Who thought Braves offense would be just fine?

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A pair of 38-year-olds, catcher A.J. Pierzynski and closer Jason Grilli, have performed admirably so far in June after struggling to varying degrees in May. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

 

Next spring when the pundits and scribes confidently offer their predictions on the strengths, weaknesses and overall chances of your favorite baseball team, remember what was said and written about the Braves last spring. About how their pitching should be good but they would struggly mightily to score runs.

Sixty-six games into the season, the Braves are 11th in the majors in runs and on pace to finish with season with 694, after finishing 29th in the majors with 573 runs in 2014.

A pair of 38-year-olds, catcher A.J. Pierzynski and closer Jason Grilli, have performed admirably  so far in June after struggling to varying degrees in May. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

A pair of 38-year-olds, catcher A.J. Pierzynski and closer Jason Grilli, have performed admirably so far in June after struggling to varying degrees in May. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

Meanwhile, Braves pitchers rank 24th in the majors (11th in the NL) in ERA at 4.21, after finishing fifth in the majors (third  in the NL) with a 3.38 ERA  in 2014.

Before we dig a bit deeper into the offensive improvemt, we should point out that as bad as bullpen has been this season – Atlanta relievers’ 4.64 ERA remains the majors’ worst – there has been significant progress lately, particularly from the back-end relievers the Braves have been relying on in recent weeks.

Some June ERAs: Jason Grilli 0.00 in seven appearances; David Aardsma 0.00 in four appearances, Nick Masset 1.43 in eight appearances, Jim Johnson 2.35 in eight appearances.

Now, about that offense, which looks so completely different this season, with a new hitting coach (Kevin Seitzer) and assistant hitting coach (Jose Castro), and a handful of new lineup regulars who generally hit fewer homers, strike out less, and put the ball in play in more – a lot more — particularly with runners in scoring position, than the ones who were traded away in the offseason.

In the National League, the Braves enter Thursday ranked fifth in batting average (.261), fourth in OBP (.325), tied for 11th in slugging percentage (.375) and 14th in homers (43). Last season they finished 11th in BA (.241), 10th in OBP (.305), 14th in slugging (.360) and 11th in homers (122).

Think about those numbers a moment. This team is not only hitting and OBP’ing 20 points better than last year’s, it’s also slugging 15 points higher.

The Braves are tied with Colorado for third in the majors (first in the NL) with a .299 average with runners in scoring position, after finishing 28th in the majors (13th in the NL) with a .236 average with RISP in 2014.

And the Braves are also showing it wasn’t an early season fluke thing, as their overall offensive numbers have only improved in recent weeks.

The Braves have hit .299 and averaged 5.3 runs while going 9-9 with a 4.25 ERA beginning with their wins in the last two games of a four-game series at San Francisco. They’ve totaled 10 or more hits in 12 of those 18 games, and nine hits in four others.

The only time the Braves had fewer than eight hits in that 18-game stretch was a six-hit output in a 3-0 loss against the Pirates and Gerrit Cole on June 7, also the only time they’ve been shut out in that stretch.

Now this is a skid: For those who think the Braves struggled recently, it’s all relative. Consider the last-place Red Sox, whose payroll is about double the Braves’. Boston is 1-8 with a 6.15 ERA in its past nine games, their only win in that slide coming against Julio Teheran and the Braves on Tuesday at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox are 16-29 since the beginning of May, and have averaged fewer than 3.3 runs in that 45-game stretch.

• Greybeard turnaround (again): Braves 38-year-old catcher A.J. Pierzynski, after scorching at the plate April at .422/.442/.689 with three homers and 14 RBIs in 45 at-bats, then deep-freezing in May at .145//197/.194 with no homers and three RBIs in 62 at-bats, has heated back up with the weather  in June.

Pierzynski is batting .318 (14-for-44) with three doubles, a homer seven RBIs and a .375 OBP and .455 slugging percentage in 13 games this month.

By the way, Braves pitchers have a 3.98 ERA in 341 2/3 innings with Pierzynksi catching, and had a 4.46 ERA in 236 1/3 innings with Christian Bethancourt catching before Bethancourt was sent down to Triple-A Monday.

• Seizing opportunity: In the past 3 ½ weeks, utility man Pedro Ciriaco has started five games, including each of the past two in place of injured Andrelton Simmons (hand). In those five starts, Ciriaclo had four multi-hit games and went 9-for-21 with two doubles and five RBIs.

• Maybin still raking: Cameron Maybin raised his majors-leading average with runners in scoring position to .462 (24-for-52) when he went 1-for-2 in those situations Wednesday. Freddie Freeman is tied with Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt for fourth in the NL in that category with a .418 average (23-for-55).

In the past 42 games in which Maybin has batted, the Braves center fielder has hit .333 (59-for-159) with eight extra-base hits (two homers), 28 RBIs,  a .399 OBP, .409 slugging percentage, and 11 stolen bases in 12 attempts. In his past 17 games, Maybin is 28-for-77 (.364) with 27 singles, 14 RBIs, nine runs, and six steals without getting caught.

