Skeptics aside, Braves are competitive right now

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Williams Perez pitched five strong innings in his first major league start Wednesday against the Rays. (Getty Images)

  The Braves have won four of their past five games, including a 2-1 win last night against a Tampa Bay team that’s tied with the Yankees for first place in the AL East and had its lowest-ERA starting pitcher on the mound (Jake Odorizzi) against a Braves rookie making his first major league start (Williams Perez).

Williams Perez pitched five strong innings in his first major league start Wednesday against the Rays. (Getty Images)

Williams Perez pitched five strong innings in his first major league start Wednesday against the Rays. (Getty Images)

The Braves are 9-8 with a 3.69 ERA, 70 runs scored and nine homers in May, which is barely four runs per game, but enough more nights than not when the pitching is better than it was for most of April, which it has been for most of May.

They’re 4-1 in their past five games with a 2.00 ERA, 26 runs and, by the way, only one homer in that stretch.

What I’m saying is, for those who can get past the “we’re doomed for at least two years” message you’ve been getting from so many places and actually make your own judgment and opinions based on what you’re seeing on the field on a nightly basis, you might agree this team is better offensively than last year’s, and if a couple of starters had performed up to expectations so far, it’d be a couple of games or more above .500 (the Braves are 19-20, which is a better record than Seattle and only a half-game worse than the Padres and Red Sox, teams I mention only because all were picked as playoff contenders or better by most pundits before the season).

This Braves team is a team in transition, building toward 2017 and beyond with some holes to fill before then. No question about that. But it’s a better “team” and more fundamentally sound than last year’s team, which a lot of people kept waiting to get on a roll while apologizing for or defending by saying it was a power-hitting lineup prone to streaks, etc.

It was a streaky lineup, yes. But also a power-hitting philosophy and approach without bona fide, big-time power hitters other than Justin Upton. Folks, THAT was a flawed team. Put that team’s bullpen and Harang on this year’s team, and you’d have a team battling Washington for first place. But that’s water under the bridge.

In the here and now, the Braves have said since spring that postseason remains their only goal, and most players, the veteran ones who’ve been through it before, will tell you off record than the second wild-card spot is probably their only real chance to get to the posteason. Is it a good chance? No. But they’re three games back right now, and no one in the clubhouse is nearly as pessimistic – thankfully for them – as so many outside it have been about this team’s chances.

This team has its flaws, its negatives – but it also has pluses, some for now and a whole lot of pluses for the future. And not the distant future. I’ve said since early spring I thought this could be a legit postseason contender by 2016, and believe that now more than ever.

By the way, if you were perhaps focused on the Hawks last night and didn’t see the Braves game, they beat the Rays and Jake Odirizzi 2-1, and the Braves got some of their biggest contributions from Perez, who pitched five innings of one-run ball in his first start and third MLB appearance; from rookie Brandon Cunniff, who came in with two runners on base and two out in the sixth and pitched 1 1/3 perfect innings while lowering his opponents’ batting average to a majors-leading .051; from first-year second baseman Jace Peterson, who had a pair of 10-pitch walks in the leadoff spot, and from rookie Todd Cunningham, who had the game-winning RBI.

• Up next: After splitting two with the Rays, the Braves host a four-game series beginning tonight against the Brewers,who are 3-5 with a 4.57 ERA in their past eight games. They’ve hit 11 homers in that stretch, but batted just .221 and totaled 26 runs. Eleven homers with only 26 runs is not that easy to do.

Look out for Ryan Braun, who’s awakened, hitting .273 (18-for-66) with six homers, 18 RBIs and a .380 OBP in 19 games this month. He’s also hit .273 with eight homers, 19 RBIs and a .652 slugging percentage in 18 road games this season.

Four other Brewers have three homers apiece including Carlos Gomez, who’s hit .317 with seven extra-base hits and 11 RBIs this month. Gerardo Parra has a team-high .407 average (18-for-44) with two homers, 11 RBIs and a .451 OBP in 17 games in May.

• Unexpected stat leaders: Quick, guess the two highest Braves batting averages in home games? Hint: They happen to be the same two who share the team RBI lead for the month of May.

We’ll give you a second. Don’t look below until you think about it a moment.

OK, no sense in waiting any longer, since I know none of you got both, and most probably got neither. I know I wouldn’t have.

Cameron Maybin and Jace Peterson.

Yes, Maybin and Peterson.

Maybin leads the Braves with a .333 average (12-for-36) in 14 games at Turner Field, where he has three homers, eight RBIs, eight walks and a whopping .467 OBP and .611 slugging percentage. Maybin has hit .204 in 18 road games with one homer, a .259 OBP and .315 slugging.

Peterson, meanwhile, has a .321 average (17-for-53) in 18 games at Turner Field, with seven walks and a .392 OBP. All four of his extra-base hits have come in 18 road games, though he’s hitting only .226 with a .300 OBP on the road.

