Before anyone gets too giddy about the Braves’ 17 wins in 25 games since the nine-game skid (including 12-4 in the last 16), or the fact that they have the most runs and most walks in the NL in May, or that Friday Night Lights is just as terrific after Coach Taylor’s move to East Dillon, keep in mind the Braves still rank last in the league in average (.219) and OPS (.631) against lefties.
And they’ll face three lefty starters in the next three days.
OK, so maybe that is offset somewhat by the fact that those lefties pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates, losers of 12 of their past 18, and two of those starters have ERAs of 4.47 (Zach Duke, tonight’s starter) and 5.40 (Brian Burres, Saturday’s starter).
Speaking of tonight, it’s a good matchup: Duke has a 2.22 ERA and three quality starts in his past four, including seven innings with no earned runs in a no-decision in a 3-2, 10-inning win against the Braves last Sunday. He faces Derek Lowe, who last Saturday improved to 8-0 in eight starts against Pittsburgh.
The third Pirates lefty, Sunday starter Paul Maholm, will bring a 3.98 ERA into Sunday’s series finale against winless Kenshin Kawakami, who usually gets zero to two support runs when he’s in games, and rarely more.
So don’t start thinking sweep and looking ahead. Don’t be like some talking heads I’ve heard speculating about how the Braves could be in first place on Memorial Day when the Phillies arrive for a big three-game series in Atlanta.
But yes, I would allow that there’s good possibility the Braves might be only a half-game or their current 1-1/2 games behind the Phillies when that series begins. Especially given the current state of the Phillies, who are in steamy South Florida for a three-game series against the Marlins this weekend.
It’s important they make the most of the opportunity, because the Braves start an 11-games-in-11-days trip after the Phillies leave town. Longest roadie of the year for the Bravos, who’ve played well lately on the road as well as at home.
As you might have heard, the banged-up Phillies not only have lost five in a row, but have been shut out in four of those five, including being outscored 16-0 in the past three nights by the New York Mets. Yes, 16-0.
Those of you who still don’t see the Phillies as a little bit vulnerable or the Braves as legitimate contenders, I can only guess that you are entirely dismissive of the baseball played over the past few weeks.
That you, for whatever reason, are doing your evaluating based strictly on April, when the Braves were rather horrid offensively, and not on May, when they’ve been one of the league’s best teams in several key offensive categories, including first in runs )136) and walks (109), second in OBP (.359) and average (.271), and fourth in slugging (.423).
It’s been an utter reversal for a team that in April ranked last in the league in average (.227), 15th in slugging (.342) and homers (15), and 14th in runs (85). They still aren’t a big homer team, but their 23 homers in May is right in the middle of the pack, eighth in the NL.
♣ Which is the real Braves offense? That’s what I’ve been asked a lot lately. Are they as bad as they were in April, or as good as they’ve been in May.
Well, I’d say their talent certainly should put the Braves a lot closer to their May numbers than April.
For those cynics who’d dismiss the Braves’ May numbers as a product of facing poor pitching, well, then were the April numbers a result of facing most of the league’s best pitching, including San Francisco, San Diego, Colorado, St. Louis and the Phillies?
Among its May opponents, Atlanta has faced the Phillies, Reds and Marlins, three of the six teams with better ERAs than the Braves for the month.
Which brings us to another point – the Braves’ overall pitching hasn’t been as good as expected entering the season. The bullpen’s met or surpassed expectations, but the starting rotation has not. Tim Hudson has been exceptional, and so has Tommy Hanson more often than not.
But Lowe has been mediocre, Kawakami is winless, and Jair Jurrjens, who had the third-best ERA in the league last season, has been hurt for most of the first two months of the season, after being hurt for much of spring training.
Whatever the Braves have gotten from their starting rotation as a whole so far, I’d guess they’ll get as good or a little better during the rest of the season, with the eventual return of Jurrjens.
As for the bullpen, it’s really good. And barring a big injury or two, it’ll stay good, particularly if they get anything from Scott Proctor. Proven guys at the back, and some outstanding youngsters mixed in. Maybe Chris Resop will fit in, either as a long man or in the rotation, if the Braves want to move Kris Medlen back to the ‘pen until Jurrjens returns.
♣ Still not firing on all cylinders: Here’s the main reason I don’t think the Braves’ May numbers are an aberration, and their April numbers were.
While they had an unusual case of nearly everyone except Martin Prado and Jason Heyward hitting either slightly or grossly below expectatations in April, the Braves have had only a couple of guys hitting at a level that you might consider to be “above their heads” in May.
Meanwhile, they still have several guys, including some key cogs, who’ve either still not done much of anything all season, or have just gotten going in recent days or weeks.
Most notable among the hopeful signs were Yunel Escobar back-to-back two-hit games Wednesday and Thursday in his adopted hometown of Miami.
Escobar was an alarming 10-for-73 (.137) with no RBI and as many errors (three) as extra-base hits in a 22-game skid before going 4-for-6 with a double, two RBI, three walks and no strikeouts in the past two games, his first consecutive multi-hit games of the season.
If he gets it going, we’ve seen him go a long way in carrying the offense for stretches of games in the past. This is a guy I voted as the team MVP a year ago, and someone the Braves were expecting a lot from this season. Still are.
Then there’s Melky Cabrera, who isn’t going to fuel the offense or anthing, but can certainly be a decent role player if he hits like he has lately.
