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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Can prospect La Stella help stabilize Braves’ lurching lineup

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BOSTON – The Braves just dropped both ends of a two-game set against a last-place Boston team that came to Atlanta nine games under .500 and lugging a 10-game losing streak, and yet today the NL East standings show the Braves still in first place, 1 ½ games ahead of … Miami?

So if you think it’s been a rollercoaster ride for your Braves and you’re not pleased with the overall direction of their season, think what it must be like to be a fan of the Nationals, who once again entered the season as the popular choice to win the NL East and once again were said to have the best starting rotation and blah blah blah. Washington is a game under .500 and its starters rank 10th in the NL in ERA.

That’s not to say things are swell with your Braves. Not saying or implying that. Not at all. Let’s be clear about that.

Jason Heyward, who homered Tuesday against Red Sox lefty Jon Lester, has been one of the few sustained bright spots lately for the Braves offense over the past two weeks.

Jason Heyward, who homered Tuesday against Red Sox lefty Jon Lester, has been one of the few sustained bright spots lately for the Braves offense over the past two weeks.

Just saying, it could be worse. Instead of having a bad attitude about the inconsistent-but-first-place Braves, you could have … Natitude.

And so we’ve taken this traveling show north for two more tonight and Thursday against the Red Sox at Fenway, one of those odd home-and-home things that MLB has begun doing for some reason having to do with it making the schedule work better or something. I really don’t know, I just know it’s a bit of a pain in the (rear) for everyone involved, even those who don’t have to fly commercial (the team and McAlpin).

While I was writing the blog, got an email informing me that Tommy La Stella has been promoted to bigs and will join Braves here in Boston. Here’s a story I wrote on La Stella when I went out to see him play in the Arizona Fall League in November.  I have a new story up on our website now about the promotion and why it was made, how he was doing at Gwinnett, etc.

Back to our regularly scheduled blog: It’s drizzy and in the low 50s here today, supposed to be 49 degrees at first pitch, but tomorrow is supposed to be sunny with temps in the 60s. And besides, Boston with temps in the 50s is not a bad thing at all. And a visit to Fenway Park is always welcome, regardless of the conditions or length of stay. I put it right behind AT&T Park in San Francisco on my list of favorite parks.

(By the way, if you’re going to do a consecutive two-and-two home-and-road thing, could they not at least have scheduled the second game in Boston as a day game, since the Braves have a game in Miami the next day. Again, not such a problem for the guys who fly charter. McAlpin, I’ll let you know if my 7 a.m. flight Friday is on time.)

   • Needing a win or two: While I was among those who felt the Braves wasted an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the Nationals in the first month of the season, lately you’ve got to look at it from the other perspective and say the Braves should be grateful the Nationals have underperformed again and the Marlins are so bad on the road.

Those two factors have enabled the Braves to remain in first place with a record (28-23) that would not be good enough to lead any other division in the majors and would place them fourth if they were in the NL West. But first place it is, and winning the division would, of course, put the Braves in the postseason again without having to gain entry via the Wild Card game.

But that’s getting way ahead of ourselves. Right now, the Braves just need to worry about righting the ship again and trying to stay healthy. Losing Andrelton Simmons or Evan Gattis for any significant stretch would be a big blow, but it appears the Braves have avoided that with indications that the shortstop and catcher sustained only minor injuries and should return this week.

Remember when the Braves were getting otherworldly pitching in the first four weeks of the season, pitching so good that it more than offset the woefully inconsistent – and most nights, just woeful – offense the Braves were getting during that same period? And how we all knew the pitching couldn’t sustain that level of performance, but the Braves had reason to believe the offense would come around?

Well, the pitching hasn’t sustained that level of performance – good, but no longer otherworldly – and the offense has remained inconsistent, albeit better than it was for most of April.

The Braves started out the season 17-7 with a 2.04 ERA, and have  gone 11-16 with 3.80 ERA in the 27 games since. The offense generally has been bad in both stretches. The most basic of numbers: .245 batting, 89 runs during 17-7 start, .229 BA and 86 runs in 11-16 run since.

The road has been particularly troubling of late for the Braves, who started out 8-3 with a jaw-dropping 1.78 ERA in their first 11 games away from Turner Field. In 10 road games since then, they are 2-8 with 4.93 ERA.

Braves starters have a 2.95 ERA, slipping to third in the majors behind the Cardinals (2.83) and Athletics (2.89) and still one spot ahead of the Dodgers (3.16). But here’s the thing: Braves starters have a modest 17-18 record, while the others ranked among the top four starters ERAs have records at least nine games over .500 by those starters: Cardinals starters 25-14, A’s starters 31-21, Dodgers starters 25-12.

That’s bad run support and a bullpen that’s been good, but not up to the lofty standards of recent Braves bullpens.

BRAVES LINEUP Wednesday

  1.  Heyward rf
  2. BUpton cf
  3. Freeman 1b
  4. JUpton lf
  5. Gattis c
  6. Doumit dh
  7. Johnson 3b
  8. La Stella 2b
  9. Pena ss

(Gavin Floyd pitching)

•  All-Star voting: Freddie Freeman is second among first basemen and shorstop Andrelton Simmons and catcher Evan Gattis are third at their positions in the initial NL All-Star update that was announced Wednesday. No other Brave was among the top five leaders announced at each position, and Justin Upton was seventh among outfielders (those aren’t broken down by specific OF position).

