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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Braves must keep pedal to metal in soft part of schedule

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Remember during the stretch drive of the 2012 season when the Braves and Nationals were in lockstep? When the Braves won, the Nats won. When they lost, the Nats lost. It happened almost every day for weeks on end.

Julio Teheran (left) has established himself as the Braves ace in his second full season in the majors.    Atlanta is 9-1 since B.J. Upton (right)  moved into the leadoff spot.

Julio Teheran (left) has established himself as the Braves ace in his second full season in the majors. Atlanta is 9-1 since B.J. Upton (right) moved into the leadoff spot. (Jason Getz/AJC photo)

Well, we’re not in the stretch drive yet, but it’s been happening again lately. After Atlanta wasted an opportunity to gain ground when the Nats struggled for long stretches of the first half, the Braves are now on their first extended winning streak of the season. But they haven’t been able to put any distance between themselves and the Nats, who are also suddenly surging.

Beginning with the four-game series June 19-22 at Washington that they split with the Nats, the Braves have gone 11-3 despite hitting a mere .227 with 53 runs and six homers in 14 games. They’ve posted a stellar 2.41 ERA in that  period.

In the same stretch, before their Friday afternoon game against the Cubs, the Nats were 9-5 despite hitting just .226 with 53 runs in 14 games. (Yes, almost identical to the Braves’ .227 with 53 runs over 14 games.) The Nats had a 2.82 ERA in that period.

Both teams have ratcheted up their performance another notch since the series at D.C. Atlanta is 9-1 with a 2.33 ERA in its past 10 games, and enters Friday night’s home-series opener against the Diamondbacks riding a season-high seven-game winning streak in which the Braves have pitched to a 2.14 ERA and hit .253 with 35 runs — despite hitting just two homers.

Meanwhile, the Nats had a .270 batting average and 1.80 ERA during a season-high five-game winning streak before their Friday afternoon home game against the Cubs. They had allowed three or fewer runs in every game in that streak, and scored seven three times.

Both the Braves and Nats built their winning streaks by beating up on teams they should be up on: The Braves took two of three at Houston (36-51 record before Friday) and swept four at Philadelphia (37-48) and three from the Mets at Turner Field. Those are teams at the bottom of their divisions. Similarly, the Nationals’ win streak came against the last-place Cubs (37-46 before Friday) and fourth-place Colorado (36-50).

So the Braves have lately done what they were supposed to do against bad teams, and they have a golden opportunity to keep to finally put some distance between themselves and the Nats, because the Braves’ remaining 10 games before the All-Star break are all against teams that were at least 11 games under .500 and at 10 games out in their division races before Friday: D-backs (36-51), Mets (37-48) and Cubs (37-46).

And then coming out of the break, the Braves open with a 10-game homestand against the reeling Phillies, the Marlins, and the 38-47 Padres.

I mean, you couldn’t ask for a much better schedule than the Braves have to close the first half. And then a 10-game homestand coming out of the Braves, against three teams the Braves should at least take series from, and a couple they should sweep if they get the kind of pitching they’ve gotten lately.

The Braves got through a tough part of their schedule that included 16 games against the Giants, Cardinals and Brewers between May 2-May 22, and another seven-game stretch that included four games at always-interesting Coors Field and against the Angels.

Now they’re enjoying a long, relatively soft portion of the schedule. And instead of coasting and catching their breath, they’ve taking care of business.

But the Nats are right there, lurking. Waiting for the Braves to slip up. And before the Braves embark on an eight-game trip out west July 29-Aug. 6 to face the Dodgers, Padres and Mariners, the Braves need to get their offense firing on more cylinders. I didn’t say all cylinders, because few teams do that and these Braves have too many streaky hitters to expect it.

But most cylinders is not expecting too much, and it’s what the Braves will need to do if they hope to win the division and assure themselves of a first-round playoff series. They can’t expect to ride their pitching and a few timely two-out hits to series wins when they face good teams again. They’ve got to start producing better, more consistent offense. They’re still not hitting well with runners in scoring position, still aren’t moving runners over and getting them in from third with less than two outs, still aren’t shortening swings with two strikes and putting the ball in play on a regular basis.

Against bad teams, they can still win without doing that, long as they get a well-pitched game and a couple of timely hits. But not against good teams.

The Braves have a significant advantage over the Nats in the head-to-head record if it were to come to that. Even after losing the last two games of the four-game series at D.C., the Braves are 7-3 against them this season.

The teams meet again in a three-game series Aug. 8-10 at Turner Field, right after the Braves get back from their West Coast trip. Between now and then, the Braves have a chance to take control of the division race. But they can’t afford to sputter, because the Nats could be poised to take advantage. Well, unless Bryce Harper decides he should manage the team.

