They’ve played eight games and are fully aware they have the National League’s worst record (2-6) and won’t get a do-over, but the Braves can be excused for feeling optimistic today, almost like the season is starting over again. I won’t paraphrase their now-ubiquitous team slogan, I’ll just say the Braves are finally going to play a home game tonight.
And not just any home game. They’ve got a new home they’re feeling pretty eager to break in and show off, and tonight they plan to pull out the stops for a long-awaited open house.
Tonight they face the Padres in the opener of a four-game series and seven-game homestand at the Braves’ new digs, which has already so impressed the Braves, they talk about it as if it’s the veritable pot of gold at the end of the … well, not a rainbow, but a traffic-clogged highway system. But a pot of gold nonetheless.
“It’s going to be fun,” said center fielder Ender Inciarte, who hit two home runs Wednesday in a 5-4 win at Miami that made a three-city, six-loss season-opening trip at least a little less painful on the flight home. “The fans are anxious to see what the new park looks like and we’re anxious to start playing games at home. We really want to play at that new ballpark. It’s beautiful and hopefully it’s going to be a really positive ballpark for us.”
Tyler Flowers, who had the game-winning single in the ninth inning Wednesday, echoed Inciarte’s sentiments about the new ballpark, which has about 8,000 fewer seats than Turner Field and about 8,000 more places to eat and things to do in and around it. For the players, it has one of the largest and most well-appointed clubhouses in all of baseball, and the state-of-the-art gym and training areas that Turner Field lacked.
“Not the way you draw up your opening trip,” Flowers said, “but make the most out of a big win (Wednesday) and go back home, new stadium and everything, hopefully carry that momentum and have a big homestand. The fans are excited. Of course we’re excited. I think everyone’s anxious to kind of let everyone see the new stadium. We’re excited to play in it. There’s really nothing to complain about or anything we would change or upgrade.
“We’re definitely fortunate to have that as our home field.”
Every other team in the majors has already played at least three home games. The Braves have played none, which was largely by design: they wanted to open on the road to have time to work out any problems that arose at the new ballpark from a trial-run exhibition game March 31 against the Yankees.
If they’d known they would have to play in chilly, damp weather against the Mets’ trio of aces and snowy weather in a day game at Pittsburgh after a night game at New York, well, maybe the Braves would have preferred a different schedule. Or, just six on the road instead of eight.
But it is what it is, and after playing only seven home games in April they’ll have a generally favorable home-road split the rest of the way that includes 16 home games in May, 17 in June, 17 in August and 16 in September (only eight in July).
During their 2-6 start, I’ve noticed three aspects of the Braves’ play have raised the most concerns among fans: inconsistent bullpen, shaky defense and stagnant offense. The latter was particularly disappointing to many, given how the Braves’ lineup had clicked in the second half of the 2016 season, when offense was the biggest reason for the Braves’ 50-47 record in their final 97 games and 20 wins in their last 30.
The Braves currently rank 14h in the NL in runs per game (3.38) and last in walks (20), and they’re batting .247 (tied for sixth in NL) with a .310 OBP (ninth) and .413 slugging percentage (seventh).
In the second half of the 2016 season the Braves were fourth in the NL in scoring, fourth in walks, tied for second in batting average (.277), fourth in slugging (.428) and had a league-best .346 OBP that was eight points higher than any other NL team.
“It feels like a really long road trip,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said before the finale at Miami. “Starting off against the pitching that we’ve faced, it just hasn’t been an easy challenge. But I feel like hitters are grinding and battling and having good at-bats, we just haven’t been able to get the hit with men in scoring position to get us over the hump. But I like where we’re at. Obviously more runs scored would be huge; that’s every day. But getting home is going to be really good.
“I wish we were coming home with a better record to get the fans more excited, but I think what they saw last year at the end of the year, the way this club plays, I think they’re playing the same way, we just haven’t gotten those big hits yet.”
Yes, the Braves have been without Matt Kemp for the past four games, and he’d been their hottest hitter before injuring a hamstring and going on the 10-day DL (he’s expected back on Wednesday). But Kemp’s absence hasn’t been the reason for the Braves’ statistical malaise, much of which stemmed from facing the Mets’ Big 3 starters in the opening series and just not getting the timely hits throughout the trip, after putting so many runners on base when a hit or two would’ve made the difference between losing and winning.
Before getting some of those run-scoring hits including three homers in the road-trip finale, the Braves had endured a painful stretch of hitting with runners in scoring position and had a .183 average (11-for-60) in that category.
