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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Braves can significantly improve playoff outlook this week

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 PITTSBURGH – When I opined in Friday’s blog that it was a good time for the Braves to be facing the A’s, who had batted .228 while losing eight of their previous 15 games, a whole lot of folks figured that was the kiss of death. Or, they just assumed the Braves would continue to sputter against another West team after losing three of four to the Dodgers.

The Braves proceeded to sweep the A’s, who’ve now lost five in a row. While a 6-4 homestand isn’t quite as good as the Braves had hoped for, all things considered, taking six of 10 against three teams in first place when the homestand began wasn’t too shabby. Especially given that the Braves continued to handle the Nats, taking two of three to improve to 9-4 against the NL East leaders.

Now the Braves go back out on the road, which perhaps has fans concerned, given the debacle that ensued when last this bunch packed its suitcases and played teams away from Atlanta (0-8, their worst trip since 1949).

Justin Upton hit this homer in the series opener against Oakland on Friday, part of his torrid homestand. The Braves need him to keep it going on the 10-game road trip that starts Monday at Pittsburgh.

Justin Upton hit this homer in the series opener against Oakland on Friday, part of his torrid homestand. The Braves need him to keep it going on the 10-game road trip that starts Monday at Pittsburgh.

But this time they don’t have to go out west, which has not been kind to the Braves this season, and the Braves start and end the trip in the Eastern Time Zone at Pittsburgh and New York, respectively, with a four-game jaunt to Cincinnati in the middle. More important, instead of facing the likes of the Dodgers and Mariners and Kershaw, Greinke and King Felix, the Braves are facing Pirates and Reds teams that have struggled lately, and a Mets team that has no legit playoff chances.

The Braves need to have a winning trip to keep their damaged NL East hopes alive, and in the process of having a good trip they can improve their wild-card outlook by taking this series against the Pirates, who are currently tied with the Braves at 64-60, 1 ½ games behind San Francisco for the second wild-card spot.

The surprising Marlins have climbed to .500 at 62-62, just two games behind the Braves and Pirates, and the Reds are 61-63, a game behind the Marlins in the wild-card standings. So the  Braves need to take at least two of three from the Pirates and then bury the Reds by winning that series — never an easy proposition in any four-game road series and certainly not at at Great American Small, er, Ball Park, where Atlanta’s had some bad nights in recent years.

But first things first. The Buccos.

The Pirates are 10-13 in their past 23 games and lost all five games on a road trip that ended Sunday with a second consecutive walk-off defeats at Washington.

Oh, and they’re playing without all-world center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who’s on the DL recovering from a broken rib.

They posted a 4.64 ERA and hit just .209 on their trip, totaling 18 runs in those five losses, including two games at Detroit followed by a sweep at the hands of the Nationals.

 • Opening matchup’s a good one:  In the series opener at beautiful PNC Park, it’ll be resurgent Ervin Santana (12-6, 3.66) against surprising Vance Worley (5-2, 2.51).

Santana is 5-0 with a 2.70 ERA and .240 opponents’ average in his past six starts, with 41 strikeouts, 14 walks and only one homer allowed in 40 innings. His only no-decision in that span came in his only road start in those six, a loss to the Padres in which he pitched quite well (6 2/3 innings, two runs), but the Braves scored only one run while he was in a 3-2, 12-inning loss.

Santana is 3-4 with a 3.88 ERA and .272 opponents’ average in 11 road starts, compared to 9-2 with a 3.47 ERA and .249 OA in 12 home starts.

He’s 7-1 with a 2.95 ERA and two homers allowed in his past nine starts, and the Braves have scored five runs per nine innings that Santana pitched in that span. He allowed two runs or fewer in six of those nine starts.

The veteran has never pitched against the Pirates, only two major league teams that Santana has not faced. Against Santana, Jayson Nix is 2-for-11 with two  homers, Travis Snider is 1-for-10, and Gaby Sanchez is 1-for-2 with a homer.

