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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Braves look to end skid, tough task vs. ‘King’

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  SEATTLE – The Braves have hit .230 and totaled 53 runs and seven homers over their past 16 games, including two or fewer runs in nine of those games. And now they bring a six-game losing skid and offensive ills with them to Safeco Field to face a Mariners team with a majors-best 3.05 ERA.

Oh, and tonight they face “King” Felix Hernandez, who is at least the American League’s best pitcher and the only MLB pitcher who’s on a current roll as impressive as the one that Clayton Kershaw brought into his matchup against the Braves last week in L.A.

The baseball gods aren’t making this thing easy for the Braves, are they?

Five days after facing Clayton Kershaw, the Braves face the other best starting pitcher in baseball, "King" Felix Hernandez.

Five days after facing Clayton Kershaw, the Braves face the other best starting pitcher in baseball, “King” Felix Hernandez.

“Sometimes you’ve got to create your own luck,” Gerald Laird said after the Braves’ lost consecutive extra-inning games at San Diego Saturday and Sunday. “We’re getting opportunities to score runs and we’re not getting it done. I mean, that’s  the bottom line, we’ve got to play better. This is a big stretch for us right here. It isn’t going to get any easier. We’ve got Seattle and then we go home against three tough teams.

“I mean, when we get opportunities to score we’ve got to take advantage of it, and right now we’re not doing that.”

Well said, G-Money.

The Braves aren’t taking advantage of opportunities, and tonight they’ll face a guy who isn’t as likely to give them opportunities like the ones they failed to capitalize on in San Diego while getting swept by the Padres to to give the Braves a hard-to-believe streak of seven consecutive losses at Petco Park.

Oh, and an 0-6 record on this eight-game trip, and an 0-9 record in games decided by one run during a 9-16 stretch that’s dropped the Braves from division leaders to three games out of first place in the East and two games out of the second wild-card spot if the season ended today.

I wrote in this story yesterday about the urgency that the Braves face now, and how they simply have to start doing more offensively if they hope to play into October.

They went 0-6 at L.A. and San Diego to make the Braves 1-8 this season in California, and now to win a series  on this trip the Braves must win tonight, with the Mariners starting the most consistent ace in baseball. This being a two-game series, the Braves would have to win them both to win it, of course.

And if they lose tonigh against King Felix, well, the Braves would then be in a position where they would have to win Tuesday afternoon, in a 12:40 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time start, with  Alex Wood facing Chris Young (9-6, 3.19), to avoid losing every game on an eight-game trip that would rank among the worst in franchise history.

How did it get here? Well, you all have watched, so you have a pretty good idea how badly this offense has underperformed. And believe me, this team’s overall disappointing season is at the feet of the offense, not a pitching staff that was patched together after spring-training injuries and, though it’s not been great, still has the seventh-best overall ERA (3.38) in the majors and fifth-best in the NL, and even since the break (3.51) has ranked right in the middle of the majors and the league rankings.

The starters’ 3.41 ERA still is sixth in the majors and fourth in the NL. The 3.30 bullpen ERA isn’t nearly as good as it’s been in recent years, but still ranks fifth in the league. By the way, the best bullpen ERAs in the big leagues belong to the two teams against whom the Braves are closing their dismal trip, the Mariners (2.37) and Padres (2.42).

It’s not the pitching that’s undermined the Braves, although neither it nor team defense have been up to the standards of recent seasons. No, it’s the hitting woes that have really damaged this team almost the entire season, with the exception of a week here or a couple of weeks there.

Let us count a few ways: The Braves rank 21st in the majors in OBP at .310, just ahead of the Mets (.309) and Dbacks (.308), two teams going nowhere, and 22 points behind leader Pittsburgh. Eleven teams are above .320 before Monday and only two below .300.

The Braves are tied with the Mariners for fourth-fewest runs scored in the majors with 421, while 14 teams have scored 450 or more including the Marlins (450). The Braves rank 22nd in the majors (ninth in the NL) with a .245 batting average, and 25th in the majors in on-base-plus-slugging percentage with a .680 mark. Twenty-fifth! There are teams were at .700 or higher, including the lowy Dbacks.

