Trip went on forever, Braves’ Suzuki never cooled off

 

How long was the Braves’ road trip? Longer than “the Mooch” lasted in the White House. Literally.

Kurt Suzuki hit seven home runs in just 40 plate appearances in July. (AP Photo)

Anthony Scaramucci was introduced as White House communications director at a July 21 press conference on the morning of the Braves’ second game at Dodger Stadium, the first stop on their three-city trip. Before the Braves completed the final game of the trip Monday at Philadelphia, Scaramucci had been removed as communications director and reportedly escorted off the White House grounds.

The Trip That Wouldn’t End lasted longer than Scaramucci — and featured almost as dramatic a downward trajectory for the Braves, with few exceptions. Most notable among those exceptions: Kurt Suzuki, who homered in the first game of the trip, homered Monday in the last game of the trip and homered three times in-between despite starting fewer than half the games on the trip and missing three of four games at L.A. to attend his grandmother’s funeral in his native Hawaii.

More on Suzuki and his remarkable July power surge in a moment.

The Bravos and their fans had grand thoughts after winning the first two games of the trip at Los Angeles, snapping the Dodgers’ 11-game winning streak, handing All-Star Alex Wood his first loss of the season in the worst performance of his career, and beating the Dodgers twice as many times in two nights as the team with the majors’ best record was beaten in its previous 19 home games (18-1) and half as many times as the Dodgers were beaten in the previous 35 games (31-4).

But then the Braves won just once more in the remaining nine games on the trip. A 3-8 trip that began 2-0.

They lost the last two games in L.A., lost two of three at Arizona, and got swept in a four-game series at Philadelphia by a Phillies team that’s played a lot better the last couple of weeks but still has the worst record in the majors.

The Braves, after batting .316 with four homers, 18 runs and a .900 OPS in the first two games at L.A., hit .238 with 32 runs and a .708 OPS in the remaining nine games on the trip, though they did have 10 homers in that 1-8 stretch.

They hit a decent number of home runs, but were awful with runners in scoring position after those first couple of games in L.A. They went from scoring 18 runs in the first two games at Dodger Stadium to scoring 32 runs in the remaining nine games on the trip. And while the Braves were averaging just 3.56 runs per game in that 1-8 stretch their pitchers posted a 6.31 ERA and gave up 18 homers and a .912 opponents’ OPS over nine games.

That’s a recipe for disaster, and the rest of the trip — after those promising first two days at L.A. – was pretty much just that. With the notable exception of Suzuki, who continued and capped one of the most productive months of the former All-Star’s 11-year major league career.

The 33-year-old catcher hit .356 with eight homers and 14 RBIs in just 45 plate appearances and 11 games (1o starts) in July, for a jaw-dropping .911 slugging percentage and 1.267 OPS. Half of his 16 hits in July were home runs, and Suzuki gave a lot of the credit to Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer.

“I’ve been working with Seitz, trying to just be tension-free, not trying to do too much and just kind of let your hands do the work and be in-sych with everything,” he said. “Everything’s kind of clicking right now; it feels good.”

For the season, Suzuki has 12 homers in 180 plate appearances (158 at-bats), just three homers shy of the career-best 15 he hit in 614 plate appearances (also a career high) in 2009 with Oakland, when he was 25 and in his third MLB  season.

He has 12 in 180 PAs in 2017 after hitting eight homers in 373 PAs in 2016, five in 479 PAs in 2015 and three in 503 PAs in his 2014 All-Star season with Minnesota.

Suzuki didn’t walk at all in July but only struck out five times. Yes, he had more homers than strikeouts for the month, another stat you won’t see often these days. Eight homers in 45 at-bats in July from a guy who’s listed at 5 feet 11 and 205 pounds.

“He’s got some hand speed,” Seitzer said. “He’s got real good leverage and uses his legs — he stays closed and stays short and inside the ball, and I mean those hands just snap through. It’s real impressive. I’m real happy for him. I don’t know how many times he hit two homers in a game in his career before now.”

Kurt Suzuki hit this two-run homer at Dodger Stadium in the first game of the trip, and hit four more before the trip was over. He had five homers in five starts on the 11-game trip. (AP photo)

When I told that Suzuki’s pair of two-homer games in July matched his previous entire career total, Seitzer laughed. “That’s crazy. And what, he surpassed his home run total from last year in like 200 less at-bats or something?”

I then mentioned to Seitzer that Suzuki had as many homers as ex-Brave Evan Gattis has this season, in 75 fewer plate appearances than the thick, powerfully built Astros catcher/first baseman/DH. (Since the time I mentioned it last week, “Zuke” surpassed him by one homer.)

“Is that right?” Seitzer said, smiling and looking incredulous. “That’s crazy.”

Suzuki has a .266 batting average and .532 slugging percentage this season, which is 111 points higher than he’s ever slugged in a season. His .872 OPS this season is 137 points better than his career high as an Oakland rookie in 2007.

His OPS this season is also 145 points above what he posted in his All-Star season in 2014, when Suzuki hit .288 with 34 doubles, three homers and a career-best .345 OBP in 131 games. He has a .341 OBP now, albeit in a fraction of the PAs.

Suzuki shares duties with Tyler Flowers, though not evenly – Flowers’s 62 starts is nearly 50 percent more than Suzuki’s 41, and Suzuki hadn’t started consecutive games since mid-April until he started the last two games of the trip Sunday and Monday.