(By the way, Nick Markakis is pretty much the opposite – he’s batting .346 (27-for-78) with a .446 OBP and .385 slugging percentage in 21 road games, compared to .239 (16-for-67) with a .311 OBP and .284 slugging percentage in 17 home games.)

Maybin and Peterson also have 10 RBIs apiece in the month of May, which is one more than Freddie Freeman and Kelly Johnson on the team leaderboard this month. Peterson also leads the Braves in walks this month with eight, including those two 10-pitch walks last night. (I’m guessing there haven’t been many, if any, other major leaguers this season with two 10-pitch walks in one game).

Other than Cunningham (.474 in five May games) and injured Phil Gosselin (.429, 9-for-21), the highest Braves batting average in May belongs to Maybin, who is 16-for-50 (.320) with one homer, 10 RBIs and a .404 OBP in 17 games this month.

Peterson isn’t far back at .293 (17-for-58) with three extra-base hits, eight walks and a .379 OBP in 16 May games.

• Freeman contrast: When there are runners on base and pitchers can’t so easily pitch around Freeman, the results are in stark contrast to bases-empty situations when they can better avoid giving him anything to hit.

Freeman has hit .391 (27-for-69) with runners on base, with 10 doubles, three homers, eight walks and a .455 OBP and a .667 slugging percentage. With the bases empty, he’s hit .229 (19-for-83) with five doubles, two homers, six walks, a .281 OBP and .361 slugging percentage.

Tonight’s matchup: It’s Julio Teheran (3-1, 4.33 ERA) vs. Matt Garza (2-5, 5.72) in a matchup that doesn’t have quite the appeal it would’ve in recent seasons, with both pitchers struggling in the first quarter of the season.

Teheran’s won-lost record is mostly a result of robust run support — 7.01 runs per nine innings he’s pitched, second-highest among NL starters. Teheran is 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA in his past six starts, but he’s pitched well in two of his past three starts including Friday at Miami, where he allowed nine hits but only two runs (one earned) in 5 1/3 innings, with one walk and five strikeouts.

This after he gave up 10 hits and six runs in five innings of his previous start May 9 at Washington.

For me, the most shocking stat for Teheran is the .400 batting average and .500 OPS he’s allowed by left-handed batters, who are 26-for-65 against him with 10 extra-base hits and a fat .646 slugging percentage. (Righties are .248/.302/.438 against him.)

Teheran is 1-2 with a 1.69 ERA in three starts against the Brewers, including two last season when he allowed just two runs and 13 hits allowed in 15 innings. Gomez is 2-for-10 against him, Parra is 2-for-11, Braun is 1-for-7, and Jean Segura is 4-for-9 with a homer.

Garza is 0-3 with a 4.76 ERA in five starts against the Braves, albeit against plenty of different Braves than he’ll face tonight.

 The Braves could get Chris Johnson back from the DL next week but wish they had him tonight  – he’s 7-for-12 with two homers off Garza. Pierzysnski also 4-for-16 with two homers against Garza, Gomes is 4-for-8 with a homer, Freddie Freeman is 4-for-12 with a homer, Albert Callaspo is 4-for-14 with a homer, and Nick Markakis is 6-for-38 (.158) with five walks and five strikeouts.

Etc.

Braves catchers A.J. Pierzysnki (7-for-43) and Christian Bethancourt (4-for-22) have hit a collective .169 for the month, after Pierzysnki led the Braves in April in average (.422, 19-for-45), RBIs (14 in 12 games) and slugging percentage (.689)….

Jonny Gomes has only one less hit in 15 at-bats against lefties than he has in 49 at-bats vs. righties. Gomes is 6-for-17 (.400) with a double, homer, seven RBIs and a .522 OBP against lefties, while he’s 7-for-49 (.143) against righties with a double, two homers, two RBIs and a .192 OBP.

 • Here’s a great song from a terrific band off their album by the same name, Fisherman’s Blues.

“FISHERMAN’S BLUES” by The Waterboys

 

The Waterboys

The Waterboys

I wish I was a fisherman
Tumblin’ on the seas
Far away from dry land
And its bitter memories
Casting out my sweet line
With abandonment and love
No ceiling bearin’ down on me
Save the starry sky above
With light in my head
You in my arms
Woo!I wish I was the brakeman
On a hurtlin’ fevered train
Crashing a-headlong into the heartland
Like a cannon in the rain
With the beating of the sleepers
And the burnin’ of the coal
Counting the towns flashing by
In a night that’s full of soul
With light in my head
You in my arms
Woo!Tomorrow I will be loosened
From bonds that hold me fast
That the chains all hung around me
Will fall away at last
And on that fine and fateful day
I will take thee in my hands
I will ride on the train
I will be the fisherman
With light in my head
You in my arms

Light in my head
You in my arms

 


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