The Braves rank 17th in the majors with a .246 batting average with runners in scoring position, and are dead last in the majors with 21 sacrifice flies, two fewer than 29th-ranked Philadelphia and 26 sac flies fewer than MLB leader Detroit. Thirteen teams have 30 or more sac flies.

As we’ve noted many times before, this is just a bad situational-hitting baseball team. Too many guys who don’t change their approach with two strikes, and too many guys who go up to the plate and swing the same – hard — regardless of how many outs there are or whether or not there are runners on base or the Braves are behind, ahead or tied in the early, middle or late innings.

And they strike out like a team that might be acceptable for a team that led the majors in homers, but is actually slightly below average in that category with 89. That’s tied with Cincinatti for 17th in the majors and four below the National League average.

With runners in scoring position and two outs, the Braves are hitting .200, tied with the Nationals for 23rd in baseball, just behind the Dbacks and just ahead of the Cubs. And the Nationals at least have an OPS that’s 33 points higher in those situations. Oh, and a pitching staff that’s not been diminished by injuries and has not been showing showing signs of stress and fatigue as the Braves have.

As we said, the task facing the Braves is not going to be easy. They’ve got to get better, and quickly.

• The immediate task: The Braves have two games against the Mariners, whose pitching staff leads the Majors with a 3.05 ERA and is on pace to shatter its club record by nearly a half-run (3.54 set in 2001). The last American League team to finish with a sub 3.10 ERA was the 1989 Athletics, who won the World Series.

The Mariners have allowed two or fewer runs in 48 games, the most in the majors.

And talk about wasting good pitching: The Mariners are 8-14 with a 2.62 ERA in their past 22 games. They’ve scored just 56 runs in that span, totaling two or fewer in 13 of those 22 games including one or no runs in nine. Yes, one or no runs in nine of 22 games.

• Simmons, Kimbrel tops in survey: Andrelton Simmons was rated the National League’s best defensive shortstop and Craig Kimbrel its best reliever in Baseball America’s annual Best Tools survey of major league managers.

Simmons was also rated as having the NL’s best infield arm, and Kimbrel was judged to have the league’s best slider and second-best fastball, behind Reds closer Aroldis Chapman.

To the surprise of no one who watches baseball, Andrelton Simmons was rated the NL's best defensive shortstop in Baseball America's  survey.

To the surprise of no one who watches baseball, Andrelton Simmons was rated the NL’s best defensive shortstop in Baseball America’s survey.

Braves pitcher Julio Teheran’s curveball was rated third in the NL behind the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, and Teheran was judged to have the NL’s second-best pickoff move behind Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner.

Freddie Freeman was rated the third-best defensive first baseman, behind Washington’s Adam LaRoche and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt, and the Braves’ Fredi Gonzalez was rated as the league’s third-best manager, after the Giants’ Bruce Bochy and Cardinals’ Mike Matheny.

Somewhat surprsingly, Jason Heyward didn’t make the NL list of best defensive outfielders or outfield arms, as judged by the managers. Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gomez and Gerado Parra were rated the NL’s top three defensive outfielders, and Yasiel Puig, Parra and Carlos Gonzalez were judged to have the best outfield arms.

Tonight’s matchup: Wood against the King, Felix Hernandez, who is looking to extend his own major league recor of 14 consecutive starts with at least seven innings pitched and two or fewer runs allowed. He broke the record of 13 set by some guy named Tom Seaver in 1971.

Hernandez is 7-2 with a 1.44 ERA and .169 opponents’ average in those 14 starts, with 118 strikeouts and 19 strikeouts in 106 innings. The team is 10-4.

He’s also aiming for the record of 15 consecutive starts of seven or more innings and two or fewer earned runs, set by my fellow North Carolina native Gaylord Perry with Cleveland in 1974.

