(Staff writer Carroll Rogers is filling in for David O’Brien this series.)
PITTSBURGH – So it’s a little overcast here in Pittsburgh today, and I’m not just talking about the Braves injury situation.
When you’ve got two-thirds of your starting outfield on the disabled list, and two-fifths of your starting rotation on the shelf (Brandon Beachy, Tim Hudson), and you’re 1-4 on this road trip, well, it’s not too good.
You’d think two games against the Pirates would be enough to brighten the mood on a cloudy day here for the Braves, but the Pirates don’t appear to be the pushovers they have been in recent years, and tonight’s starter Charlie Morton is a great example. The former Brave has finally started to get the results to match his talents. More on all that in a moment.
But first let’s look at the Braves outfield situation and toss out a question. How do you play it right now if you’re the Braves, with both Nate McLouth (oblique) and Jason Heyward (shoulder) on the disabled list? Do you run Jordan Schafer out to center field tonight and get his feet wet in his first major league action for the first time in two years and sit one of your hottest hitters in Eric Hinske or Joe Mather?
I don’t have the Braves lineup yet. Still sitting in my hotel, where “GoBucs” is my wireless internet password, and I’m just feeling good that it’s not “GoSteelers” (that just wouldn’t work for a gal born in Dallas, Texas). But Chipper Jones is expected to be back in at third base tonight, which means Martin Prado moves back to left field. So do you go Mather in center and Hinske in right? Or do you go Schafer in center and either Mather or Hinske in right?
As many issues as the Braves have on offense right now, Hinske and Mather are the anomalies. (Freddie Freeman gets mention here too, after a good weekend in his hometown Anaheim.) Mather went 7-for-12 with five RBIs in the three games against the Angels. He pretty much single-handedly won their only game in that series Saturday with his three-run homer and then a game-winning double in the 12th.
Then you have Hinske, who is hitting .400 for the month of May. Thanks to Braves PR man Jim Misudek we now know Hinske’s .400 (20-for-50) average tops all qualifying National League batters in the month of May and is tied with Tampa Bay’s Matt Joyce (.400, 26-for-65) for best average in the majors this month.
Maybe the irony here is that Hinske and Mather have been producing more than McLouth and Heyward of late anyway. McLouth and Heyward are a combined 19-for-109 (.174) in May, and McLouth went 1-for-16 the first five games of the trip.
If Bobby Cox were still managing you figure he’d run Schafer out there tonight for sure, before he has a chance to get nervous or think too much about how long it’s been since his last major league at-bat on May 31, 2009. Whether or not he’s in Fredi Gonzalez’s lineup tonight, you figure Schafer will be in there quite a bit the next two weeks. He’s a very good defensive center fielder and the most comfortable of the available guys in center.
Schafer wasn’t exactly scalding the ball in Gwinnett (.256) with 42 hits in 42 games, but he showed some flashes in spring training, and he brings an element the Braves can really use – speed.
Tonight’s pitching matchup is pretty intriguing. Raise your hand if you figured Charlie Morton would be 5-1 at this point in the season? Both he and Jair Jurrjens are 5-1. Jurrjens’ ERA is 1.80 and Morton’s isn’t too shabby either at 2.62.
Consider 2011 pretty resurgent for both, with Jurrjens coming back from an injury-plagued 2010, and Morton coming back from just a plagued 2010. Morton went 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA last year, the worst record and ERA among qualified starters last season. And now this?
According to John Perrotto, my esteemed notes group colleague, Morton has begun using his sinker again – former Pirates pitching coach Joe Kerrigan wanted him to scrap it last season – and it’s working for him. And Morton has been singing the praises of new pitching coach Ray Searage.
Morton has also done some work with a sports psychologist. My impression when Morton was with the Braves was that everybody knew he had great stuff; it was a matter of him trusting it and having the confidence to throw it over the plate. It seems he’s doing that consistently right now. Morton is 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA in his past three starts, including a complete game win over the Reds. He’s already matched his career-high in wins.
As a whole, it sounds to me like the Pirates are really taking to new manager Clint Hurdle and their attitude isn’t so defeatist. I got this by talking to former Brave Matt Diaz over the weekend (here’s a story I wrote about him over the weekend).
“With Clint in charge, it’s definitely a different vibe than the Pirates of old when you played against them,” Diaz said. “There’s very little negativity. When you talked to the Pirates when you came into town before, they’d be counting down the days until the end of the season in May. We’re not scoreboard watching, but we know what our division is doing. We feel like we can compete in this division this year. I don’t know how long the Pirates have felt that way.”
Um, not long. But these Pirates have won four of their past five games, and at 22-24 they are as close as they’ve been to .500 this “late” in a season since 2004.
As if the Braves’ injury outbreak wasn’t discouraging enough, it just happened to coincide with the return of second baseman Chase Utley to the Phillies. Utley went 0-for-5 last night in his return, but the Phillies scored 10 runs, the most runs they’ve scored in 21 games. Hey, it’s just good karma for the Phillies to have him in there.
If the Braves were looking for some good news in that outcome, there’s some there too. The Reds lost their sixth in a row. Not a bad time to face them this weekend at Turner Field. OK, more from the ballpark shortly.
1. Schafer CF
2. Prado LF
3. Jones 3B
4. McCann C
5. Hinske RF
6. Gonzalez SS
7. Freeman 1B
8. Conrad 2B
9. Jurrjens P