It might have gone unnoticed, if a couple of reporters hadn’t been there for Tim Hudson’s rehab start last night at Gwinnett. What we’re talking about were the couple of familiar guys down front, Brian McCann and Adam LaRoche, there to watch their teammate pitch.
Might have gone unnoticed, but fortunately it did not. Because this is the kind of thing that speaks volumes about McCann and LaRoche. It says something that the two of them, both married and with other things to do on a precious late-season Braves off day, went out to the Gwinnett ballpark to see Huddy pitch.
Anyone who isn’t quite sure what all the Braves meant when they talked about what a great guy LaRoche was in the clubhouse after the team traded for him last month, well, this was a little example. Dude’s a great teammate. He might not even be back with the Braves next season, might just be here for a few months, but he cared enough about the team and about Hudson to go see him pitch in one of his final rehab starts.
And you better believe that Hudson noticed, and that he appreciated it. For a guy making multiple rehab starts at the end of a long recovery from major surgery, having a couple of big-league teammates show up to support your effort is big stuff. It can buoy the spirits, remind you that you’re part of the team, that guys care about you and they want you to get back.
As for McCann, it was another example of what Matt Diaz was talking about when he told me Wednesday that McCann has become the leader of this team. If you missed the quote, this was it:
“I don’t think anyone would deny, McCann’s the leader of this team,” Diaz said. “Even though he’s a young guy, he’s our leader. At the position he’s in, catcher, it calls for it. He commands our pitching staff, even though most of them are older than him. And all of us as hitters respect what he’s able to do, day in and day out.”
He added: “To have a young leader like that in place, and go about his business the way he goes about his business, really helps the chemistry of our team.”
So there they were last night, McCann and LaRoche, in the front row at a Triple-A game. Hudson gave up a couple of runs and two hits in the first inning, then pitched impressively for the rest of his four-inning stint.
He’s got two or three more starts, probably, before he’s activated. And now that we’re in mid-August, it seems apparent the Braves are going to wait until rosters can be expanded on Sept. 1 to make the move.
That will give Hudson time to regain some more arm strength and continue working to polish his pitches before he’s activated, and then a solid month in a pennant race to make an impact for the Braves, in whatever role they decide to use him in.
He was reportedly touching 91-93 mph on the radar gun last night, but what I thought was even more encouraging was that he threw a bunch of biting split-finger pitches. As most of you probably know, pitchers say the split is one of the hardest pitches to throw for a guy with a sore elbow, and a pitch that many coming back from elbow surgery are reluctant to throw for fear of the stress it will put on the surgically repaired ligament.
But Hudson is throwing his split, and throwing it well. It appears he’s largely past the mental hurdles as well as the physical ones, without any real setbacks in terms of scar-tissue tearing or any of the other situations that sometimes delay a pitcher’s return by a few weeks or months.
Will the Braves pick up his $12 million option for 2010? Will he agree (it’s a mutal option) to it if they do exercise the option? I don’t know. I don’t know if the Braves or Hudson know just yet. They presumably won’t make that decision until after they see what he does in major league games, I’m fairly certain of that.
Then they’ll have to decide, can they afford to pay about $46 million for four starters in 2010: Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, Hudson and Kenshin Kawakami. That will probably be close to half fo the total team payroll, which is why I tend to doubt the Braves would do that.
And if they don’t, who goes? Lowe and Kawakami’s contracts, particularly Lowe’s, might be difficult to move in this economy, if the Braves wanted to part with one of them this winter. Vazquez’s contract, with one year left at $11.5 million, would be quite easy to move, and the Braves could use him to fill another need, such as a power bat, in the process.
But I think they’ll need to feel confident that Hudson can give them something at least close to what Vazquez would give them in 2010 before they’d make the move, before they’d trade Vazquez. On the other hand, look at his career stats and tell me, how many of you believe Vazquez will repeat this year’s superb performance in 2010?
His value might never be higher. If you hang onto him and then, for whatever reason, try to trade him at the 2010 non-waiver deadline, Vazquez will be a pending free agent and not have nearly as much value as he does not. And that’s not even taking into consideration what kind of numbers he’ll put up next season prior to the deadline.
Decisions, decisions. They can all wait, and will have to wait.
♣ First things first: Because in the meantime, the Braves have a lot of baseball to play, including a series against the Phillies that begins tonight and might well be the biggest series the Braves have played in a few years.
We say that because, while they’ve had some highly anticipated series in recent seasons, the Braves have never gone into one on the kind of roll they’re on now, with the confidence brimming like it is now, and for good reason.
Their 26-14 record since June 28 is tied for best in the National League. Tied with … yes, the Phillies.
The NL East-leading Phillies have a five-game margin over the Braves (and 4-1/2 games over the Marlins), and the Braves know that there’s no better opportunity to cut into that lead than in head-to-head matchups.