By the way, Hernandez is 16-7 with an all-time majors-leading 2.59 ERA in interleague play (min. 200 innings), including 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA over his past seven interleague starts going back to June 17, 2012.

As far as this season, Hernandez  leads the AL in ERA (2.01), quality starts (21) and WHIP (0.889)and  ranks second in strikeouts (178) and innings (165 1/3).

This season, he’s again been about as consistent as any great pitcher in recent years. For instance: against left-handed hitters, he’s allowed a .198 average, .243 OBP and .265 slugging percentage, while against righties it’s .192/.229/.296.

In home games, he has a 2.09 ERA and .190/.229/.273 opponents’ slash line, with 84 strikeouts and 14 walks in 81 2/3 innings. On the road it’s a 1.94 ERA and .200.245/.282, with 94 strikeouts and 17 walks in 83 2/3 innings

With no runners on base, opponents are hitting .193/.242/.265 against him. With runners on: .199/.228/.301. With runners in scoring position: .188/.228/.259.

Oh, and if you’re batting with two strikes against him, good luck: Hitters are 32-for-315 (.102) with two homers, 17 walks and 178 strikeouts, for a .150 OBP and .156 slugging percentage.

Among Braves who’ve faced Hernandez, Freddie Freeman is 3-for-4, Gerald Laird is 6-for-20, B.J. Upton is 3-for-31 with one walk and 11 strikeouts, Emilio Bonifacio is 1-for-8 with three RBIs and four strikeouts, and Ryan Doumit is 1-for-12 with nine strikeouts. Justin Upton and Jason Heyward each is 1-for-3 with a walk against him.

He’ll face Alex Wood, who is 2-2 with a 3.12 ERA and .242 opponents’ average in seven starts since moving back into the rotation from the bullpen. In his past three starts, the lefty has a 3.00 ERA and 20 strikeouts with only three walks in 18 innings.

The only Mariners with more than one official at-bat against Wood are former Padre Chris Denorfia (3-for-3) and former Marlin Logan Morrison (0-for-2, one walk).

Etc.

At Safeco Field, B.J. Upton is 23-for-121 (.190) with one homer, 16 walks, 36 strikeouts in 32 games, with a .285 OBP and .264 slugging percentage. Gerald Laird is 24-for-94 (.255) with one homer and a .346 OBP in 30 games at the Seattle ballpark….

The only Braves pitchers who’ve started a game at Safeco are Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, neither of whom pitches in this brief series. Braves ace Julio Teheran (10-7, 2.69 ERA) faces righty Chris Young (9-6, 3.19) in Wednesday’s series finale…

Since the All-Star break, Andrelton Simmons is 8-for-54 (.148) with three doubles, six walks, seven strikeouts, .233 OBP in 16 games.

In 52 road games, B.J. Upton has hit .188 (41-for-218) with four homers, 18 walks, 77 strikeouts and a .249 OBP and .294 slugging percentage….

For what it’s worth, Braves pitchers have a 3.26 ERA in 582 1/3 innings with Evan Gattis catching, a 3.38 ERA in 117 1/3 innings with Christian Bethancourt catching, and a 3.60 ERA in 294 2/3 innings with Gerald Laird catching.

We’re in beautiful Seattle. I’ll close with some timeless, sublime rock from locals Alice in Chains, which you can hear by clicking this. R.I.P., Layne Staley.

“WOULD?” by Alice in Chains

Know me broken by my master
Teach thee on child of love hereafter

Alice in Chains

Alice in Chains

Into the flood again
Same old trip it was back then
So I made a big mistake
Try to see it once my way

Drifting body it’s sole desertion
Flying not yet quite the notion

Into the flood again
Same old trip it was back then
So I made a big mistake
Try to see it once my way

Into the flood again
Same old trip it was back then
So I made a big mistake
Try to see it once my way

Am I wrong?
Have I run too far to get home?
Have I gone?

Am I wrong?
Have I run too far to get home?
Have I gone?

And left you here alone?
If I would, could you?

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