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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

All things considered, Braves in 1st-place tie fairly amazing

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Their loss to the Phillies on Saturday night left the Braves with a 7-5 mark against last-place Philly this season, including a particularly surprising 1-4 at Turner Field. But for those who would (and do) use any such loss to underscore some bigger point about the Braves’ season, let’s consider where things stand today.

While the Braves have been maddeningly inconsistent and failed to fully capitalize on some rather remarkable pitching – especially starting pitching — during the first two months of the season, this team has not been anywhere near the overall disappointment some would have us believe.

All-Star Freddie Freeman wasn't  immune to the struggles that so many Braves endured in first half,  yet they are tied for first place on July 19 despite injuries and disappointing performances from several key players.

All-Star Freddie Freeman wasn’t immune to the struggles that so many Braves endured in first half, yet they are tied for first place on July 19 despite injuries and disappointing performances from several key players.

And all things considered,  it’s pretty amazing that with 97 games down and 65 to go, the Braves (53-44) are tied for first place in the NL East with the Nationals (53-43) entering Sunday’s games, with a .546 winning percentage that’s a tick better than the NL West’s second-place Dodgers (54-45).

The Dodgers had a majors-leading $235 million Opening Day payroll, while the Braves were 14th out of 30 teams at $110 million.

The Braves are a half-game behind NL Central leaders Milwaukee and St. Louis (each 54-44), and have a combined 7-6 record against those two teams (5-1 vs. Brewers, 2-4 vs. Cards).

But payroll wasn’t even one of those “all things considered” to which I referred. Rather, I meant these matters:

• The Braves, you may have heard, lost two of their top three projected starters – Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy — to Tommy John surgery in the second week of spring-training games, and lost a third of their projected five when Gavin Floyd fractured his elbow in June after spending April on the DL recovering from TJ surgery.

• The other of their other top-three projected starters, lefty Mike Minor, missed the first month of the season recovering from shoulder tendinitis, and currently has a 3-5 record and Braves rotation-worst 4.86 ERA, along with the NL’s third-highest opponents’ average allowed against lefty batters (.355). Yes, against lefties.

• Four of the Braves’ five top ERAs by starters this season have come from unheralded rookie spot-starter David Hale (2.22 ERA in five starts), done-for-the-year Floyd (2.65 in nine starts), second-year lefty Alex Wood (3.07 in 11 starts) and well-traveled veteran Aaron Harang (3.36 in 20 starts), who was signed to a $1 million contract in the final week of spring training after failing to make the Indians’ opening-day roster and asking to be released.

•  Their best two setup guys from last year, righty David Carpenter and lefty Luis Avilan, have ERAs of 4.13 and 4.85, respectively, and opponents’ batting averages of .326 for Carpenter and .293 for Avilan, who was optioned to Triple-A on Sunday. With runners in scoring position, Carpenter has a .364 opponents’ average and Avilan had a .282 opponents’ average and .431 opponents’ OBP.

• Their leadoff hitter, B.J. Upton, leads the majors in strikeouts with 119, and his .216 batting average (third-lowest in the NL) and .277 OBP (fourth-lowest) are actually significant improvements over his 2013 season.

• Their  opening-day second baseman, Dan Uggla, was benched and replaced Tommy La Stella, who had no major league experience when called up in late May. Uggla had a .162 average and .241 OBP with two homers and 40 strikeouts when released Friday, after the  Braves basically played with a 24-man roster for nearly two months before finally agreeing to eat the nearly $19 million remaining on his contract (minus any prorated portion of the major league minimum $500,000 salary if another team signs him).

• One of their two best clutch hitters has been the aforementioned rookie, La Stella, who has a team-high .308 average (12-for-39) with runners in scoring position including .300 with two outs. Meanwhile, their team home-run leader, Justin Upton, has hit .222 (22-for-99) with runners in scoring position, including .154 with two outs.

• Their best hitter, Freddie Freeman, hit .225 with six homers and 48 strikeouts in a 50-game stretch from April 20 to May 16, a highly uncharacteristic extended struggle for the two-time All-Star first basemen.

• The guy who led major league catchers in homers before the All-Star break, Evan Gattis, has been out since June 28 with a bulging disk in his upper back.

• They have three lineup regulars with OBPs of .305 or lower, which doesn’t include Uggla (.241). Chris Johnson has a .303 OBP, Andrelton Simmons .305, and B.J. Upton .277.

• They have 825 strikeouts, more than every NL team except the Marlins, and could break the Braves team strikeout record for the fourth consecutive season. This despite Uggla being out of the picture for most of two months and now obviously not a threat to top the personal-high K total of 171 that he matched last season.

Like I said, first-place tie on July 19? All things considered, the Braves will take it. Gladly.

