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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

It bears repeating: Braves need offensive upgrade

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 BOSTON – It’s a picture-perfect day here in The Old Town, but the Braves can be excused if they’re not in much mood to bask in all the sunshine and 60-degree weather.

They need to win tonight to avoid getting swept in four consecutive games (two home, two in Boston) by the Red Sox, a team that had lost 10 in a row before getting rejuvenated against Atlanta by making the most of just about every Braves mistake – there have been plenty — and having more than a few breaks go their way as well. It’s their first three-game winning streak of the season.

The Braves? They blew a 6-1 lead in Monday’s 8-6 loss and went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position the past two nights in 6-3 and 4-0 defeats, leaving 10 runners on base in Wednesday’s shutout and also making a couple of fielding mistakes that contributed to both runs scored against Gavin Floyd, still winless despite a 2.37 ERA in five starts as a Brave.

Tommy La Stella had two hits and a nice turn on this double play in his major league debut Wednesday, but the Braves didn't do much else in a 4-0 loss to the Red Sox. (AP photo)

Tommy La Stella had two hits and a nice turn on this double play in his major league debut Wednesday, but the Braves didn’t do much else in a 4-0 loss to the Red Sox. (AP photo)

It was more of the same Wednesday – get a runner on base, fail to get him over or get him in. Way too many unproductive outs, specifically strikeouts. Second-base prospect Tommy La Stella went 2-for-4 in his major league debut and put the ball in play in every plate appearance, doing exactly what the Braves hoped he’ll do for their whiff-prone lineup.

But the Braves have simply got to get more of that from some others in the lineup on a more consistent basis. This goes without saying, right? But unless they do it, for more than a week or two at a time, this team is really going to have a tough time reaching the goals it has set for itself.

Sure, they can win the NL East, because the Nationals are overhyped, injury-prone and/or just don’t have a winning culture set forth by the team’s leaders, be they in uniform or otherwise. And I don’t think the young Marlins can’t sustain this stunning home winning percentage much longer, certainly not for an entire season.

Winning the weaker-than-expected East would prevent the Braves from having to play an anything-can-happen one-game Wild Card matchup. And if things held as they are today in the standings – and yes, I know we’re less than one-third of the way through the season — the Braves would face the Central Division winner in the first round and not have home-field advantage.

And while the Braves have a 13-6 record against Central teams including 5-2 against the first-place Brewers, how many folks out there are like me and tend to believe the Cardinals are going to catch and pass the Brewers by mid-summer? And how many of you would be comfortable with the Braves’ chances in a first-round series against the Cardinals with St. Louis having home-field advantage?

What I’m saying is, the Braves need to do better than their current winning percentage. And certainly they need to do a lot better than what they’ve done since getting off to such a rousing start, when they were 17-7 with a 2.04 ERA, .245 batting average and 29 runs.

No one could realistically have expected them to maintain that amazing ERA, but most of us figured the Braves offense could, would, and had to get better. And yet, despite those week or two-week spurts when they’ve shown how dangerou their lineup can be when 3-5 guys are raking at once, the Braves’ offense has really not gotten better in the past month.

The Braves are 11-17 with a 3.78 ERA in their past 28 games, a levelling off in ERA that should’ve been expected, though a bit more extreme than the team and its followers expected.

But while the pitching has “found its level” so to speak, and still ranks at or near the top of the majors in most categories, the offense hasn’t done its part by balancing out the early struggles with some sustained pillaging of opposing pitching. Not at all.

Over those 28 games the Braves have hit actually hit 15 points lower (.230) than they did during the 17-7 start, and totaled just 86 runs (3.2 per game) and 22 homers.

Seriouisly, if you’re going to present yourselves as having a lineup laden with free-swinging hitters who can change a game with one swing, well then you’ve got to actually do that a lot more frequently than 22 homers in 28 games. Because if you’re not hitting a ton of homers, then your offense has got to have a more fundamentally sound approach. You simply have to be able to manufacture runs.