  • And so is the Cajun Kid: Jace Peterson’s hot streak began April 26, two days before Maybin heated up at the plate. Peterson has hit .303 (54-for-178) in his past 46 games with 13 extra-base hits (two triples, two homers), 23 runs, 26 RBIs, a .375 OBP and .410 slugging percentage.  And in his past 16 games, the Braves’ first-year second baseman is 23-for-69 (.333) with 10 extra-base hits (two triples, one homer), 12 runs, 10 RBIs, .403 OBP and .536 slugging percentage.

 • Tonight’s matchup: Shelby Miller (5-2, 2.02 ERA) will try to snap a five-start winless streak when he faces right-hander Clay Buchholz (3-6, 4.22).

Miller is 0-1 with a 3.23 ERA in his past five starts, but still ranks third in the NL in opponents’ batting average (.197) and fifth in ERA, behind Gerrit Cole (1.71), A.J. Burnett (1.89), Max Scherzer (1.93) and Zack Greinke (1.95), and ahead of Jacob deGrom (2.33).

Miller and Seattle’s Felix Hernandez are the only major league pitchers with two shutouts this season.

Miller is 2-1 with a 1.59 ERA and .197 opponents’ average in five home starts, with 29 strikeouts and nine walks in 34 innings.  He hasn’t allowed more than two runs or seven hits in a home game.

Opponents have hit just .197 with a .269 OBP and .286 slugging percentage overall against Miller, including .164/.261/.233 by right-handers, and he’s limited hitters to a .194 average with runners in scoring position.

But in a small sample size of close-and-late situations, Miller has allowed a .471 average (8-for-17) with four extra-base hits including two homers.

In his only start against the Red Sox, Miller allowed four hits and one run seven innings and go no decision in a Cardinals loss on June 8, 2014. Against Miller, no current Red Sox player has more than one hit, and Jeff Bianchi (1-for-6) is the only one with more than three official at-bats.

After going 5-1 with a 1.33 ERA and .156 opponents’ average in his first eight starts, with 43 strikeouts and 16 walks in 54 innings, Miller is 0-1 with a 3.23 ERA and .263 opponents’ average in his past five starts, with 18 walks and 11 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings. He received an average of 4.5 support runs per nine innings pitched in his first eight starts, and has averaged 2.05 support runs per nine innings pitched during his winless streak, with the Braves scoring one or no runs while he was in three of those five games.

Miller has made four quality starts during the winless streak, including three starts with two or fewer runs allowed in six or more innings.

Buchholz is 2-2 with a 3.02 ERA in his past seven starts, with 41 strikeouts, 11 walks and two homers allowed in 47 2/3 innings. But he gave up 18 hits and eight runs in 10 2/3 innings over his past two starts against Oakland and Toronto, both at Fenway Park. Buchholz is 2-2 with a 3.79 ERA and .217 opponents’ average in six road starts, compared to 1-4 with a 4.61 ERA and a .317 OA in seven home starts.

His only start against the Braves was in May 2015 at Turner Field, when he lasted just three innings and was charged with four hits six runs and a whopping eight walks. Buchholz threw 88 pitches before making his early exit, but the Red Sox still won the game, 8-6.

Against Buchholz, Pierzysnki is 6-for-12, Nick Markakis is 6-for-39 (.154) with six walks, and Kelly Johnson is 1-for-12 with six strikeouts. No other current Brave has more than three official at-bats against him.

• Let’s close with this gem that was the first single released by the mighty Jesus and Mary Chain.

“UPSIDE DOWN” by The Jesus and Mary Chain

Jesus and Mary Chain

The Jesus and Mary Chain

We’re moving ’round and ’round
Can’t hear a single sound
And when I hit the ground
I heard a ringing sound
Uh-huh-huh
I heard a ringing sound
And my head hit the ground
Uh-huh-huh
Inside I’m upside down

You live with so much carelessness
‘Cause no one takes you serious
That makes you feel so dangerous
You wish you never was
But you can’t see

And if you feel there’s no one else
That you’re all alone, you’re by yourself
Your life is like a broken shell
It doesn’t really matter to me
Doesn’t matter to me
Doesn’t matter to me
Knowing you can’t see

Inside I feel so bad
So low I feel so sad
Feels like I’m going mad
Best friend I’ve ever had
Uh-huh-huh
Feels like I’m going mad
Best friend I’ve ever had
Uh-huh-huh
So low I feel so sad

You live with so much carelessness
‘Cause no one takes you serious
And now you think you’re dangerous
You never was but you can’t see
And if you feel there’s no one else
You’re all alone and by yourself
Your life is like a broken shell
It doesn’t really matter to me
Doesn’t matter to me
Doesn’t matter to me
Knowing you can’t see

Upside down
Upside down
Upside down
Upside down
Upside down

Upside down
Upside down
Upside down
Upside down
Upside down


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