The Braves are 7-2 against the Phillies this season, after going 4-14 (and winless at home) against them in 2008. So they know they can beat them now, because they have.
And after taking the last three games of their four-game series at Dodger Stadium last week, the Braves look and sound like an entirely different team than Braves squads of recent seasons before a big series. They look you in the eye now and say they’re ready, that they aren’t worried about the opponent, just about playing their game.
They really believe if they do that, with their steady starting pitching, they can win a series against anyone.
I asked McCann if the Braves were conscious of not getting too geeked up for this series, like they seemed to be for a few notable big July or August series against the Mets and Phillies in recent seasons.
”We’re not even looking at it like that,” he said. “We’re looking at it like, we’ve just got to keep playing good baseball, keep getting good pitching and timely hits. If we keep doing that we’re going to be there. We’re going to be there until the end.”
On the significant of that Dodgers series, he said, “It gave us a lot of confidence. Playing the team with the [then] best record in baseball, to come out of there winning three of four, to me, so far, it’s been the biggest series of the season.”
♣ Rollin’ since break: Since the All-Star break, Braves hitters are third in the NL with a .280 average, tied for second with a .357 OBP, fourth in runs (138), and second in homers (36), one more than the Phillies (35) have since the break?
Remember when this Braves team’s power (or lack thereof) was an embarrassment early on?
Meanwhile, their pitchers have continued to excel, and their 3.03 team ERA since the break is far better than the NL’s next-best (Philly, 3.41; Giants, 3.52).
For the season, the Braves rank third in the NL in ERA (3.69) behind the Giants and Dodgers, and Braves starters are second (3.64) behind the Giants (3.55).
”We owe them a lot for how they’ve been all season, to keep us in it like they have,” McCann said of the starters. “Now we’re starting to swing the bats, too.”
The Phillies are 11-10 in their past 21 games, and haven’t been hitting like the Phillies we’re used to seeing. On Thursday, they completed a three-game sweep of the Cubs, immediately after being swept in three by the Marlins.
The Phillies hit just .212 with two homers while being swept at home by Florida, and hit .235 in sweeping the Cubs at Wrigley.
The biggest difference: Their 2.10 ERA vs. the Cubs, after a 6.67 ERA vs. the Marlins.
However, the Phillies’ bats also awakened with 24 hits and five homers in the last two games against the Cubs.
I asked McCann about the Phillies being a team capable of an offensive explosion at any moment, regardless of how they’ve been hitting. He answered calmly, assuredly.
”They’ve got a great lineup,” he said. “And getting Cliff Lee makes them that much better. But, you know, we’ve got a good team as well.
”It’s gonna come down to the last couple weeks of the season.”
The Braves will avoid facing Lee in this series, after he pitched a gem against the Cubs yesterday.
Oh, by the way: The Braves’ last 19 games of the season are against NL East opponents, including three apiece against the Phillies and Marlins, six against the Mets, and seven (of the final 10) against the Nationals.
♣ OK, gotta go. Riding to the ballpark today on the bike, and need to move my stuff from my case to my backpack. While I’m thinking about it, listen to the new self-titled debut CD by Spinnerette, the new band fronted by heavily tattooed (and sexy) Distillers singer/guitarist Brody Dalle, with others including Jack Irons (Pearl Jam). It’s a great album, reminds me of Hole’s good album, Live Through This, before Courtney Love went completely off the tracks.
Let’s take this out with a gem from our favorite Athens/Muscle Shoals outfit, and here’s a couple of clips from it, one a sort of cool, arty thing, and the other a blistering live performance.
“A GHOST TO MOST” by Drive-By Truckers (Mike Cooley)
I guess I’ll never grow a sideburn
it’s a shame with all I’ve got to go between
I hope somebody’s cause takes soon
it’s getting hard to find a place a root can sink
Mama said a lot of things and ‘be thankful’ was the one she never minded saying twice
Thanks to her I can think clear enough,
to be thankful that she died before tonight
Saving everybody takes a man on a mission
with a swagger that can set the world at ease
Some believe it’s God’s own hand on the trigger
and the other dumping water in the streets
Talking tough is easy when it’s other people’s evil
and you’re judging what they do or don’t believe
It seems to me you’d have to have a hole you’re own
to point a finger at somebody else’s sheet
Baby every bone in my body’s gone to jumping
like they’re gonna come through my skin
If they could get along without the rest of me, it wouldn’t matter if they did
But skeletons ain’t got nowhere to stick they’re money
nobody makes britches that size
and besides you’re a ghost to most before they notice,
that you ever had a hair or a hide
I don’t know how good it does a man,
to keep on telling him how good it is he’s free
free to wash his ghost down the drain,
and free for them to tell him there’s no such a thing