Worley, whom most Braves fans remember from his years with the Phillies, is 3-1 with a 1.62 ERA in his past five starts. He had allowed just three earned runs and no homers in 28 innings over four starts before giving up five runs (three earned), nine hits and two homers in 5 1/3 innings of a loss at Detroit on Saturday.

The right-hander is 5-2 with a 2.32 ERA in 10 starts for the Pirates since being brought up from Triple-A, and he has a 2.00 ERA in four starts at PNC Park. He’s resuscitated his career after going 1-5 with a 7.21 ERA in 10 starts for the Twins in 2013.

Worley struggled against the Braves in the past, going 1-2 with a 5.81 ERA in and .317 opponents’ average in seven games including five starts. He ast faced them in May 2013 and got blitzed for 10 hits, eight runs and three homers in just 3 2/3 innings of a loss in Atlanta.

Against Worley, Jason Heyward is 3-for-8, Freddie Freeman is 3-for-9 with three walks, Ramiro Pena is 2-for-3 with a home run against him, Chris Johnson is 2-for-3, Evan Gattis is 1-for-2 with a homer and four RBIs, and B.J. Upton is 1-for-2 with a homer. Meanwhile, Emilio Bonifacio is 1-for-7 against the righty.

Braves need J-Up road work: It was more big-time home production from Justin Upton, who was 10-for-31 (.323) with two doubles, four homers and 11 RBIs on the 10-game homestand that ended Sunday, with nine walks, a .475 OBP and .774 slugging percentage.

He’s  hit .320 with 16 homers and a .621 slugging percentage in 63 games at home, compared to just .246 with seven homers and a .408 slugging percentage in 55 road games.

Upton ranks second in the majors in home runs at home, behind Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton, who has hit 21 of his majors-leading 32 homers at spacious Marlins Park.

Upton went 4-for-23 (.174) with two doubles, two RBIs and nine strikeouts in the last six games of the Braves’ 0-8 trip prior to the 6-4 homestand. However, in his previous 16 road games he shed his road woes and burned at a .348 clip (23-for-66) with six doubles, three homers, 15 RBIs and a .576 slugging percentage. The Braves went 9-7 in those road games.

So it can be done. And when he gets it going on the road, good things tend to ensue for the Braves.

Freeman update: First baseman Freddie Freeman went just 1-for-6 with four strikeouts  and two walks in the last two games of the Oakland sweep, but over his past 22 games he’s hit .345 (29-for-84) with 11 extra-base hits (three homers), 12 RBIs, a .421 OBP and a .560 slugging percentage.

• J-Hey vs. Pirates: In 23 games against the Pirates, Jason Heyward has a .326 career average (30-for-92) with eight extra-base hits (three homers), a .398 OBP and .489 slugging percentage.

He had three consecutive two-hits games against them the last time he faced the Pirates in June 2013, but Heyward was only 4-for-18 with no extra-base hits or RBIs in his most recent five games at PNC Park in 2012 and 2013.

• Etc.

The Braves won consecutive 4-3 games against the  A’s Saturday and Sunday to make them 4-0 in games decided by one-run on the homestand. This after losing nine consecutive one-run games prior to the homestand….

B.J.  Upton leads major league center fielders with seven errors, and Justin Upton leads MLB left fielders with six errors.

Here’s one from the strong recent solo album by Bob Mould, a song that sounds a lot like his spectacular former band, Husker Du.

“HEY MR. GREY” by Bob Mould

A young Bob Mould

A young Bob Mould

Hey Mr. Grey, that’s what the children say
Life used to be so hard, get off my yard

They’re so young, they’re so dumb
They don’t understand
Kids don’t follow, kids don’t lead
Kids go hand in hand

Hey Mr. Blue, the brokenhearted fool
You wonder why the one you loved would lie

Hey Mr. Green, your grace is rarely seen
so filled with rage and then you disengage

Get so up, get so down
Get mixed up inside
Kiss of death, kiss of love
Kiss it all goodbye

Hey Mr. White, it’s time to stop the fight
The world has changed while you turned out the lights

But old Mr. Grey will slowly fade away
Old Mr. Grey, hey Mr. Grey

Find a life that’s right for you

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