Fort Lauderdale — I’m gonna bet most of you aren’t aware that today marks the one-month anniversary.
One month since the Braves started playing a more consistent brand of baseball that’s made them a legitimate wild-card contender.
On June 28, Tommy Hanson pitched six scoreless innings in a 2-1 win against Boston as the Braves avoided being swept by the Red Sox and began a 25-game stretch that’s seen them post a 17-8 record while batting .293 with 30 homers and posting a 3.06 ERA.
That’s the second-best record in the NL during that span.
Unfortunately for the Braves, the best record in that period belongs to NL East frontrunner (and defending World Series champion) Philadelphia, which has made a habit of second-half surgest in recent seasons.
The Phils are 18-6 since June 28, with a .282 average, 34 homers and a 3.38 ERA.
It’s important to note that the Braves have scored at least four runs in 17 of their past 24 games since that 2-1 win against Boston on June 28, because they obvioiusly wouldn’t be on this run if they had kept relying so heavily on pitching alone.
They’ve averaged nearly 5.4 runs since June 28, while the Phillies have averaged 6.0 runs.
The good news for Atlanta, of course, is that the Phillies’ performance has served as a daily reminder to the Braves that they can’t afford to take a series or even a single game off, if they’re to have any real chance of ending their three-year postseason drought.
And as long as they keep the pedal pressed in the pursuit of the Phillies, the Braves keep gaining ground on the wild-card leaders. They’re fourth in the NL wild-card standings today, three games behind Colorado, two behind San Francisco and 1-1/2 behind St. Louis, which added Matt Holliday to its lineup, assuring that Sir Albert, aka El Hombre, should see more pitches to hit.
It won’t be easy to overtake all three of those teams, or the Phillies, which is why it’s imperative Braves have to keep playing this level of balanced baseball and avoid serious injuries to their key guys. I know, that’s obvious. But it’s also true.
The offense is finally clicking, and the pitching has continued to hum along, though you might want to raise an eyebrow in concern over the mounting appearance totals for the Braves’ top relievers.
With that in mind, it was no surprise to learn that the Braves have expressed interest in Oakland right-handed reliever Michael Wuertz, who is 5-1 with a 3.23 ERA in 45 appearances, and has amassed 62 strikeouts with only 13 walks in 47-1/3 innings. The Braves’ interest was first report by Ken Rosenthal at FoxSports.com.
They’re exploring all options in hopes of adding a reliever with a reasonable salary that won’t cost them too much in the way of young talent in return. Wuertz, 30, is making $1.1 million this year and is again eligible for arbitration after the season.
Why an arm instead of a bat? Because, as you’ve probably noticed, the Braves’ lineup has been far more functional and productive since they moved Martin Prado into the 2-hole, dropped team Player of the Year candidate Yunel Escobar to a middle-order RBI position, and gotten steadily increasing production from the likes of Garret Anderson and Casey Kotchman.
No longer entirely reliant upon Chipper Jones and/or Brian McCann to drive the offense in every game, these Braves are playing more relaxed and with confidence, knowing they’re capable of scoring runs late in games and no longer hanging their heads if they get behind by two or three runs early.
They’re jumping on pitchers early and getting runs both by playing better fundamental baseball than they did early (I know, that’s not saying much) and by getting the kind of power they envisioned from a handful of guys.
Braves officials knew they wouldn’t have a 40-homer hitter, but they believed they could make up for it by having a bunch of guys hit 15-25 homers. Lately, that’s what they’ve been seeing.
They are 8-3 with a .304 batting average and 18 homers since the All-Star break, averaging six runs in that stretch while posting a 2.39 ERA. The’ve scored in double digits three times since the break, and totaled 7, 8 and 9 runs in three other games.
It’s been an all-or-nothing proposition since the break for the Braves, who’ve totaled two runs in their three losses since the Braves, including outputs of one, one and no runs.
They haven’t scored two or three runs in any of their 11 games since returning from the break, and score four runs once.
♣ More about that bullpen: Among NL relievers, the Braves have three of the top six appearance leaders, including Peter Moylan, who’s 14 months removed from Tommy John surgery and tied for the major league lead (with NYM lefty Pedro Feliciano) with 55 appearances.