He’s 9-for-18 in his past seven games, with a double, homer and two RBI in the past five. This from a guy who hit .193 with four doubles, no homers and a .509 OPS in 38 games before that.
One could argue that no Braves hitter is more important than Brian McCann, whose April struggles played a big role in the team’s anemic offense. He’s looked like himself in the past couple of weeks, and for that the Braves are thankful.
McCann is 16-for-50 (.320; I probably didn’t need to figure that one, huh?) with three homers, nine RBIs and a .906 OPS in his past 12 games (team record, 9-3), after hitting .175 with no homers, three RBIs and a .540 OPS in his previous 18 games (team record, 7-11).
He really is crucial to the equation, and he carries himself a little differently when he’s doing his usual thing, as opposed to when he was slumping and struggling with the vision situation. The team feeds off him when he’s going good.
A couple of others are still struggling however, unless you’re of the school that says Chipper Jones‘ OBP and walks overshadow all else. (If you are, why?)
Chipper is 25-for-109 (.229) with 10 doubles, no homers, nine runs, 11 RBIs and 29 walks in his past 34 games, which works out to a still-strong .388 OBP but a .321 slugging percentage. That’s not a sturdy .709 OPS.
Looking for positives, he’s got four RBI in his past six games, with a couple of two-hit games in that stretch.
Then there’s Nate McLouth. Oh, my. So much for recent signs of progress. He went 1-for-17 on the six-game trip, with five strikeouts and two walks. Scored one run, and didn’t start Thursday in the trip finale (Cabrera did).
I’d expect Cox to start going more with Cabrera in center field unless and until McLouth shows some signs of life.
Etc. The hitting machine keeps going. Martin Prado leads the NL in hits (62) and leads the majors in leadoff OBP (.407). After going 2-for-25 (.080) with two runs and one RBI in six games from May 2-May 8, Prado is 25-for-78 (.321) with three homers, 15 runs and 16 RBI in his past 17 games…. All-Star hopeful Jason Heyward is up to third in the NL in OPS at .978, trailing only Jayson Werth (.996) and Alfonso Soriano (.990)…. Another good sign for the Braves was their series win in Florida despite a 1-for-10 series from Eric Hinske. He supplied much of the offense recently when few others were hitting…. The Braves are 7-2 with a 2.57 ERA and 60 runs scored in their past nine road games, after going 5-14 with a 5.02 ERA and 61 runs scored in their first 19 road games. They are 8-2 in their past 10 home games…. With runners in scoring position, the Braves have a league-high .399 OBP and are tied for fourth with a .273 batting average. In the late innings of close games, Atlanta is fourth with a .262 average and first with a .379 OBP.
♣ Diversions: (Warning, from here to end is non-baseball talk, so stop now if you don’t care to read about music and TV. Thanks). If you’re into true country, alt-country or country-rock/folk/whatever, I strongly recommend you procure a copy of Phosphorescent’s Here’s To Taking It Easy, one of the very best CDs I’ve bought this year. From what I understand, the band is essentially Matthew Houck, who raised in Alabama and more recently lived in Athens, Ga. (and now Brooklyn). He’s been recording under the Phosphorescent name with revolving band members for a while now, but this is the first of his albums I’ve bought.
Gonna have to get the earlier ones now, because it’s brilliant. I hear a lot of young Neil Young in him, even some Bob Dylan, plus more recent bands like Iron & Wine. Find it at your local indie record sore. You’ll be glad you did. To me, it’s even better than Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. And that’s high praise.
Speaking of high praise, is this another great time for TV, or what? With Treme, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights and Justified, and Rescue Me about to start a new season, there’s an awful lot of terrific dramas on the tube. Treme on HBO is another David Simon masterpiece, as richly developed as The Wire, though entirely different. There’s also several outstanding comedies, topped by The Office and Modern Family, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, whenever it returns….
Let’s close this with some classic Iggy Pop, and this great video montage someone did to accompany the song.
“THE PASSENGER” by Iggy Pop
I am the passenger and I ride and I ride
I ride through the city’s backsides
I see the stars come out of the sky
Yeah, the bright and hollow sky
You know it looks so good tonight
I am the passenger
I stay under glass
I look through my window so bright
I see the stars come out tonight
I see the bright and hollow sky
Over the city’s ripped backsides
And everything looks good tonight
Singing la la la la la.. lala la la, la la la la.. lala la la etc
Get into the car
We’ll be the passenger
We’ll ride through the city tonight
We’ll see the city’s ripped backsides
We’ll see the bright and hollow sky
We’ll see the stars that shine so bright
Stars made for us tonight
Oh, the passenger
How, how he rides
Oh, the passenger
He rides and he rides
He looks through his window
What does he see?
He sees the sign and hollow sky
He sees the stars come out tonight
He sees the city’s ripped backsides
He sees the winding ocean drive
And everything was made for you and me
All of it was made for you and me
‘Cause it just belongs to you and me
So let’s take a ride and see what’s mine
Singing la la la la.. lala la la [x3]
Oh the passenger
He rides and he rides
He sees things from under glass
He looks through his window side
He sees the things that he knows are his
He sees the bright and hollow sky
He sees the city sleep at night
He sees the stars are out tonight
And all of it is yours and mine
And all of it is yours and mine
So let’s ride and ride and ride and ride
Oh, oh, Singing la la la la lalalala