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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

After strong start, mostly mediocrity (or worse) from Braves

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If it feels like it’s been quite a tedious stretch of mediocrity from the Braves this season, well, there’s a reason. After their 17-7 start, when a patched-together pitching staff performed at an otherworldly level, the Braves have since gone 43-51 with a 3.77 ERA, .244 batting average and only 350 runs and 65 homers in their past 94 games, an average of 3.7 runs per game.

In their past 31 home games, the Braves are 15-16 with a 3.54 ERA. They’ve scored two or fewer runs in 10 of their past 24 home games.

Yep, that’s mediocrity. Or worse. In the eighth inning Monday night, far worse. Wild pitches, missed signals, a botched double play, a passed ball on a third strike … it was ugly in the eighth, no doubt.

It was that kind of night. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez shows his frustration during an ugly eighth inning as the Dodgers build a 6-1 lead Monday.

It was that kind of night. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez shows his frustration during an ugly eighth inning as the Dodgers build a 6-1 lead Monday.

And so, the Braves are 2-10 with a .237 batting average, 4.50 ERA and 31 runs scored in their past 12 games, including 0-4 with a 5.03 ERA and nine runs scored in four games against the Dodgers during that span. Fortunately, the Nationals and Stephen Strasburg came calling in the Braves’ first series after their 0-8 road trip.

Unfortunately for the Braves, the Nats were followed by the Dodgers, who are in town for three more games after winning 6-2 in Monday night’s series opener. The Braves are 0-4 with a 5.03 ERA in four games against the Dodgers this season, after going 1-3 with a .214 batting average and 5.82 ERA in the four-game division series last October.

After getting 12 hits in an 8-4 loss in a July 29 series opener at Dodger Stadium, the Braves in their their past three games against the Dodgers have hit .214 and scored a total of five runs.

Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton and Jason Heyward have been hitting recently, but seldom have all three produced in the same game. Meanwhile most other key members of the lineup have slumped. The story of the Braves’ season, really, when it comes to offense. They’ve almost never  had more than a couple of key guys hot at the same time, and even more rarely have they been able to produce multiple hits with runners in scoring position when they need them most.

The team had fashioned itself as having power up and down the lineup? They really don’t. At least that power hasn’t been present up and down lineups they’ve run out there most nights this season. Their bench has been unproductive, they frequently go several days or longer between homers, and they’re a poor situational hitting team.

But you all know that by now.

As much as B.J. Upton has been the primary target for criticism since Dan Uggla was released, the Braves have several other hitters, both lineup regulars and bench guys, struggling lately. For example:

Chris Johnson is 14-for-60 (.233) with no homers, three walks and 19 strikeouts in his past 15 games.

Evan Gattis is  8-for-43 (.186) with no homers, two walks and 14 strikeouts in his past 11 games.

Andrelton Simmons is expected back in the lineup Tuesday or Wednesday after recovering the sprained ankle he sustained at Seattle a week ago. He’s 7-for-51 (.137) in his past 16 games, with a .228 on-base percentage and .196 slugging percentage.

Ramiro Pena is 10-for-44 (.227) with no extra-base hits, no RBIs, five walks and 13 strikeouts in his past 28 games, and has four errors in his past 22 games.

Ryan Doumit is 4-for-30 (.133) with no extra-base hits, two RBIs, three walks and nine strikeouts in his past 23 games.

The aforementioned B.J. Upton is 30-for-134 with one homer, seven RBIs, 13 walks and 51 strikeouts in his past 34 games, and when he didn’t strike out Monday it was only the second game in which he didn’t have a strikeout in the past 33 games  in which he’s batted.

And as well as Heyward has played for the past couple of months, with the Dodgers in town it’ll be interesting to see if he can put together a good series, because no team has frustrated him quite as regularly as Dodger Blue.

In 28 career regular-season games against the Dodgers, Heyward has hit .158 (16-for-101) with three extra-base hits (no home runs), six RBIs, 33 strikeouts, a .259 OBP and a .198 slugging percentage.

He was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts Monday in his first game against them in 2014, after missing the series at Dodger Stadium with a strained back.

• Attendance decline: The Braves had consecutive nationally televised games on ESPN Sunday and Monday against the rival Nationals and the glitzy Dodgers, a pair of first-place opponents. For those games, the Braves drew 18,191 on Sunday and 20,053. Anyone tuning in on ESPN for most of Monday’s game heard what sounded like a library in the background. Or a mausoleum.

Average home attendance is down by more than 2,000 for the Braves in their first season as a sort of lame-duck Atlanta team. That is, in their first season since they announced in November a planned move north to Cobb County in 2017.

A disappointing overall team featuring a bland and frustrating offense is, in my opinion, even more responsible for the attendance decline than the pending move to Cobb. But I have no way of proving that. I just know what I see on the field and at the ballpark, and what I hear from fans.