Of the eight major league relievers with 50 or more appearances, the Braves have three, including lefties Eric O’Flaherty (51) and Mike Gonzalez (50).
To have three of the top six NL appearances leaders and three of the top eight major league appearance leaders — that’s not typical, folks. Needless to say. Not typical at all.
Speaking of Wuertz, he’s tied for seventh in the AL with 45 appearances, and has a 4.40 ERA and .248 opponents’ average in 28 appearances since May 16, after posting a 1.45 ERA and .161 opponents’ average in his first 17 appearances.
At first glance, it’s also alarming to note he has a 0.42 ERA in 20 home games, compared to a 5.61 ERA in 25 road games.
However, five of 16 earned runs he’s allowed on the road, and two of four homers, have come in 1-2/3 innings of two appearances at the bandbox that is new Yankee Stadium. He gave up three runs and two homers there in his most recent appearance on Saturday.
Wuertz has a 2.36 ERA and three homers allowed in 45-2/3 innings at all other ballparks this season, home and road.
His .216 overall opponents’ average and .269 overall opponents’ OBP includes .191/.240 against lefties. He’s been even tougher against them this season than he has been against righties (.233/.288).
After the sixth inning, opponents have hit .192 against him with 51 strikeouts in 130 at-bats.
♣ Compelling matchup tonight: Should be a good one when Jair Jurrjens faces Marlins righty Ricky Nolasco in the series opener at the tragically renamed Land Shark Stadium, the worst of the half-dozen or so names the multi-purpose stadium that’s far, far from South Beach has ever had.
Jurrjens is 3-0 with a 1.37 ERA and .152 opponents’ average in his past three starts, allowing just 10 hits in 19-2/3 innings. Hanley Ramirez is 4-for-12 with three homers against him, including two homers on May 7 that accounted for the only runs against Jurrjens in a game he won.
Nolasco is 5-1 with a 2.75 ERA and .199 opponents’ average in his past eight starts, with 64 strikeouts and 10 walks in 52-1/3 innings. But he’s 0-4 in his past five starts against the Braves, including 0-3 with a 10.57 ERA in three last season (none in 2009). Chipper is 9-for-16 with three homers against him, McCann is 7-for-19 with two homers, and Escobar is 5-for-10 with a homer.
• For the month of July, the Braves lead the majors with a 3.12 ERA and rank second with a .295 team batting average, behind the L.A. Angels (.312). The Braves lead the NL in average, OBP (.372) and slugging (.478) in July, ahead of the Dodgers (.290/.372/.478) in all three. The Braves are second in the NL in homers with 27, behind the Phillies (32)….
• Chipper (.294) isn’t one of the eight Braves hitting over .300 in July, and McCann (.302) isn’t one of the seven hitting over .310. Kelly Johnson (.571) has only seven July at-bats, but four of the over-.310 crowd have done it in more than 60 at-bats, including Escobar (.369 with team-highs of four homers and 19 RBI in July).
•Matt Diaz has hit .370 with a .414 OBP and .537 slugging in 54 at-bats in July.
• McCann is second on the team in RBI for the month with 18 and tied with Jones, Anderson, Kotchman and Nate McLouth for second in homers with three apiece….
“THE DEEPER IN” by Drive-By Truckers (Patterson Hood)
By the time you were born there were four other siblings
with your Mama awaiting your Daddy in jail
Your oldest brother was away at a home
and You didn’t meet him til you was nineteen years old
Old enough to know better, old enough to know better
but you took to his jaw line and long sandy hair
How he made you feel like none off the others
and the way he looked at you touched you deep down in there.
So you jumped on his bike and rode into the sunset
but the sequel it started with the next morning sun
and the dew on the bike seat and you all a glow
from the love he put in you and a life on the run.
Now, the District Attorney said He might of forgiven
You had lots of reasons to turn out this way
But He’ll throw you in jail for them four little babies
you made and delivered along the way
Last night you had a dream about a Lord so forgiving
He might show compassion for a heathen he damned
You awoke in a jail cell, alone and so lonely
Seven years in Michigan