No, I’m not saying you have to bunt a lot – it’s a bit late for the Braves to suddenly become a good bunting team – I’m saying you have  to put the ball in play with runners on base and less than two outs. Hit a grounder to the right side to get a runner to third, hit a fly ball (not a pop-up or a strikeout) get a runner in from third.

Got to do it. If they don’t, they might still win the NL East, but the Braves will have an awfully difficult time getting past the first round if they can’t play fundamentally sound baseball against the tougher opposing pitchers they’ll face in the playoffs. They won’t be able to beat up on Nos. 3-5 starters there. They’ll need to do it against elite pitchers.

Unless their pitchers can limit opponents to two or fewer runs every time out, the current offensive approach isn’t going to get it done. Getting to the postseason alone isn’t going to satisfy many folks inside the organization and certainly not those who’ve watched the early exits for so many years now.

Gotta do better. Got to do something to become a better hitting team. Can’t wait until September to do it.

• Red Sox revived: They might hate to see the Braves go, since the Red Sox have hit .298 and scored 18 runs in three consecutive wins against the Braves before tonight. They did that damage despite hitting only one homer.

Before facing the Braves, the Red Sox hit .212 and totaled 26 runs in a 10-game winning streak that was snapped Monday in Atlanta. Not only did Wednesday night’s 4-0 win give Boston its first three-game winning streak of the season, it was also the first shutout win for the Red Sox.

• Tonight’s matchup: It’s Mike Minor facing Boston’s Jake Peavy (1-2, 4.65 ERA), with Minor trying to erase a memory.

The Braves lefty got rocked in his only start against the Red Sox at Fenway on June 24, 2012, allowing  seven runs (four earned) and three homers in 4 2/3 innings. That was in a particularly brutal stretch of games that looked like it might get Minor sent down to the minors. But he stayed up with the big club, and his turnaround began soon after.

He gave up four runs in five innings of a win against Washington six days later, and in his 52 starts after that Minor has gone 22-16 with a 2.99 ERA and .224 opponents’ average, with 281 strikeouts and 73 walks in 328 1/3 innings.

Mike Minor's career took an upward turn soon after he was rocked in a June 2012 start at Fenway Park, his only start against the Red Sox before Thursday.

Mike Minor’s career took an upward turn soon after he was rocked in a June 2012 start at Fenway Park, his only start against the Red Sox before Thursday.

Since giving up six runs and 11 hits in 4 1/3 innings against St. Louis in his second start this season, Minor is 2-1 with a 2.29 ERA and .169 opponents’ average in his past three. He’s allowed just 12 hits and five runs in 19 2/3 innings in that span, with 17 strikeouts and seven walks.

The only Boston player with more than three official at-bats against Minor is Shane Victorino (1-for-8), and no current Red Sox player has homered against him.

Peavy is 0-2 with a 4.42 ERA in six starts this season at Fenway Park, where he’s allowed 37 hits (six homers) and 19 walks in 36 2/3 innings.

Righties have hit .328/.384/.541 against him in 122 at-bats this season, while lefties have hit .204/.301/.407 in 108 at-bats. But lefties have six of the eight homers he’s allowed.

Peavy is 3-4 with a 3.86 ERA and a whopping 62 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings over eight starts against the Braves, but this is not nearly the same pitcher who struck out 16 Braves in seven innings as a Milwaukee Brewers stud on May 22, 2006. And obviously it’s a different cast of Braves, albeit similarly strikeout-prone.

Peavy is 0-1 with an 8.82 ERA and .389 opponents’ average in his past three starts for the Red Sox, allowing five or more runs in each of those outings and totaling eight strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings.

Against Peavy, Justin Upton is 6-for-9 with a home run, Dan Uggla is 3-for-14 with a homer and seven strikeouts, B.J. Upton is 2-for-8 with five strikeouts, and Ryan Doumit is 3-for-15 with four strikeouts. No other Brave has more than three at-bats against him.