Anyway, the Braves currently rank 17th in majors in average home attendance (29,160), which would be their lowest rank in more than a decade. They ranked 13th (31,465) in 2013, 15th (29,878) in 2012, 15th (30,037) in 2011, 13th (30,989) in 2010, 15th (29,304) in 2009, 14th (31,269) in 2008, 14th (33,891) in 2007, 14th (31,881) in 2006, 16th (31,514) in 2005 and 16th (29,399) in 2004.

As for those sparse crowds the past two nights, it shouldn’t have been too great s surprise, given the dreadful road trip coupled with the annual drop-off that occurs every year in Atlanta attendance for Sunday night through Thursday night games once the kids return to school — more so than any other town where I’ve noticed any similar pattern. Why is that?

I realize we have traffic as bad or worse than any city in America, but I don’t get why, for instance, a Sunday night game against the team’s biggest division rival draws such a smaller crowd here than it does in other cities.

I mean, kids go to school at the same time in Atlanta area schools as they do in other cities, right? Traffic getting to the ballpark on a Sunday scare people from coming? Atlantans just like to get to bed earlier on Sunday night than baseball fans in other cities? Honestly, I’m just asking, because I don’t get that one.

And this particular Sunday game followed a win against the Nats the night before, which had reduced Washington’s lead to 3 ½ games in the division. Again, I’m not arguing that the Braves should’ve packed the place. I know how badly they played on the road, as I was sitting in the pressbox watching each of those eight games.

And I know how annoying it must have been for those who sat through a 3-hour, 41-minute rain delay on Saturday before the first pitch, in a game that went extra innings and ended at 2:30 in the morning. Again, I was there, I know. (And I didn’t even have to sit outside in the rain; I commend you folks that stuck around all night, because I don’t know that I would’ve had the patience if I didn’t have to be there.)

But what’s the deal with the school-night drop-off in attendance in Atlanta every year? Why so much more extreme than other markets? That’s one I’ve always wondered about, even when I was covering the Marlins in the late ‘90s and would come to Atlanta and see the dramatic difference in crowd size for mid-week games.

• Tonight’s matchup: It’ll be two guys who’ve struggled mightily in recent weeks when Mike Minor faces the Dodgers’ Dan Haren, although Haren won last week when Minor was sitting around waiting to pitch again after having his rotation turn skipped.

Minor makes his first start since Aug. 1, after going 2-3 with a 7.33 ERA and .357 opponents’ average in his past 10 starts while allowing 12 homers in 54 innings. He has an 8.71 ERA and .400 opponents’ average in his past four starts, allowing 38 hits and 20 runs in 20 2/3 innings in that stretch including four homers in 11 2/3 innings over his past two starts.

The lefty has a 7.58 ERA and .409 opponents’ average in his past four home starts, with 38 hits allowed in 19 innings including six homers. He won his last home start against the Marlins on July 27, allowing eight hits and three runs including two homers.

The Braves and Minor are hoping his past performance against the Dodgers continues: He’s 1-1 with 2.32 ERA in five career regular-season starts against them, none this season. Minor also pitched well and got the win in the Braves’ only victory in the 2014 division series against the Dodgers, when he allowed eight hits and only one run in 6 1/3 innings.

Against Minor, A.J. Ellis is 4-for-10 with a homer, Adrian Gonzalez is 3-for-5 with a homer, Yasiel Puig is 1-for-3, and Matt Kemp is 2-for-11.

Haren is 1-5 with a 7.92 ERA and .300 opponents’ average in his past  six starts. He snapped a five-start skid Wednesday against the Angels when he allowed just three hits and one run with no walks in 7 1/3 innings. The right-hander had lasted between 4 and 5 1/3 innings in each of his previous five starts while allowing 36 total hits and 26 earned runs in 23 1/3 innings (10.03 ERA).

Haren is 5-6 with a 4.99 ERA in 13 road starts, nearly a run higher than his 4.09 ERA at home.

He was 1-0 with a 1.20 ERA in three games  (two starts) against the Braves in 2013, when Haren was with the Nationals for one season. Those were his only games against the Braves since 2010, when he split the season with the Angels and Diamondbacks.

Against Haren, B.J. Upton is 10-for-36 with five homers and 13 strikeouts, Doumit is 3-for-14 with two homers, Justin Upton is 2-for-9, Gerald Laird is 1-for-12, Johnson is 1-for-7, and Gattis and Emilio Bonifacio are both 1-for-6. Heyward is 0-for-5.

Here’s one from a few years back by Alberta Cross. Good stuff. Listen to it  here.

“CITY WALLS” by Alberta Cross

Alberta Cross

Alberta Cross

Well all people hanging around
Well all people ghouling around
We were city ghosts
We just follow ’cause we are just people Yeah, city walls are growing
How will I find my way out?
We were wasted life’s in the city
Where a million people stole my way Where have we gone?
I’m staying around
Where have you gone?
I’m sticking around

I’m going inbound inside the city walls
Inbound, inside the city walls
It’s getting kinda mystic
Going inbound

Yeah, city walls are growing
How will I find my way out?
We were wasted life’s in the city
Where a million of people stole my way

Yeah, city walls are growing
How will I find my way out?
We were wasted life’s in the city
Where a million of people stole my way

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