Braves’ best players also their hottest hitters entering Nats series

Andrelton Simmons can always be counted on for terrific defense, but the two-time Gold Glove winner said it's been important for him to be able to contribute more to the offense so far this season. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)
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Andrelton Simmons can always be counted on for terrific defense, but the two-time Gold Glove winner said it's been important for him to be able to contribute more to the offense so far this season. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

 

WASHINGTON — The only two Braves who’ve started every game this season also happen to be the team’s two best players, its two hottest hitters, and the two current Braves who’ve had the most success against tonight’s series-opening Nationals starter, Gio Gonzalez.

Freddie Freeman has a .337 career average against the Nationals, and has hit .409 in his past 29 games against them entering Friday's series opener at Washington. (Jason Getz/AJC file photo)

Freddie Freeman has a .337 career average against the Nationals, and has hit .409 in his past 29 games against them entering Friday’s series opener at Washington. (Jason Getz/AJC file photo)

If you guessed Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons, you win a small souvenir replica of the Washington Monument. (Not really, but I still have one from when my family drove to D.C. from our home in North Carolina when I was a little kid, us three kids stuffed in the backseat of the family’s Starsky & Hutch-era Gran Torino, while mom and dad did us the favor of cracking the window slightly when they smoked, but only slightly since it was really hot out. Hey, it was the way things were way back then, and we were quite content listening the Top 40 radio and counting how many different states’ license plates we saw along the way.)

Anyway, FreddieFree and Andrelton.

Freeman has stormed back from a 1-for-18, five-game stretch by going 20-for-43 (.465) with eight doubles, one homer, 10 runs, nine RBIs and a .721 slugging percentage in his past 11 games. As Freeman goes, so go the Braves thus far: They were 1-4 in his 1-for-18 mini-slump April 21-25, and they’re 5-6 since then while he’s been on fire.

He’s taken it up still another notch lately, going 9-for-16 (.563) with four extra-base hits and seven RBIs in the past four games, and the Braves are 3-1 in those.

“Yeah, I’ve been feeling good at the plate, and it’s nice to be able to string some hits together,” said Freeman, who’s had seven multi-hit games in his past 11. “Hopefully that will continue in D.C.”

Meanwhile, Simmons, the defensive wunderkind, is enjoying one of the best hitting stretches of his career. He’s hit .316 (24-for-76) in his past 20 games with eight extra-base hits (two homers), 17 runs, 10 RBIs, eight walks and only three strikeouts, posting a .395 OBP and .487 slugging percentage in that period.

“This is the longest I’ve seen him stay with an approach,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “and I think you have to give a lot of credit to (hitting coaches) Kevin (Seitzer) and Jose (Castro) for staying on him. And also Andrelton — you’ve got to give the player a lot of credit. His approach, being consistent, I think this is the longest I’ve seen in his career. It’s a good thing.”

Like Freeman, Simmons has also ramped it up even more in May: In the past five games he’s 9-for-17 (.529) with three doubles, a triple, a homer – in the first inning of Wednesday’s series-clinching win against the Phillies — and nine runs scored.

He’s batted .476 with 10 hits and a .577 OBP during a six-game hitting streak to begin May, and the Braves scored 31 runs in those games and are averaging 4.46 runs this season, fourth-best in the National League.

Andrelton Simmons can always be counted on for terrific defense, but the two-time Gold Glove winner said it's been important for him to be able to contribute more to the offense so far this season. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

Andrelton Simmons can always be counted on for terrific defense, but the two-time Gold Glove winner said it’s been important for him to be able to contribute more to the offense so far this season. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

When asked about what Gonzalez had said about his approach being the best the manager had seen from him for a sustained period, Simmons smiled and said,  “I don’t want to say that, because whenever you say that, that’s when things go south. But I’ve been feeling pretty good, and I’m just trying to keep that same feeling every day.”

He’s relished hitting in the No. 2 hole in recent weeks between Nick Markakis and Freeman.

“You’ve got guys who are always on base or always drive you in, so you’re always scoring runs or you have a chance to drive a guy in,” Simmons said. “It’s always nice hitting behind Nick, and when I get on base I’m ready to run when Freddie’s up.”

Gonzalez has often said that whatever offense the Braves get from Simmons is gravy, because his defense is so good that it doesn’t really matter. But it actually does, and Gonzalez and the Braves have been waiting and hoping that Simmons would make strides offensively. So has the shortstop, who’s not content with being just a sensational defensive shortstop.

“You’ve got to score runs to win games,” Simmons said, “so being able to contribute (to the offense), it’s a big deal for me.”

 • Tonight’s matchup: A pair of lefties, Eric Stults (1-2, 4.91 ERA)  and the Nats’ Gio Gonzalez (2-2, 3.86), will square off in the series opener at Nationals Park. The Braves have a revamped squad since last facing Gonzalez, and they’ll try to continue doing what previous Atlanta teams have done: Beat him.

Gonzalez is 2-8 with a 5.20 ERA in 11 starts vs. the Braves, including 0-7 with a 5.32 ERA in his past eight. His almost incomprehensibly bad stats against the Braves include his highest ERA against any NL opponent and his most losses against any team. He’s 80-52 with a 3.50 ERA against everyone else, and against the other NL East Teams he’s 8-4 with a 2.87 ERA in 14 starts vs. the Mets, 6-3 with a 2.44 ERA in nine starts vs. the Marlins, and 6-5 with a 3.15 ERA in 13 starts vs. the Phillies.

You think the Indians might scratch their heads a bit when they see what the Braves do against Gonzalez? He’s 5-0 with an 0.81 ERA in seven starts against Cleveland.