BRAVES LINEUP Thursday

  1. Heyward RF
  2. BUpton CF
  3. Freeman 1B
  4. JUpton LF
  5. Gattis C
  6. Johnson 3B
  7. Doumit DH
  8. La Stella 2B
  9. Simmons SS

(Mike Minor pitching)

• Speaking of strikeouts: The Braves lead the NL with 212 strikeouts in May, including 33 for B.J. Upton, 29 for Justin Upton, and 24 for Chris Johnson. Meanwhile, the Braves’ 21 homers for the month are tied with the Cubs and Phillies for eighth in the league, and the seven team above them have 24 or more including 31 for the Rockies, 30 for the Marlins and 28 for the Dodgers.

The Braves are 13th in the NL in runs in April with 83, which is 40 fewer than the league-leading Dodgers have, and 37 fewer than the Marlins. Yes, the Marlins have outscored the Braves 120-83 in May.

By the way, the Braves had 231 strikeouts in April, tied with the Nationals and Marlins for  most in the NL, and Atlanta’s 92 runs in April were more than only the Padres had for the month.

B.J. Upton is 2-for-17 with six strikeouts and one walk in his past four games, after not striking out in a five-game stretch against the Brewers and Rockies (5-for-16 with two extra-base hits and three walks and a .421 OBP). He leads the majors with 63 strikeouts, and brother Justin Upton is second with 62.

• That stat again: When I’d mention the RISP-with-two-outs stat in April, most front-office types and Braves in uniform all said it was a small sample size and would eventually even out. But 52 games into the season, the Braves are still last in the NL and 29th in the majors with a .165 average with RISP and two outs.

The Braves are 29-for-176 with 28 walks and 50 strikeouts in those situations. Only the Astros (.161) have a lower average in those situations.

B.J. Upton had been 1-for-17 with no walks and nine strikeouts with runners in scoring position and two outs before Wednesday, when he drew a two-out walk against left-hander Chris Capuano to load the bases with two outs in the seventh inning. That was the Braves’ first and only walk in a game in which they struck out 11 times.

Freddie Freeman followed by grounding out to the second baseman, making Freeman — the Braves’ best “clutch” hitter by almost any other measure — a mere 1-for-7 with bases loaded.

* Etc.

The Braves-Angels game on June 15 (Father’s Day) has been picked up by ESPN and moved to an 8 p.m. start…. Alex Wood has a 5.06 ERA, .348 opponents’ average and .412 opponents’ on-base percentage in seven relief appearances this season, after posting a 2.08 ERA and .233/.275 in 20 relief appearances as a rookie.

Bob Mould‘s got a new album coming out next week. I’ve heard it and it’s terrific. But since spring I’ve been listening to the 25th anniversary expanded re-issue of Workbook album, which sounds as good today as the day in came out. Here’s a tune off that one.

“WISHING WELL” by Bob Mould

Wishing well runs wet and dry
I wish for things i never had
Surrounds and wells up in my eyes
The screaming voice, it lies

Wishing well gets someone’s attention
Every wish you ever had
In a day of nights, in the darkest of light

Bob Mould back in the day, as frontman for the mighty Husker Du.

Bob Mould back in the day, as frontman for the mighty Husker Du.

Sits and cries, watch the lies

Could you give me a wish if i tell you what i want?
Will the price be no object?
I wish for dreams of light
I live for wishing well surprise

Deepest light, the secret lies
Wishing well gives you all that you desire
Homes and trains, and the greenest of plains
That you ever happened upon

The silent wish, it calls you out
Calls you out by name
Lays upon the plain, on the mountain high
City lights, wish delights

What if the waters and wishes appear?
Will the price be no object?
I wish for dreams of light
I live for wishing well surprise

Twist and shape on the winding twine
Around the spindle winds
Wish again, four times again
Four wishes deep into the well

There’s a price to pay for a wish to come true
Trade a small piece of your life
Roots in the soil, uprooting the soil
Mountain high, the mountain high

The wish is only to speak a kind
Kind of word, so benign absurd
The well, three wishes run dry
Wishing well is dry

When no grass grows, the weeds run in line
Wish three wishes, three wishes run dry

 

 

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