SAN DIEGO – After losing Billy Wagner to retirement and Takashi Saito to free agency, Braves officials still believed their bullpen would be as good or better this season than in 2010. So far, they’ve been right.
The question becomes, can it hold up?
The bullpen has been a huge reason the Braves have the NL’s second-best record (43-33) despite a spotty offense. Atlanta relievers have a majors-leading 2.49 ERA, which is more than a quarter-run better than the next-lowest in the majors, San Diego’s 2.77.
But look inside the numbers and you’ll notice a difference between the bullpens of those two teams, who start a three-game series tonight here in San Diego (where I don’t want to rub it in but it was 65 degrees at mid-day and I wore a long-sleeve T-shirt when I walked to breakfast this morning).
The bullpen difference I’m talking about: San Diego has divvied up its heavy workload pretty evenly between five who’ve made between 29 and 33 appearances and one, Chad Qualls, with a team-high 36.
The Braves have four relievers who’ve made at least 34 appearances, while George Sherrill is the only other with more than 18. Sherrill has 28 appearances, but only 19-1/3 innings.
The Braves’ workhorse core includes Jonny Venters, who’s been both the best and most-used reliever in the majors this season, with a whopping 47-1/3 innings in 42 appearances. No other major league reliever has been in as many as 40 games or pitched as many as 44 innings.
Braves closer Craig Kimbrel has 39 appearances, tied with Milwaukee’s Kameron Loe for second-most in the majors. Kimbrel’s 38 relief innings are the ninth-most in the majors.
Eric O’Flaherty has pitched only once in nine days because of a bad back, but his 36 appearances still are tied for ninth-most in the NL and would lead the AL. He pitched in six of the first 10 games in June before the latest episode of his recurring back problems.
In the absence of O’Flaherty and Peter Moylan, who’s recovering from back surgery, the Braves have used 34-year-old Scott Linebrink more than anyone thought they would coming into the season.
Linebrink, who hasn’t pitched in more than 57 games in the past four seasons, already has 34 appearances and is on pace for 72. That’d be one shy of the career-high mark he run up in three consecutive seasons with the Padres in 2004-2006.
Venters is on pace for 90 appearances and 101 innings, after totaling 79 appearances and 83 innings as a rookie in 2010.
Kimbrel is on pace for 83 appearances and 81 innings – and a stunning 124 strikeouts. Wagner had a 1.47 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 69-1/3 innings (71 games) last season.
Kimbrel, who turned 23 last month, set his pro-career highs of 69 appearances and 76-1/3 innings last season between Triple-A and the majors.
The Braves have played 20 games in June, and Venters (12) and Kimbrel (11) have pitched in more than half. Linebrink has pitched 10 innings in 10 games this month (and not given up any runs in nine).
Between Tim Hudson’s eight-inning start Monday, Mike Minor’s seven innings Tuesday and the off day in the schedule Thursday, the Braves have been able to give the ‘pen some needed rest this week, at the end of a stretch of 16 games in 16 days.
Now they’ll start a six-game West Coast trip and a stretch of 16 games in 17 days leading up to the All-Star break. The Braves just need to get to that four-day break July 11-14 without any bullpen setbacks.
Even with Venters expected to make the All-Star team, and possibly Kimbrel, too, their arms would still get plenty of rest compared to their regular routine. The Braves don’t even want to think about trying to go through a playoff stretch drive without any of their key relievers.
They could also get a big bullpen boost from Moylan and possibly Kris Medlen in August, when both are expected to come off the DL. Medlen could be used as a starter or reliever, and right now it looks like the Braves’ biggest need could be in the ‘pen at that point, barring more injuries to the starting rotation.
It’s been a helluva run by the ‘pen, and the Braves are probably going to need it to continue.
♣ The Battle of Little Support: Something’s got to give when Derek Lowe faces Padres righty Tim Stauffer tonight.
Well, that’s not exactly true. It could be about a 2-1 game when they leave and pretty much continue the trend for both pitchers.
Stauffer has received the worst run support of any major league starter this season, just 2.1 runs per nine innings pitched. The man has a 3.13 ERA and 10 quality starts in 15 games, but just a 2-5 record to show for it. That’s ridiculous.
Get this: The Padres have scored two runs or fewer while he’s been in 13 of his 15 starts.
Stauffer has a 0.41 ERA and .192 opponents’ average in his past three starts, with one run and 15 hits allowed in 22 innings. He’s 1-1 in those games, as the Padres scored two runs while he was in the win and no runs while he was in his past two starts.
Lowe’s had bad run support more often than not, too. But nothing quite as extreme as the dearth of support for Stauffer.
The Braves have scored 2.8 runs per nine innings pitched by Lowe, fourth-lowest run support among NL starters. They have scored two runs or fewer in seven of eight starts during Lowe’s current winless streak (0-2, 4.96 ERA).
However, he’s also contributed plenty to that winless streak, mixing a few bad starts – he gave up five earned runs three times in that period — with a couple of mediocre starts and a few good ones.