He pitched poorly several times against the Braves, and when he’s pitched well he’s some terrible run support. In his eight-start winless streak against the Braves, he’s allowed two or fewer earned runs five times, but his teams have scored one or no runs while he was in the game every time. Think about that. Every time in eight starts, one or no runs while he’s been in the game.

Simmons is 6-for-18 with two homers against Gonzalez, and Freeman is 7-for-24 (.292) with two homers and nine RBIs against the lefty. No other Brave has homered off Gonzalez, but Alberto Callaspo is 9-for-23 (.391) against him. Markakis is 5-for-18 (.278), while Eric Young Jr. is 2-for-17 with seven strikeouts.

Stults gave up only eight hits and three runs in 12 1/3 innings during consecutive quality starts against the Mets and Nationals April 22 and April 27 before getting blown up for 11 hits, six runs and two homers in seven innings of a loss to the Reds on Saturday.

He’s 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in four starts against the Nationals, and gave up 10 hits but only two runs in 5 1/3 innings for no decision in his only start at Nationals Park, a Padres win in April 2014.

Against Stults, Danny  Espinosa is 5-for-9 with a homer, Dan Uggla is 3-for-15 with a homer, Ian Desmond is 2-for-11 with a homer, and Denard Span is 3-for-11.

Here’s an early season/small-sample-size oddity: Stults has made four of his five starts at home and has a 5.79 ERA in those, while he has a 1.50 ERA in his only road start. It’s a direct opposite of Gonzalez, who has a 4.81 ERA in four road starts, and pitched six scoreless innings (eight hits) in his only home start.

 • More on Freeman: If we can get back to Freeman for a moment, to address a couple of statistical matters including his recent performance against the Nats. In his past 29 games against the Nationals, the big first baseman has hit .409 (47-for-115) with 10 doubles, five homers, 10 walks and a .454 OBP and .626 slugging percentage. That included eight hits in the three-game series April 26-28 at Turner Field, with multi-hit games in each and a four-hit night in the middle game.

Freeman has a .337 career average and 30 extra-base hits (nine homers) in 76 games against Washington with a .386 OBP and .513 slugging percentage. He has a .324 average in 37 games at Nationals Park, albeit with only two homers and a .434 slugging percentage in 136 at-bats.

Now, regarding Freeman’s overall performance this season, what jumps off the page with just over one-sixth of the season in the books is how much better he’s hit when there are “ducks on the pond,” in the baseball parlance. Freeman is tied sixth in the NL with a .444 average with RISP (8-for-18).

He’s hitting just .250/.300/.411 in 56 at-bats with nobody on base, but with runners on Freeman is an entirely different animal, going 20-for-51 (.392) with eight doubles, three homers, 15 RBIs, six walks and a whopping .456 OBP and .725 slugging percentage

Hitting in his current third spot in the lineup, he’s 20-for-50 (.400) with eight doubles, one homer, seven strikeouts and a .455 OBP and .620 slugging percentage. This compared with a .246/.306/.509 slash line with more strikeouts (18) than hits (14) in 57 at-bats in the fourth spot.

And here’s another small-sample-size oddity: The free-swinging Freeman has actually hit significantly better after falling behind in count 0-1 rather than getting ahead 1-0. After 0-1 counts, he’s 16-for-45 (.356) with four homers, a .383 OBP and .733 slugging percentage. After 1-0 counts, he’s 13-for-49 (.265) with one homer, a .368 OBP and .429 slugging percentage.

• Nats heating up: The Nationals are still a half-game behind the Braves, but they are 7-2 with a .289 batting average 2.93 ERA and 50 runs scored in their past nine games. That surge began with consecutive wins in Atlanta April 28-29 in which the Nationals totaled 15 hits and 13 runs in each game. They’ve scored just one run  three times  in their past five games, but two of those were 1-0 wins against the Mets including a Gio Gonzalez win.

 • Etc.

Andrelton Simmons has put balls in play on 55.2 percent of his swings, second-highest rate among NL qualifiers behind the Giants’ Angel Pagan (57.1). Braves teammates Alberto Callaspo (54.8) has the third-highest percentage in the league.

• Let’s close with this one from Foo Fighters, since Dave Grohl, who was raised in the D.C. suburbs.

“LEARN TO FLY” by Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters

Run and tell all of the angels
This could take all night
Think I need a devil to help me get things right

‘Cause this one is a lie
We sat around laughing and watched the last one die

Now I’m looking to the sky to save me
Looking for a sign of life
Looking for something to help me burn out bright
I’m looking for a complication
Looking ’cause I’m tired of lying
Make my way back home when I learn to fly high.

I think I’m done nursing the patience
It can wait one night
I’d give it all away if you give me one last try

We’ll live happily ever trapped if you just save my life
Run and tell the angels that everything’s alright…

I’m looking to the sky to save me
Looking for a sign of life
Looking for something to help me burn out bright
I’m looking for a complication
Looking ’cause I’m tired of trying
Make my way back home when I learn to fly high.
Make my way back home when I learn to…

…fly along with me, I can’t quite make it alone
Try to make this life my own
Fly along with me, I can’t quite make it alone
Try to make this life my own

I’m looking to the sky to save me
Looking for a sign of life
Looking for something to help me burn out bright
I’m looking for a complication
Looking ’cause I’m tired of trying
Make my way back home when I learn to…

…looking to the sky to save me
Looking for a sign of life
Looking for something to help me burn out bright
I’m looking for a complication
Looking ’cause I’m tired of trying
Make my way back home when I learn to fly high.
Make my way back home when I learn to fly.
Make my way back home when I learn to…

 

 


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