“Snit’s done a real good job of rotating the catching time to where they’re both staying fresh, not getting beat down in the heat,” Seitzer said. “They’re both doing a tremendous job. That’s a big thing, during a course of 162 usually one guy steps up more than the other and you end up tending to wearing him down just to get something offensively. But these guys have both been clicking all year, so it’s good.

“I couldn’t be more happy for him and Flow (Flowers), the seasons they’ve been putting together. When you bring offense with the catching position as well as game-calling, it’s good.

No one could have predicted this level of production from Suzuki, not before the season and certainly not nearly six weeks into the season. He played 19 games in that period and after a May 14 loss to Miami he was hitting .204 with one homer, a .286 slugging percentage and a .624 OPS in 49 at-bats.

In 30 games since, Suzuki has hit .294 with a whopping 11 home runs in 109 at-bats, with 25 RBIs, a .342 OBP, .642 slugging percentage and .984 OPS. Yes, a .984 OPS over 30 games in a 2 ½-month span from a veteran who was unsigned free agent before hooking up with the Braves on a one-year, $1.5 million deal just three weeks before spring training.

So what happened? Where did the huge midseason progress come from?

“Early on when he kind of hit a skid – I mean, this was early in the season, he kind of got off to a slow start – in spring training I saw him being a little bit long, and BP (batting practice) swings were a little different than his game swings,” Seitzer said. “And we talked about finishing with two hands as opposed to releasing with his top hand. So we started working on that, and he mentioned a few times how hot he got last year — was just crushing balls, homers and everything — and I said, well let’s go watch video and see what it looked like. So we just saw a couple of things, like getting tension out of his upper body and really loosening his arms and using his hands more, because he gets real violent (with his swing), real tight and violent because he’s a real aggressive guy.

“So we started focusing on getting him loosened up, and I mean it just – oh my gosh, he’s looked pretty much the rest of the season like he looked last year during that real hot stretch where he was hitting bombs and going crazy. So he’s in a really good place. It’s like when he misses a fastball we’re like, what the heck, that should have been in the seats.”

Here’s one from arguably the greatest “supergroup” ever assembled, The Highwaymen. Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Here doing a classic written by Robert Earl Keen.

The Highwaymen

“THE ROAD GOES ON FOREVER” by The Highwaymen

[Kristofferson:]
Sherry was a waitress,
At the only joint in town.
She had a reputation,
As a girl who’d been around.
Down Main Street after midnight,
With a brand new pack of cigs.
A fresh one hanging from her lips,
A beer between her legs.
She’d ride down to the river,
And meet with all her friends.
[Group:]
The road goes on forever
And the party never ends

[Nelson:]
Sonny was a loner,
Bolder than the rest.
He was goin’ in the Navy,
But he couldn’t pass the test.
So he hung around town,
And he sold a little pot.
The law got wind of Sonny,
And one day he got caught.
But he was back in business,
When they set him free again.
[Group:]
The road goes on forever.
And the party never ends.

[Jennings:]
Sonny’s playin’ eight ball,
At the joint where Sherry works.
Some drunken out-of-towner,
Put his hand up Sherry’s skirt.
Sonny took his pool cue,
Laid the drunk out on the floor.
Stuffed a dollar in her tip jar,
Walked out of the door.
She’s runnin’ right behind him,
Reachin’ for his hand.
[Group:]
The road goes on forever.
And the party never ends.

[Cash:]
They jumped into his pick-up,
Sonny jammed her down in gear.
Sonny looked at Sherry,
Said, “Let’s get on out of here.”
The stars were high above them.
The moon was in the east.
The sun was setting on them,
When they reached Miami Beach.
They got a motel by the water,
And a quart of Bombay Gin.
[Group:]
The road goes on forever.
And the party never ends.

[Kristofferson:]
They soon ran out of money.
But Sonny knew a man.
Who knew some Cuban refugees,
Who dealt in contraband.
Sonny met the Cuban,
In a house just off the route.
With a briefcase full of money,
And a pistol in his boot.
The cards were on the table,
When the law came bustin’ in.
[All 4:]
The road goes on forever.
And the party never ends.

[Nelson:]
The Cubans grabbed the goodies,
Sonny grabbed the jack.
He broke the bathroom window,
And climbed on out the back.
Sherry drove the pick-up,
Through the alley on the side.
Where the lawman tackled Sonny,
And was reading him his rights.
She stepped out in the alley,
With a single-shot four-ten.
[Group:]
The road goes on forever.
And the party never ends.

[Jennings:]
They left the lawman dyin’,
And they made their get away.
Got back to the motel,
Just before the break of day.
Sonny gave her all the money,
And he blew a little kiss.
If they ask you how this happened,
Say I forced you into this.
She watched him as his tail lights,
Disappeared around the bend.
[Group:]
The road goes on forever.
And the party never ends.

[Cash:]
There’s a main street after midnight.
Just like it was before.
Twenty-one months later,
At the local grocery store,
Sherry buys a paper,
And a cold six-pack of beer.
The headlines read that Sonny,
Is going to the chair.
She pulls back onto main street,
In her new Mercedes-Benz.

[Group:]
The road goes on forever.
And the party never ends.

 

 

 

 


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