• B.J. at top of order: Since moving to the leadoff spot, B.J. Upton is 10-for-37 (.270) during a nine-game hitting streak, with a double, a triple, a homer, seven runs, two walks, 10 strikeouts and two stolen bases (would’ve been three SBs if he hadn’t come off second base on a slide).

He has just a .308 OBP and .432 slugging percentage in that span, but it’s still pretty significant improvement over his overally numbers.

Oh, and the team is 8-1 with him batting leadoff, and riding a season-high seven-game winning streak entering Friday’s series opener against Arizona.

In his last 44 games before the move to the leadoff spot, Upton hit .193 (32-for-166) with 19 runs, five stolen bases, a .257 OBP and .325 slugging percentage, and the team was 19-25.

By the way, in his past 11 games against the Mets, Upton is 14-for-43 (.326) with three doubles, a triple, 10 runs, three RBIs, five walks, two stolen bases, .388 OBP and .442 slugging percentage. The Braves have another four-game series against the Mets starting Monday in New York.

 • Yes, Teheran is an ace: From June 3, 2013 through July 2 (Wednesday), Julio Teheran has a 19-11 record with a 2.61 ERA and .216 opponents’ average in 38 starts, with 197 hits, 58 walks and 234 strikeouts in 248 1/3 innings. He received 3.33 support runs per nine innings pitched in that span, and the Braves were 25-13 in those games.

In that same 12-month period, Tampa Bay’s David Price was 16-11 with a 3.02 ERA and .239 opponents’ average in 36 starts, with 238 hits, 30 walks and 255 strikeouts in 262 2/3 innings. Price received 3.84 support runs per nine innings pitched (1/2 run more than Teheran) and the Rays were 22-14 in those games.

Price pitches in the American League in a division with hitter-friendly ballparks, so that has to be taken into account. But still, look at those stats. Other than being a bigger strikeout pitcher than Teheran, has Price been significantly better over that period? And consider, Price says that right now he’s the best pitcher that he’s ever been in his career. He’s 28, in his seventh season.

Teheran, 23, is in his second full season. And think about this: After signing a six-year, $32.4 million contract at spring training, Teheran is making $800,000 this season, and will make a total of $10.6 million over the next three seasons (2015-2017), then $8 million in 2018 and $11 million in 2019, when he’s 28.

The Braves also hold a $12 million option for 2020, with a $1 million buyout.

In 21 home games during the past 12 months, Teheran 10-4 with a 2.02 ERA and .201 OA, with 140 strikeouts and 30 walks in 138 1/3 innings. He has a majors-leading 1.23 home ERA this season.

Johnny Cueto and Price shared the major league lead with 131 innings pitched before Friday, “King” Felix Hernandez was next with 128 1/3, and Teheran was fourth with 126, and Adam Wainwright fifth with 124.

The WHIP for each of those pitchers: Cueto (0.87), Price (1.08), Hernandez (0.92), Teheran (0.95), Wainwright (0.90).

Teheran’s contract has the potential to be the best long-term deal the Braves have given out in a long, long time.

  • Jason Heyward’s past 22 games: .200 (15-for-75) with one homer, eight RBIs, 14 walks, 12 strikeouts, no steals, .341 OBP, .320 slugging percentage. And his past 12 games: 4-for-36 (.111) with one RBI, nine walks, three strikeouts, .304 OBP, .194 slugging percentage.

In the fifth spot in the order, Heyward is 9-for-46 (.196) with no homers, three RBIs, 12 walks, .373 OBP, .304 slugging percentage. Batting leadoff, he hit .254 (70-for-276) with eight homers, 27 RBIs, 31 walks, .334 OBP, .384 slugging.

Heyward’s .136 average against left-handers (11-for-81) is the worst in the majors among those with enough plate appearances to qualify. B.J. Upton’s .152 against lefties is third-lowest in the NL.

The Braves haven’t faced a lefty starter in two weeks, but will finally see another one Sunday, Arizona’s Wade Miley.

Freddie, JUp vs. Arizona: A couple of Braves in particular like seeing that Diamondback uniform on the mound.

In 21 games against the D-backs, Freddie Freeman has hit .398 (33-for-83) with 10 doubles, six homers, 22 RBIs, and a .735 slugging percentage. And he’s 7-for-12 with a homer against Friday starter Josh Collmenter.

  And Justin Upton, traded by the D-backs to Atlanta before the 2013 season, has done this in nine games against his former team: .353 (12-for-34) with one double, two homers, six RBIs, seven walks, .476 OBP, .559 slugging percentage.

