CINCINNATI – Given how the Braves have pitched in recent weeks, and the home-run barrage they absorbed while being swept in Washington, the last place they want to be right now is probably Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, aka “Great American Small Park,” so named for its extremely hitter-friendly dimensions.
But that’s where they’ll be for a three-game series starting tonight, and the Braves can at least be thankful that their new ace, Shelby Miller, will pitch the series opener. He gave the weary bullpen a day off the last time he pitched, throwing a three-hit shutout against the Phillies on Tuesday in Atlanta.
The Braves have won only one of four games since then while giving up 27 earned runs and nine homers in 35 1/3 innings, including 22 earned runs and eight homers in 24 1/3 innings against the Nationals while being swept in three games at Washington Friday through Sunday.
The Braves scored 12 runs in that series and rallied from deficits of three runs or more in each of the last two games to tie or take the lead, only to see their bullpen give it back, with Cody Martin give up two runs in each of the last two games to take losses in each.
Braves relievers have a 4.88 ERA that’s the third-highest in the NL, and their 14 homers allowed are second only to the Brewers’ 15. Atlanta starters have the league’s fourth-highest ERA (4.24), and the team’s 4.47 overall ERA is now the third-highest in the NL, ahead of the Brewers (4.64) and Rockies (5.47).
Good thing the Braves have Miller going tonight, because otherwise this is probably the worst time for their pitchers to be coming into Cincinnati.
Fredi Gonzalez hates walks, and the Braves’ largely inexperienced pitching staff has issued 111 of them, the second-most walks in the NL. Only the last-place Phillies have more (122), while the division-leading Mets have issued barely half as many walks (58) as the Braves.
We’ll see after the clubhouse opens – or maybe not until later tonight, actually – whether closer Jason Grilli can go after sitting out the Nationals series with back spasms. If he can’t, it puts more stress on the ‘pen because Gonzalez will probably hold back Jim Johnson to close and thrust another pitcher into the eighth-inning role who’s probably either not ready for that pressure or has pitched so much lately that he might not be at his best (i.e. Cody Martin this weekend).
Haven’t heard anything yet, but won’t be surprised if the Braves make another bullpen move to get a fresh arm up from the minors.
• Tonight’s matchup: Provided rain delays don’t disrupt the game – forecast tonight isn’t good — and force the starters out early, it should be a great pitching matchup with Miller (4-1, 1.66 ERA) out to avenge his only Braves loss against Mike Leake (2-1, 2.47).
Leake is 4-2 with a 2.03 ERA in seven career starts against the Braves, and the right-hander pitched eight scoreless innings of two-hit ball against them in a win at Atlanta on April 30 to hand Miller not just his first loss as a Brave, but only loss in his past 13 starts going back to late August when he was with the Cardinals. Leake also homered off Miller in that game.
Miller gave up six hits, three runs (two earned) and two homers in seven innings in that 5-1 loss at Turner Field, with three walks and nine strikeouts.
Leake is 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA and .150 opponents’ average in his past three starts, including eight scoreless innings in each of his past two starts, road wins against Atlanta and Pittsburgh. He has given up just 12 hits and three walks in 23 innings over his past three starts.
In his past two starts against the Braves — in Cincinnati in August and less than two weeks ago in Atlanta — Leake has given up a total of four hits and five walks in 14 2/3 scoreless innings, with nine strikeouts.
Three active Braves have at least 10 at-bats against him: Kelly Johnson is 5-for-16 with a homer, Andrelton Simmons is 5-for-13, and Freddie Freeman is 1-for-15 with a homer.
Miller is 2-3 with a 3.24 ERA in seven starts against the Reds, and in two of the losses he pitched a quality start and got zero run support from his Cardinal teams. He has fared better at Cincy’s ballpark than most visiting pitchers, going 2-1 with a 3.97 ERA in four starts, with three homers allowed in 22 1/3 innings. For this place, that’s a low number of long balls.
Even if his shutout last week came against the worst hitting team in the league (Philly), it was still a dominant performance, and left Miller with a 4-1 record and 1.66 ERA in his first six starts for the Braves, with two earned runs or fewer allowed in every start and six or more innings pitched in each of the past four.
In his past two starts, against the Reds and Phillies, he’s given up two earned runs and nine hits in 16 innings, with four walks and 17 strikeouts.
Eight current Reds have at least 10 at-bats against Miller, whom they faced plenty when he pitched for their division opponent Cardinals. Brandon Phillips is 6-for-17 with a homer against him, Devin Mesoraco is 3-for-10 with a homer, Joe Votto is 3-for-12 with a homer, and Todd Frazier is 3-for-17 with a homer. Jay Bruce is just 1-for-12 against Miller.
• Longball threat: The Reds have hit 19 homers in their past 13 games, and they’re probably licking their chops to hit at home against the Braves after finishing a 10-game road trip on Sunday. That’s right, they’ve hit 19 homers in their past 13 games, and only three of those were in Cincy.
They totaled seven homers in their last three-game home series against the Brewers before going out on the road.
Todd Frazier has seven homers in his past 17 games, and three of his past four hits (in five games) against the Braves have been homers. He hit two in the recent four-game series at Atlanta.
• Small park: Simmons is 12-for-28 (.429) with three homers, six RBIs and an .893 slugging percentage in six games at Cincinnati, and Kelly Johnson has a .302 average (29-for-96) with five homers in 24 games at the hitters’ haven hard by the Ohio River.
Jonny Gomes, who played for the Reds ini 2009-2011, has a .252 average and 29 homers in exactly 500 career at-bats (166 games) at Cincinnati, with 91 RBIs and a .482 slugging percentage.
Curiously, the Braves’ best hitter, Freddie Freeman, has a .208 career average (10-for-48) with no homers and a .250 slugging percentage in 13 games at Cincinnati.
• Home/road dichotomy: Nick Markakis has hit .345 (19-for-55) in 15 road games with 10 walks, five strikeouts and a .455 on-base percentage. Meanwhile, he’s hit .250 (15-for-60) in 15 home games with six walks, 15 strikeouts and a .318 OBP.
Cameron Maybin has had the opposite splits – he’s .332 (10-for-31) in 12 home games with three homers, seven walks and a .447 OBP and .613 slugging percentage, while he’s hit just .167 (6-for-36) with one homer, two walks, 14 strikeouts and a .211 OBP and .306 slugging percentage.
• No Teheran: The Braves pitchers with the best stats against the Reds, Julio Teheran, isn’t pitching in this series. He’s 2-1 with a 1.78 ERA in four starts against them, including six scoreless innings of four-hit ball in his only start at Cincinnati.
Then again, with the way Teheran has been struggling and giving up home runs, it might not be a bad time for him to miss a start at this long-ball haven.
The Afghan Whigs are from Cincinnati. The Afghan Whigs are terrific, as is everything else Greg Dulli does. Pure rock star. Here’s a tune, and the first half or so of the lyrics….
“DEBONAIR” by The Afghan Whigs (G. Dulli)
Hear me now and don’t forget
I’m not the man my actions would suggest
A little boy, I’m tied to you
I fell apart that’s what I always do
This ain’t about regret
My conscience can’t be found
This time I won’t repent
Somebody’s going down
Feel it now and don’t resist
This time the anger’s better than the kiss
I must admit when so inclined
I tend to lose it than confront my mind
‘Cause it don’t bleed and it don’t breathe
It’s locked its jaws and now it’s swallowing
It’s in our heart, it’s in our head
It’s in our love, baby, it’s in our bed…