OBP and .324 slugging percentage and 34 strikeouts in 108 at-bats in the 2-hole. Five other Braves have hit there at some point this season, and Justin Upton (.207, 6-for-29) is the only other one with more than eight at-bats in the position.

B.J. isn’t a 2-hole hitter, certainly not the way he’s going now. Simmons is a better fit there because at least he puts the ball in play and thus has a better chance to advance a runner.

Something needs to be done atop the order, because to ask a lineup to produce consistently when the first two are getting on base so infrequently is a bit of a reach.

Braves Friday lineup

  1. Heyward rf
  2. Jupton lf
  3. Freeman 1b
  4. Gattis c
  5. Johnson 3b
  6. BUpton cf
  7. Simmons ss
  8. Santana p
  9. Pastornicky 2b

Opponent’s praise: The Braves on Wednesday got seven hits and four runs against Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner (and in a day game, no less!). Bumgarner had held the Braves to one earned run over 20 innings in his previous three starts, including six shutout innings in Atlanta earlier this month. After Wednesday’s game the lefty gave Braves hitters a lot of credit for knocking him around: “They made good adjustments. They looked like a different team out there. They’re a first place time. They’re good. They’re no slouches out there.”

Oh, yes, it’s easy to forget that fact, what will all the consternation about the Braves office. The team is in first place, folks. Again.

• More from Walker: Braves hitting coach Greg Walker believes the Braves must, can and will get better than what they’ve been so far this season. I wrote about that in this story in the Thursday AJC and online, but there wasn’t enough room to run Walker’s quotes in full, so here are a couple more from an interview with the candid coach before Wednesday’s series finale in San Francisco.

GREG WALKER: “We’re going to get better, there’s no doubt in my mind. We’ve pitched good enough to keep us in the fight. We’re not bad; we’re in first place. You’ve got to tip your cap to the way we’ve pitched, and we (hitters) have got get better. And we have a chance to get better. The same guys, basically… If you look at our misses, we’re getting impatient and swinging at balls out of the zone. Which doesn’t work….

“We’ve had some games where we were bad. Really bad. Some guys have been frustrated and swing at balls out of the zone. We’re giving away way too many at-bats. I think we’re good, but we’re not good enough to do that (swing at pitches out of zone). Got to get the ball in the zone, and got to take our walks. We’re going to hit the ball hard, and we’re going to strike out. So what are the variables? The variables are (getting strikes, letting bad pitches go). We’ve got to trust the guy behind you….

“We’ve got to get better, and we will. I really believe we will.”…

Madison Bumgarner gave up four runs and seven hits in five innings Wednesday and praised the adjustments made by Braves hitters.

Madison Bumgarner gave up four runs and seven hits in five innings Wednesday and praised the adjustments made by Braves hitters.

“I think (the poor results with runners in scoring position) has been a little bit flukey. You look at hard-hit balls with runners in scoring position, we’ve hit as many of the balls hard as any other team. Some of it’s just been bad luck. And that’s an excuse, and hitting coaches don’t talk about bad luck, because you start feeling sorry for yourself. We can’t feel sorry for ourself. Got to keep fighting. We’ve got a lot of swing-and-miss streaky guys, and as a hitting coach you always look to get better. How can you get better? And that’s why we’re so dynamic when we get two or three guys going. We get two or three guys going, I mean, we play slow-pitch softball (big power). We get everybody going, it’s unbelievable. But how do you create consistency? Take our walks, use our athleticism, run on guys you can run on. Win games. When you’re not going good as a team, if you can find a way to win a game….

“This guy today (Bumgarner) is tough, but we know going in if we get two or three runs early we’ve got a pretty good chance to win because our guy (Teheran) is really good. And as bad as it seems, we’ve scored more than the other team, what, 22 times? That’s a good thing. And as bad as we’ve been – and we’ve been bad – we find a way to win some games. Mainly because of pitching.

“We haven’t been absolutely zero; sometimes it hasn’t been as bad as the numbers look. I think we’re all disappointed in how many at-bats we’ve given away this year. That’s the thing I look at. I’m talking about non-competitive pitches. When you’re swinging at pitches … pitching today is as good as it’s ever been. Everybody’s scuffling (offensively). I mean, at one time or another almost every team in baseball has scuffled in the first six weeks. We’re kind of the poster child for it, because we’ve done it more than anybody. But we’re going to get better, and there’s no doubt about it. And we’ve set ourself up. As bad as we’ve been, we’ve been good enough to be in first place. And hopefully we get better.