The positive to take from it is that the Braves are 5-3 in those eight games, or 5-1 in the games in which Lowe got no decision.
The former Dodger has pitched well against the Padres, with a 5-3 record and strong 2.76 ERA in 16 starts. He’s 2-0 with a 1.78 ERA in his past four against them, including three at Petco Park, where Lowe got no decision in a Braves loss on April 25 after allowing five hits, two runs and three walks in six innings of a 5-3, 13-inning loss.
Lowe will again try to avoid damage from a thorn in his side: Ryan Ludwick homered against him April 25 and is 9-for-16 with four homers off him all-time.
The only active Braves with more than four at-bats against Stauffer are Brian McCann (2-for-6 with homer) and Chipper Jones (0-for-8 with three walks).
♣ Streaking Braves and surging Mac: The Braves have a 1.00 ERA during their current four-game winning streak, which included a three-game sweep of the Blue Jays in Atlanta.
They are 11-5 with a 2.88 ERA in their last 16 games, and the Braves’ have hit 21 homers in that stretch. Despite owning a league-worst .225 average in June, the Braves are tied with the Brewers for most homers (26) in the NL this month.
A lot of that long-ball barrage has come from McCann, who has wielded a consistent power stroke since making an adjustment to his swing at the suggestion of his brother, a hitting instructor and former Marlins minor leaguer.
In his past 14 games, McCann has hit .333 with six homers, 13 RBIs and a .792 slugging percentage.
In his past 14 home games, he’s produced these gaudy numbers: .468 (22-for-47) with five doubles, eight homers, 14 RBIs, .545 OBP and 1.085 slugging.
McCann has homered in four of his past five games, going 7-for-16 with four homers, six RBIs, four walks and only one strikeout in that span.
These are not numbers that the Padres probably want to hear, because McCann generally does much damage against them even if he hasn’t been hitting well prior to the series. Particularly at Petco Park.
It’s considered one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball, but McCann has a .383 career average with four homers and 21 RBIs in 18 games at Petco.
In his past 30 games against the Padres, home and away, McCann has hit .357 (40-for-112) with 11 doubles, six homers, 31 RBIs and a 1.054 OPS.
By the way, Braves catchers are a combined 10-for-24 with two homers and eight RBIs in six games against the Padres this season, including David Ross’s two-homer game April 26 against Aaron Harang at San Diego.
The rest of this series features Jair Jurrjens vs. Dustin Moseley on Saturday (odd 5:35 p.m. start out here; 8:35 p.m. in Atlanta) and Tim Hudson against lefty Cory Luebke on Sunday at 1:05 (4:05 in Atlanta).
Jordan Schafer has seven stolen bases in nine attempts in June, and the Braves have 12 steals for the month. Five NL teams have nine or fewer in June. The Braves had only 11 total stolen bases prior to June…. The Braves and Padres have split six games this season, with the visiting team winning two of three in each series…. San Diego is just 14-26 at home with a .208 batting average, including 6-11 with 42 runs scored in its past 17 home games. The Padres scored one or no runs in eight of those 17, and more than three runs in only four of the 17…. The Braves are 21-16 on the road, including 17-9 in their past 26. That stretch began with a three-game sweep at San Francisco April 22-24, followed by winning two of three at San Diego on the same trip.
OK, let’s close with an ode to Mickey Mantle by Tom Russell, one of the greatest living American songwriters. You can hear it by clicking here. If you’ve never heard it, you’ll wonder why. It’s terrific.
“THE KID FROM SPAVINAW” by Tom Russell
I was born in Oklahoma, 1931
Outside the town of Spavinaw
Where the red dust clouds the sun
And I ran beneath your diamond skies
And I drank your waves of grain
My name is Mickey Mantle, boys
And baseball is my game
My father’s name was “Mutt”, boy
And he worked down in the mines
He pitched to me in the evening
At least a thousand times
A thousand times again, in my nightmare and my dreams
You’re going to live in the house that Ruth built, kid
You’re going to make that Yankee team
Sure enough, the Yankee scout comes drivin’, right down route 66
He’d have never come to Spavinaw class D ball in the sticks,
but I happened to be playing in an old wood ball park way out on the mother road
That Yankee scout he signed me and I went up to the the show
Strike 1, that was the drinkin’
Strike 2, there go the knees
Then my old man died in Denver
Some type of lung disease
When God starts throwing change ups
You can’t swing with fame or wealth
If I’d known I’s going to live this long
I’d have taken care of myself.
I don’t miss the lights of Times Square
I don’t miss Toots Shore’s bar
I miss my old man pitchin’ baseball
Near the shed in our backyard
I wish that he were still alive
To see these trophies on my shelf
If I’d known I was going to live this long
I’d have taken better care of myself
I was born in Oklahoma, 1931
Outside the town of Spavinaw
Where the red dust clouds the sun
By David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog