In this often-improbable, heart-palpitating Braves season, here’s an indication of just how superior they are to most opponents after the sixth inning: They have a resounding edge in late-innings stolen bases.
Oh, before we go any further, Martin Prado’s back in the lineup, batting third and playing third.
Braves lineup: 1. Infante 2B, 2. Heyward RF, 3. Prado 3B, 4. Diaz LF, 5. Glaus 1B, 6. Gonzalez SS, 7. Cabrera CF, 8. Ross C, 9. Minor LHP
Now, where were we? Oh, yes, the too-often station-to-station Braves team that ranks 24th in the majors in steals, and ahead of only the Giants and Cubs in the NL, has stolen 32 bases to their opponents’ 19 after the sixth inning.
I use that stat only to underscore how inexplicable but undeniable the Braves’ edge has been in the late innings. If they’re within three runs entering the eighth inning, it’s as if they view it practically as a tie game, theirs for the taking.
Monday night, they did it again. Gave up two unearned runs in the eighth inning to fall behind 3-1, then rallied against a reliever, Dodgers All-Star lefty Hong-Chih Kuo, who came in with the NL’s best ERA and opponents’ average.
“Two runs down, we’ve got a great offense and we have to believe,” said Alex Gonzalez, who began the ninth inning rally with a leadoff bloop single. “All the guys have to believe in themselves, no matter how many runs we get down. It happened tonight, man.”
Gonzalez has only been here a month, but he’s already been part of enough late-innings Braves drama to sense something special percolates in that dugout. These Braves rarely fold in situations where, in recent years, they usually did.
They got three runs in the ninth against Kuo and Octavio Dotel, doing with the grind-it-out at-bats that David Ross spoke about again afterward. Ross was the first batter Dotel faced after Kuo left the game, and Ross drew a full-count walk with bases loaded to cut the lead to 3-2.
Then Cabrera worked the count full before punching an opposite-field single through the left side of the infield to bring in two runs. Just like that, a messy two-run Dodgers eighth inning had been overcome by a Braves three-run ninth, and they had their majors-leading 20th win in their final at-bat.
Not to mention, the Braves were back to 20 wins over .500 for the first time in nearly five years, since they were 90-70 with two games to play in the 2005 season (they finished 90-72 that season, lost the division series against Houston, and haven’t been back to the postseason since).
No one could possibly have seen this coming from these Braves, not after they lost nine in a row in late April to fall to 8-14 and five games off the division.
Since then they are a majors-best 61-35. The Braves have the best home record in baseball at 42-16, while no other team has 40 home wins or fewer than 19 home losses.
After starting out 5-4 at home through April 22 – their only home-series loss was April 20-22 vs. Philly – the Braves are 37-12 with a 2.89 ERA in their past 49 home games.
Those numbers are nuts. How did Turner Field suddenly become such a snake pit for opposing teams? I know it’s hot as hell, especially for day games, but that can’t begin to explain the winning clip the Braves have had at home.
The only things that can are consistent pitching and success breeding more success. Confidence is through the roof with these guys, probably because they won a bunch of games back in May and June at home in dramatic fashion.
They kept doing it, and now it’s to the point where they fully expect to outplay opponents in the late innings, particularly at home.
The Braves lead the majors with 204 runs after the sixth inning, while their opponents have 149. The Braves, who rank 20th in the majors in home runs, have out-homered opponents 37-30 after the sixth inning (Brooks Conrad has seven homers, including one in the seventh inning and six in the eighth inning or later).
Braves pitchers have allowed a .249 average in the first through sixth innings, and a .229 average after the sixth.
Braves hitters have struck out 262 times after the sixth inning, compared to their opponents’ 355 strikeouts. They have a .345 OBP to opponents’ .314 after the sixth, and a .394 slugging percentage to opponents’ .347.
Across the board, the Braves are just better, significantly better, than opponents in the late innings.
And they know it. Which makes the advantage even more pronounced.
♣All aboard the Melky express? The Melky Cabrera bandwagon, as it were, never seemed to pick up many passengers in Braves County from the day he was traded here by the Yankees, in part because he was the only major leaguer who came South in the deal that sent fan-favorite Javy Lopez Vazquez to the Bronx.
The limited number of Melky mavens there were in these parts was further thinned by his dismal early performance, as Cabrera struggled with a .226 average in 54 games through June 6, with one homer, 11 RBIs and a .297 OBP and .283 slugging percentage in 159 at-bats. (A .283 slugging percentage? Yikes.)
Well, things change, folks. And finally, Cabrera seems to be getting some props from fans who’ve need a lot of convincing to believe.
He had the two biggest plays in last night’s win – a throw to cut down Ryan Theriot at the plate trying to tag and score with two out in the eighth inning, and the game-ending hit in the ninth.
“I already gave Cabrera four or five hugs after the game,” said Brooks Conrad, whose eighth-inning throwing error let in two runs and set him up as the game’s goat. Then Cabrera removed the horns.
You’d have thought it was the first good thing Cabrera had done, based on some comments here on the ol’ blog. Well, it wasn’t the first. Fact is, he’s been a pretty solid hitter since the first week of June.
After that dreadful first 54 games, Cabrera has hit .304 with 21 extra-base hits (three triples, three homers) and 22 RBIs in his past 61 games, with a .354 OBP and .459 slugging percentage (.813 OPS) in 194 at-bats over that stretch.
In other words, he’s been pretty good longer than he was pretty awful.
By the way, out of curiosity I looked up what a couple of his former Yankees teammates have done in that same period since June 7. Outfielders Brett Gardner and Johnny Damon, who’s now with Detroit).
Damon has hit .278 with 20 extra-base hits (four homers) and 21 RBIs in 52 games, with a .349 OBP and .433 slugging (.782 OPS).