Freeman is only about 41,000 votes behind first-base leader Adrian Gonzalez, who has 349,762 votes. The Rockies have three voting leaders: shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the overall NL leader with 745,823 votes, third baseman Nolan Arenado and outfielder Charlie Blackmon, who was followed by Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Braun and Giancarlo Stanton in the outfield voting.

Simmons has 207,402 votes, just ahead of the Dodgers’ Hanley Ramirez (206,866) and not far behind the Giants’ Brandon Crawford  (218,123). Gattis had 241,005 votes, behind the Giants’ Buster Posey (421,100) and just ahead of Milwaukee Jonathan Lucroy (236,935). The Cardinals’ Yadier Molina (640,464) had a large lead among catchers.

More on La Stella – He hadn’t been squaring up baseballs for much of the early part of the season, hence the good average but scant extra-base hits. Now it looks like he’s starting to get back to doing what he’d done in previous minor league seasons and college ball, after doubling Tuesday and hitting his first home run of the season Wednesday.

The Braves promoted second-base prospect Tommy La Stella from Triple-A today. (Photo by Karl Moore/Gwinnett Braves)

The Braves promoted second-base prospect Tommy La Stella from Triple-A today. (Photo by Karl Moore/Gwinnett Braves)

He’s a gap-to-gap hitter but not a fast runner, so he didn’t have many doubles early this season because he wasn’t hitting balls deep in gaps the way the less-than-fleet Freddie Freeman does.

La Stella had been slugging .344 with seven extra-base hits and no homers in 194 plate appearances before Tuesday, when he hit a two-run jack in his 196th PA and 165th at-bat.

 Braves second basemen have hit a collective .165, tied with Padres second basemen for lowest average in the majors, and Atlanta second basemen have a majors-worst .250 slugging percentage.

Bases loaded = trouble: When Aaron Harang grounded into a double play with the bases loaded and none out in second inning Tuesday, and the Braves failed to score that inning, it continued their season-long woes in what should theoretically be such a productive offensive situation.

Atlanta’s .156 average with bases loaded includes 1-for-6 with three strikeouts byFreddie Freeman, 1-for-5 with two strikeouts by Justin Upton, and 0-for-4 with one strikeout by Jason Heyward. Those three are the only Braves with more than three PAs with bases loaded. Dan Uggla is a team-best 2-for-3 and has the Braves’ only grand slam and six of their 13 bases-loaded RBIs.

And yes, despite a flurry of hits a while back in those situations, the Braves with runners in scoring position and two outs still are just 29-for-172 (.169) with 27 walks and 48 strikeouts. The Braves with the most at-bats in those situations are Justin Upton, who is 4-for-27 (.148) with five walks and 13 strikeouts, and Chris Johnson, who is 4-for-21 (.190) with two walks and five strikeouts.

B.J. Upton is 1-for-16 with no walks and eight strikeouts in those situatuions, while Freeman remains the MLB leader at 7-for-14.

 • J-Hey coming around: Heyward is 18-for-56 (.321) with a .415 OBP in his past 15 games. His home runs in the first and last games of that surge, on May 11 against the Cubs and Tuesday night against Boston left-hander Jon Lester, were his only extra-bases hits during that 15-game period.

Lester hadn’t allowed a homer by a lefty in nearly a year before Heyward did it to him. It was Heyward’s fourth homer of the season and his second in 52 at-bats agaist lefties. It was his second homer in five career games against the Red Sox for Heyward, who is 7-for-12 with three doubles and a homer in three games at Fenway Park entering tonight’s series opener.

Something about the venerable and/or best ballparks seems to bring out the best in Heyward: He’s 12-for-40 (.300) with four homers and 10 RBIs in 13 games at Wrigley Field; 17-for-45 (.378) with six homers and 12 RBIs in 12 games at AT&T Park in San Francisco, and 14-for-39 (.359) with a homer and .444 OBP in 11 games at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

He’s also 5-for-12 (.417) with two homers at Houston’s Minute Made Park, which is right there with Seattle as the best among the retractable-roof or domed stadiums where baseball’s ever been played, in my opinion. Oh, and he’s 10-for-29 .345) with two homers and a .472 OBP in eight games at Coors Field, and 5-for-11 with two homers at new Yankee Stadium, which isn’t charming like old Yankee Stadium, but ain’t bad.

• Enjoy this tune from one of Boston’s finest outfits, the Pixies.

“HERE COMES YOUR MAN” by Pixies

Outside there’s a box car waiting
Outside the family stew
Out by the fire breathing
Outside we wait ’til face turns blue
I know the nervous walking
I know the dirty beard hangs
Out by the box car waiting

Pixies

Pixie

Take me away to nowhere plains

There is a wait so long (So long, so long)
You’ll never wait so long

Here comes your man
Here comes your man
Here comes your man

Big shake on the box car moving
Big shake to the land that’s falling down
Is a wind makes a palm stop blowing
A big, big stone fall and break my crown

There is a wait so long (So long, so long)
You’ll never wait so long

Here comes your man
Here comes your man
Here comes your man
Here comes your man…

 

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