BRAVES LINEUP Sunday

  1. BUpton cf
  2. Simmons ss
  3. Freeman 1b
  4. JUpton rf
  5. Heyward lf
  6. Johnson 3b
  7. La Stella 2b
  8. Laird C
  9. Wood p

 

• Avilan decline: Avilan is at Triple-A now, trying to get straightend out and avoid becoming another Braves reliever who had a couple of great years and then faded quickly and/or got hurt.

Here’s what he did this season before getting optioned to Gwinnett on Friday:

Lefties hit .277 (18-for-65) with .342 OBP against him, while righties lit him up at .314 (16-for-51) with a .407 OBP.

With runners in scoring position, Avilan allowed a .282 average (11-for-39) with 11 walks, four strikeouts, .431 OBP. Oy.

In the late innings of close games, he allowed a .298 average (17-for-57) and .375 OBP, with two homers and a .474 slugging percentage.

Overall, Avilan had a 4.85 ERA and .293 opponents’ average overall in 47 appearances. Last season he had a 1.52 ERA and .175 opp. average in 75 appearances, and lefties hit just .144 (15-for-104) with a .219 OBP against him.

With RISP last season, hitters were 9-for-52 (.173) against Avilan with 11 walks, eight strikeouts, and a .333 OBP. And in late-and-close situations, he allowed a meager .180 average (27-for-150) with one homer, a .271 OBP, and a .233 slugging percentage. Go back up a couple of paragraphs and compare those RISP and late-and-close numbers to this year. Night and day, as they say.

While setup men Avilan and Carpenter struggled, and Jonny Venters still hasn't made it back from his 2nd Tommy John surgery, Craig Kimbrel already has 30 saves and another All-Star appearance under his belt.

While setup men Avilan and Carpenter struggled, and Jonny Venters still hasn’t made it back from his 2nd Tommy John surgery, Craig Kimbrel already has 30 saves and another All-Star appearance under his belt.

Avilan was replaced by rookie Chasen Shreve, called up from Double-A and with no big-league experience before his debut Friday. At Double-A Mississippi, he had a 2.48 ERA with 76 strikeouts, nine walks and a 0.939 WHIP in 54 1/3 innings.

Shreve actually had a better slash line against righty hitters (.196/.233/.294 in 150 PAs) than in 67 PAs against lefties (.259/.298/.370) at Mississippi.

What’s startling about his 76 strikeouts and nine walks in 54 1/3 innings at Mississippi this season was that it came a year after he had 28 strikeouts and 22 innings in 42 2/3 innings for Mississippi during part of the 2013 season.

• Heyward’s good stretch: The Braves right fielder has put together a stretch of more than two months now in which he’s hit .285 (67-for-235) in 61 games with 18 extra-base hits (two triples, seven homers), 30 RBIs, 28 walks, 36 strikeouts, a .371 OBP and a .430 slugging percentage.

In his past eight games he’s 13-for-31 (.419) with three doubles, a homer, six RBIs, seven runs, two stolen bases, .488 OBP.

 • Gattis vs. Phillies: You’ve got to think the Phillies were grateful to have missed Evan Gattis this series. El Oso Blanco is 8-for-19 (.421) with four home runs in five games against them this season, and he’s 16-for-39 (.410) with seven homers and 13 RBIs in 10 games against the Phillies going back to Sept. 8, including a pair of two-homer games and five multi-RBI games.

Gattis is recovering from a bulging disk and could be back from the DL early this week.

•  Shae Simmons finally gives one up: Jimmy Rollins’ two-run homer off Shae Simmons on Saturday was the first homer allowed in 109 appearances (121 2/3 innings) in pro ball, including 86 minor league games. It was also just the third hit by a left-hander in 38 at-bats against Simmons this season.

Against lefties, the right-handed Simmons has an .079 opponents’ average and .182 OBP

After posting a 0.96 ERA and and .172 opponents’ average in his first  20 major league appearances, allowing 11 hits and three runs (two earned runs) in that stretch, Simmons has been charged with three earned runs in two innings over his past three outings. He gave up two hits in two-thirds of an inning Saturday.

 • Today’s matchup: It’s Alex Wood (6-7, 3.36 ERA) vs. Phillies righty Kyle Kendrick (4-9, 4.62). And stop with the Kendrick-always-kills-the-Braves stuff. (More  on that in a moment.)

 Wood is 4-1 with a 3.20 ERA and .193 opponents’ average in four starts since returning to the rotation on June 25. He had three consecutive quality starts before allowing four runs in 5 1/3 innings against the Cubs on July 11 at Wrigley Field in his last game before the All-Star break, getting no decision in a Braves loss.

The lefty is 1-1 with a 2.86 ERA in eight career games (two starts) against the Phillies, including a loss in his only start against them this season despite allowing only one run in an eight-inning complete game at Philadelphia on April 17. Wood gave up eight hits and one walk with seven strikeouts in that one.