Meanwhile, Martin Prado has gone 12-for-33 (.364) with a double, no RBIs and a .417 OBP in nine games against the Braves since the former Braves fan-favorite was sent to Arizona in the seven-player trade that brought Upton and Chris Johnson to Atlanta.

• Justin Upton’s past 30 games: .209 (24-for-115) with four doubles, three homers, 13 RBIs, seven walks, 33 strikeouts, .258 OBP, .322 slugging percentage. So yeah, it might be a good time for him to face Arizona.

Friday’s matchup: It’ll be Ervin Santana (6-5, 4.05 ERA) vs. D-backs righty Josh Collmenter (7-4, 3.74).

Santana is 2-5 with a 5.56 ERA and .305 opponents’ average in his past nine starts, with 43 strikeouts, 19 walks and six homers allowed in 55 innings. He’s 1-2 with a 3.86 ERA and .292 OA in his past three starts, officially all quality starts of six innings or more (6, 6, 6 2/3) and three earned runs or fewer (3, 3 and 2). He hasn’t allowed a homer in his past two.

In three starts against the Diamondbacks, Santana is 2-0 with a 0.82 ERA. That includes a June 7 win at Phoenix when he allowed six hits and one unearned run in seven innings, with two walks and one strikeout.

Collmenter is 6-4 with a 3.94 ERA in 14 starts this season (1-0 with a 2.00 ERA in five relief appearances). He’s allowed a .293 opponents’ average on the road, 70 points higher than he’s allowed at home.

Collmenter is 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA in his past three games (two starts), pitching a combined total of only 11 1/3 innings in those games including 5 and 5 1/3 innings in the two starts. He had two runs, 10 hits (no homers) eight strikeouts and six walks in those games, and allowed five hits and one run in 5 1/3 innings at San Diego on Saturday pitching on short rest.

He’s 1-2 with a 1.73 ERA in six games against the Braves including a 2.45 ERA in three starts. He last started against them in April 2012, and pitched 7 2/3 scoreless innings over three relief appearances against the Braves since then.

• Bethancourt’s family business: In case you missed it, our AJC intern Erica Hernandez wrote a fine story about rookie Christian Bethancourt and how baseball and catching runs in the family. Here’s a link.

 JJ resurfaces: Jair Jurrjens was 12-3 with a 1.87 ERA in the first half in 2011 when he made the All-Star team for the Braves. Since then he’s gone 4-7 with a 6.31 ERA in 20 major league starts, and 29 of his 30 major league starts over the past two seasons came in Triple-A with the Tigers, Orioles and Reds organizations.

Seldom have we seen such a rapid decline from a guy in what should have been the prime of his career (he’s still only 28 today), when it wasn’t associated with a season-ending injury or surgery. He had chronic knee problems, but never had to have a midseason surgery and kept saying how the latest brace or workout routine had allowed him to get it under control.

We bring this up now because Jurrjens was traded Wednesday from the Reds to the injury-depleted Rockies, in exchange for a minor league infielder (who was not considered a prospect). And tonight, Jurrjens will start for the Rockies at Coors Field against the Dodgers. Before the trade he was 2-3 with a 4.46 ERA in six starts for the Reds’ Triple-A affiliate.

Tough assignment. Good luck to JJ. I know a lot of Braves fans are still hoping he can get his career back on track.

• Happy Fourth of July, folks. Have a great day. And let’s close this with the best Fourth of July rock song ever, in my humble opinion. Hear (and see) the great band  X doing the cut by clicking here.

“4th of July” by X (written by David Alvin)

X from Los Angeles

X from Los Angeles

She’s waitin’ for me
when I get home from work
oh, but things ain’t just the same
She turns out the light
and cries in the dark
won’t answer when I call her name

On the stairs I smoke a
cigarette alone
Mexican kids are shootin’
fireworks below
Hey baby, it’s the Fourth of July
Hey baby, it’s the Fourth of July

She gives me her cheek
when I want her lips
but I don’t have the strength to go
On the lost side of town
in a dark apartment
we gave up trying so long ago

On the stairs I smoke a
cigarette alone
Mexican kids are shootin’
fireworks below
Hey baby, it’s the Fourth of July
Hey baby, it’s the Fourth of July

What ever happened I
apologize
so dry your tears and baby
walk outside, it’s the Fourth of July

On the stairs I smoke a
cigarette alone
Mexican kids are shootin’
fireworks below
Hey baby, it’s the Fourth of July
Hey baby, Baby take a walk outside

 

 

 

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