“We’re giving ourselves a chance every night,” rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “Situational hitting just hasn’t been as precise as we want it. Even sometimes where we don’t turn a double play here or don’t make a play here. It just seems to snowball a little bit. But nothing’s really gotten out of control. We’ve been in every game, had a chance with, like, one swing to make it a tie game or put ourselves right back in it.
“Obviously we wish our record was better, but we feel confident with where we’re at. It’s not like we’re just getting our doors blown off every time we go out there and we’re overmatched. We’re playing hard, playing the game the right way, just the breaks haven’t gone our way, versus how it could.”
Now they’re at home for a stretch, playing in warm weather, coming off a win at Miami and a day off to get unpacked and get some sleep in their own beds. For Swanson, it’ll be a chance for a reunion with his dog and to get familiar with the house he bought before spring training. It’s about 15-20 minutes north of SunTrust Park, near Kennesaw.
“When you start out on the road for so long, you just want to be home,” Swanson said Wednesday at Miami. “Like, missing my dog. I’ve been (at spring training) for six weeks, then I come home for, like, three days, and then we’re gone again. I feel like I haven’t even been home. Especially like my new house and friends and all that, you just want to be home, sleep in your own bed, having the comfort of waking up and going to the park and being in your routine.”
Playing in the same ballpark for the next seven games, their new ballpark, in Georgia weather, in their new batting cages and on their new field. All of that sounded a bit like heaven to the Braves after their chilly stays in New York and Pittsburgh. And though they didn’t mention it, I will: Facing Padres pitching for the next four games has got to be a welcome relief after some of the arms they faced on the trip, particularly those Mets starters.
“It’ll be real good,” Seitzer said of the homestand. “Not to make excuses, but facing the pitches that we’ve seen — there’s no preparation for that in spring training, because No. 1, you’re not facing those guys the majority of your at-bats, and No. 2, if you do they’re not bringing their A-game stuff because they’re working on things getting ready. So it’s kind of a crash course right into it once the bell rings to start the season. Personally, I would rather face guys like this early to get guys more ready quicker to go up against the rest of baseball. Because every night we go out they’re we’re facing frontline pitching, whether it’s the starters or the relievers.”
If the Braves could win, say, three of four against the Padres, they’d be 5-7 before facing their NL East rivals, the Nationals. Not a good record, but a lot better than the 1-6 start.
“We’ll keep battling,” Seitzer said before Wednesday’s win. “We’re seven games in, there’s no reason to panic. If guys were flat and not playing hard, that’d be one thing. But they’re playing their nuts off and I’m tickled about everything except our record and what we’re hitting with runners in scoring position.”
In the clubhouse, the vibe has been entirely different than a year ago when the Braves started out 0-9 and were blown out in many of those games.
“Not only were we not hitting with runners in scoring position, we just weren’t hitting the ball (early in 2016),” Seitzer said. “And that’s where we started coming the second half where the hits starting falling with guys in scoring position. What I keep a keen eye out for is if guys change in big situations, in big at-bats like that. And I don’t see any change. I see pitchers making pitches, us putting ABs together, but we’re not getting any hits out of it. As long as they’re not freaking out and stressing out in those situations, there’s just nothing you can do – you keep working, keep preparing and going after it.”
And for the next seven games, going after it at home, in brand spanking-new digs.
• Here’s an older tune from my man Jason Isbell, one of the best songwriters in a generation and also a huge Braves fan. Look for him tonight in a special commercial on Fox Sports South’s broadcast.
“STOPPING BY” by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Driving to a baseball game on a Friday afternoon
Hotter than hell in Atlanta, Georgia.
I guess it’s been fifteen years since I came through here
Probably should have called to warn you.
But I’m stopping by. I’m stopping by, Daddy.
How did your life turn out? Do you ever think about
a teenage girl in Chattanooga?
You ever tell your folks the truth?
That might’ve been the last of you.
Would’ve been a shame. We hardly knew ya.
Now I’m stopping by. I’m stopping by, Daddy.
I think the best of me’s still standing in the doorway
Counting cars and counting days and counting years
I could say you made me go through life the hard way
But it might’ve been worse if you were here.
Looking through a picture book. There’s one I think my momma took.
You couldn’t have been much over twenty.
Shirtless in your cutoff jeans, you hand a lollipop to me.
I probably asked where you got the money.
A picture on another page. I recognize my eyes have aged.
I’d been alone for quite a while then.
Trying to get a match to burn. Waiting on a latch to turn.
I still have difficulty smiling.
But I’m stopping by. I’m stopping by, Daddy.
I think the best of me’s still standing in the doorway.
Whatever’s left is headed south on 85.
Passing families on vacation headed your way.
They look so happy and alive, and I’m stopping by, Daddy.