Gardner has hit .253 with nine extra-base hits (two homers) and 20 RBIs in 56 games, with a .364 OBP and .337 slugging (.701 OPS).
Since June 7, at least, Cabrera has clearly outperformed both of them at the plate, and last night wasn’t the first time he’s displayed his strong, accurate arm.
♣Waiver-claim rumors: Since Chipper Jones was lost to a season-ending knee injury, the Braves have been checking into possible additions via the waiver wire, veteran infielders who could be lineup regulars or, more likely, bench additions.
When the Braves didn’t sign a couple of notable draft picks -– Stefan Sabol and Zach Alvord, a second baseman from South Forsyth near Atlanta — before last night’s deadline, a rumor spread that they had pulled back from both players because they decided to apply that money to pursue a waiver-claim player.
GM Frank Wren refuted that when I asked him about it this morning.
“There is no relationship at all” between the draft picks and the pursuit of waiver-claim player, Wren said in an e-mail. “[The Braves] offered Sabol a good package this weekend and he chose to go to school, and the other [Alvord] made it clear after the draft he wanted to go to school.
“We have the ability to add [a waiver-claim player] if we find the right fit.”
If Chipper had been hurt before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, it obviously would have been a lot easier to get another player. Or even if he’d been hurt in the first week after the deadline, it would’ve been easier.
At this point of August, it gets a lot trickier, particularly since teams know the Braves are pursuing an infielder who can play third base, and teams such as the Phillies and Giants can block them by claiming such a player if they believe the Braves have targeted him.
The risk for any team making a claim just to block, is that they might end up having to take that player and pay the rest of his salary if the player’s current team decides to let him go and not try to work out a trade with the claiming team or pull him back from waivers (these are revocable waivers at this time of year).
But if it’s a good player with an affordable salary and/or no long-term commitment, the blocking claim is usually worth the risk for a team that wants to prevent another contender from getting stronger.
Teams can block any team in their league with a better record, and the Braves (69-49) have a better record than everyone in the NL except San Diego (69-47). A player must first clear waivers with all the teams in his current league, then the other league.
At least three veteran third-base types — Geoff Blum, Craig Counsell, Edwin Encarnacion — reportedly cleared waivers, meaning the Braves (and the rest of baseball) didn’t put in a claim for them. That doesn’t mean they can go back now and make a trade for one of them, but the Braves might not think any those three – give them much of an upgrade over what the Braves have got now.
The Braves could move Omar Infante back to strengthen their bench again, but I don’t think they’ll do that unless for many of the players who are or might become available on the waiver wire.
Guys like Detroit’s Brandon Inge or Colorado’s Clint Barmes, in whom the Braves are believed to have some interest, seem better suited to a backup role with Infante staying in the lineup at second base or third base.
Inge plays great third-base defense and has a .452 slugging percentage against lefties, but he’s an overall .252 hitter with a .329 OBP and .394 slugging percentage this season.
Craig Counsell would’ve been a good addition in a similar situation in the past, but he’s almost 40 now, his numbers are way down, and the Braves probably feel like Diory Hernandez, whose swing is back after shoulder surgery, could probably give them more off the bench than someone like Counsell.
The rumor that was floating around last night made absolutely not sense – that the Braves were in pursuit of Cubs 3B Aramis Ramirez. This is a guy who is going to be owed just over $30 million if he’s traded – a $14.6 mill player option for 2011, a $1 mill bonus if he’s traded, and a $16 mill option for 2012 that becomes guaranteed if he’s traded.
Even if the Braves didn’t have Chipper owed $28 million over the next two seasons and vowing to attempt a comeback next spring, would they really want to commit $30 million to Ramirez, who is hitting .229 with a .286 OPB and .426 slugging percentage this season?
Ramirez hit nine of his 17 homers in a 12-game stretch in July, and has been otherwise dismal on a dismal team.
He hit .178 with 6 homers, 23 RBIs and a .539 OPS in 56 games through July 5, then had a two-week burst in which he hit .438 with nine homers and 24 RBIs in 12 games from July 6 to July 20.
Since then he’s hit .240 with two homers and a .634 OPS in 21 games.
Come on. The Cubs might find a team to take him and a big chunk of that money he’s owed off their hands, but it’s not going to be the Braves.
One of the better fits for the Braves, should he become available, would be old friend Wilson Betemit. Can’t believe I’m saying it, but Betemit has played well for Kansas City since his early season demotion to the minors.
He’s hit .341 with a .414 OBP and .948 OPS and 16 extra-base hits (five homers) in 152 at-bats, and recently moved into the third-base job. The switch-hitter has also batted .448 (13-for-29) with runners in scoring position.
Let’s close with another from the great Billy Bragg, referencing some legendary soul men and songwriters. Here’s a cool live performance of this tune.
“LEVI STUBBS’ TEARS” by Billy Bragg
With the money from her accident
She bought herself a mobile home
So at least she could get some enjoyment
Out of being alone
No one could say that she was left up on the shelf
It’s you and me against the World kid she mumbled to herself
When the world falls apart some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face
She ran away from home with her mother’s best coat
She was married before she was even entitled to vote
And her husband was one of those blokes
The sort that only laughs at his own jokes
The sort that war takes away
And when there wasn’t a war he left her anyway
Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Are here to make everything right that’s wrong
Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier too
Are here to make it all okay with you
One dark night he came home from the sea
And put a hole in her body where no hole should be
It hurt her more to see him walking out the door
And though they stitched her back together they left her heart in pieces on the
When the world falls apart some things stay in place
She takes off the Four Tops tape and puts it back in its case
When the world falls apart some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs’ tears…