“We’re one of the youngest teams in baseball. We’ve faced a tough of right-handed pitching with a ton of right-handed at-bats against right-handed pitchers. And we’ve been challenged with – pitchers don’t want to throw us strikes, and we’ve allowed them to get away with that. They don’t want to throw us strikes, because we’re dangerous. We’ve got a lot of dangerous guys. They don’t want to throw us strikes and we’ve allowed them to get away with it. We’ve got to get better at getting the ball in the zone. That’s the one thing that sticks out to me. You always look at deception – he swung at a slider in the dirt. OK, that (pitcher) is good. That’s deceptive. It looked like a strike and turned into a ball. But we’ve swung at way too many non-competitive pitches this year. And when I see that I say, OK, that’s probably a frustrated hitter. He’s pre-determining swings: ‘OK, he’s going to throw me a strike here.’ The pitching coach is now – they’ve got his game plan. ‘OK, I’m going to pitch backwards, I don’t have to throw this guy a strike.’ And I don’t care what kind of swing you’ve got, I don’t care what kind of talent you’ve got, it’s impossible to hit a non-competitive pitch; you’ve got to take it. And we’ve not done a good job with that. Coaching or watching the other team, I’ve never seen a team swing at so many non-competitive pitches.

 “A lot of it’s out of frustration. ‘He’s going to throw me a heater here, I’m going to cheat and I’m going to get to it.’ And they’re smart enough to know that. And we’ve fell into the trap. We’re swinging at balls that are, out of the hand, they’re balls. That’s when you’ve got to look in the mirror and say we’ve got a wrong mindset. As a  hitting coach I’m not smart enough to think along with pitchers. But I am smart enough to know  that if I go up there and I fight through my at-bat, if I go up there with the mindset — this guy is not going to get me out, I’m going to put a professional at-bat on this guy, I’m going to swing at strikes, I’m going to be ready to hit, but if he doesn’t throw me a strike I’m going to trust my brother behind me – I believe that takes care of all this numbers stuff that everybody worries about. But when you just start giving away at-bats by just predetermining swings, well guess what, they’ve got too much info. They go in with a gameplan, and we fall into the trap of let them beat us without throwing strikes.

“I’ve coached teams that were bad and had bad streaks, but most of the time it was because we were hurt or just weren’t that good. But our guys are healthy. There’s no excuse for being as bad as we’ve been. But the good news is, we’re healthy. We’ve got a chance of getting a lot better. If I looked at us every day and said, ‘we’re not very good,’ I’d be real worried. But we’re not this bad. We’re  not this bad. The pitching’s giving us a chance. If we get in the fight, we’ll get better.”

  • Etc.

Among major league rookie pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched, the Braves’ David Hale is the ERA leader at 1.65…. Before losing Wednesday after scoring first, the Braves were 14-0 this season when they scored the first run of a game. And going back to the 2013 season they had won 18 consecuttive games in which they scored first. Elias says that had been the longest active streak in the majors until it ended Wednesday, and the second-longest such streak for the Braves since they moved to Atlanta in 1966. They won 19 consecutive games when scoring first during the 1983 season…. Thirty of the Braves’ 39 games have been decided by three runs or fewer. They are 9-7 in one-run games, 4-4 in two-run games, and 5-1 in games decided by three runs. The Braves have been held to two or fewer runs nine times in the past 16 games and 17 times all season (6-11 record in those games).

Here’s a tune from DBT frontman Patterson Hood‘s excellent solo album Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance.

“BETTER OFF WITHOUT” by Patterson Hood

I’m better off without her holding me down
Driving me crazy when she’s not around
Better off without pacing back and forth
Taste of ocean water leaves me wanting more

And if salty is what she craves, why am I so bitter?

Patterson Hood

Patterson Hood

She’s so sweet it rots my teeth every time I kiss her
If I’m better off in fifty ways, why do I still miss her?
Misty eyed and tossed about
Thinking about things I’m better off without….

I guess I’m better off without all she was about
Her mood swings so violently it’s tough to stand my ground
It’s so tough to stand around, pacing back and forth
Lonely is awake alone, four in the morning

While She’s off to better things, better off without me
I would only hold her down until she stopped fighting
And my skin is underneath her nails since she came unbound
It’s too late to turn around

Thinking about things I’m better off without….

d

Thinking about things I’m better off without (x3)

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