Wood, who has spent time in the bullpen and rotation, is 3-6 in 11 starts this season despite a strong 3.07 ERA and .237 opponents’ average, with 63 strikeouts and 17 walks in 70 1/3 innings. He’s allowed 61 hits including seven homers as a starter this season. In 11 relief appearances, he’s 3-1 with a 4.70 ERA and .302 opponents’ average.

Oh, and in 10 home games (five starts) he has a 2.68 ERA, compared to a 3.88 ERA in 12 road games (six starts).

Wood has had some noted first-inning struggles, but it’s actually not the entire first inning in which he’s struggled. Rather, in his first 15 pitches overall – starting or relieving — he’s allowed a .348 average (16-for-46), two homers and a .522 slugging percentage. Once he’s past 15 pitches, Wood has allowed just a .227 average (58-for-256).

He has a .287 opponents’ average and four homers allowed in first innings pitched, and .236 and five homers in all other innings.

Although not to the degree that Mike Minor has struggled against lefties, Wood has also allowed a higher average (.292), OBP (.346) and slugging percentage (.427) against lefties than he has in each of those categories against righties (.232/.285/.357)

Among the Phillies, Ben Revere is 4-for-6 against Wood, Chase Utley is 4-for-9, and Marlon Byrd is 4-for-10, while Jimmy Rollins is 0-for-11.

Kendrick is 1-3 with a 6.40 ERA and .300 opponents’ average in his past five starts, allowing 39 hits including five homers in 32 1/3 innings during that period and making just one quality start.

And while Kendrick is 8-3 with a 3.32 ERA in 23 career games (17 starts) against the Braves, he’s 2-2 with a 5.50 ERA and .292 opponents’ average in his past six starts against them going back to August 2012.

After limiting the Braves to two runs in seven innings of a June 17 win against them in Atlanta, Kendrick gave up nine hits and four runs in eight innings of a June 27 loss to the Braves in Philadelphia.

Against Kendrick, Freddie Freeman is 8-for-22 (.362) with a homer and four walks; Chris Johnson is 7-for-20; Andrelton Simmons is 5-for-15 with a homer; B.J. Upton is 5-for-15 with five strikeouts; Justin Upton is 6-for-20 with two homers, and Jason Heyward is 5-for-28 (.179) with seven strikeouts.

• Etc.

The Braves are 17-9 with a 3.15 ERA since June 19, and they’ve hit .271 while winning 13 of their past 19 games. Since July 4, the Braves have split 12 games while posting a 4.02 ERA and batting .283, including double-digit hit totals in eight of those 12 games (but  homers in only four)….

Atlanta is 30-19 with a 3.35 ERA and 54 homers in 49 games against the Phillies since the beginning of 2012, including 7-5 with a 2.84 ERA this season. The Braves have totaled 47 homers in those 12 games, and 19 of those 47 runs came in two games. They’ve scored one or no runs in four of 12 games against the Phillies this season, and gone homerless in six of 12.

 * I once saw My Morning Jacket open for Doves. That’s how big the band Doves were getting (and how relatively obscure MMJ still was) in 2002. At that time I thought Doves would be unstoppable. But they never got  as popular here as they were across the pond. Anyway, this song, “There Goes the Fear”, is them at their peak. Off the tremendous album The Last Broadcast, from that same year (2002). This song goes from merely really good to truly epic at about the 1:35 mark, when it soars to heights most bands can only dream of ever reaching. Here the studio version here, or see them do it live here.

 

“THERE GOES THE FEAR” by Doves

Out of here
We’re out of here
Along with fear
There goes the fear again
There goes the fear

Doves

Doves

And cars speed fast
Out of here
And life goes past
Again so near
There goes the fear again
There goes the fear

Close your brown eyes
And lay down next to me
Close your eyes, lay down
‘Cause there goes the fear
Let it go

You turn around and life’s passed you by
You look to ones you love
to ask them why?
You look to those you love
to justify
You turned around and life’s
passed you by
Passed you by, again

And late last night
Makes up her mind
Another fight
Left behind
There goes the fear again, let it go
There goes the fear

Close your brown eyes
And lay down next to me
Close your eyes, lay down
‘Cause there goes the fear
Let it go

You turn around and life’s
passed you by
You look to ones you love
to ask them why?
You look to those you love
to justify, why?
You turned around and life’s
passed you by

Think of me when you’re coming down
But don’t look back when leaving town
Think of me when he’s calling out
But don’t look back when leaving town
Think of me when you close your eyes
But don’t look back when you break all ties
Think of me when you’re coming down
But don’t look back when leaving town today

There goes the fear again, let it go
There goes the fear, let it go

Think of me when you close your eyes
But don’t look back when you break all ties
Think of me when you’re coming down
But don’t look back when leaving town today

 

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