SEATTLE — Nothing would make their cross-country charter flight back to Atlanta tonight more enjoyable for the Braves than a win today to complete a sweep of the Mariners. But it won’t be easy.
The Mariners will have “King” Felix Hernandez on the mound, while the Braves have Derek Lowe trying to snap a nine-start winless streak in the first game of what is technically the second half of the season.
Or didn’t you notice? Tuesday was the 81st game of this 162-game marathon, and the Braves’ 5-4 come-from-behind win made them a season-high 11 games over .500 at 46-35, on pace for a 92-70 season.
A year ago, the Braves were 48-33 at the 81-game pole, and finished 91-71 to win the wild-card postseason berth.
They begin today (Wednesday) with the third-best record in the NL right now, a half-game NL West leader San Francisco and 4-1/2 games behind NL East leader Philadelphia, which is pretty much a consensus pick as the top team in the majors right now.
If you’re curious about the wild-card race, the Braves would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. They have a two-game lead over Arizona in the wild-card standings.
The glass-half-full view of that would be that there is seemingly no way the Braves’ offense won’t get better in the second half, what with the return of Martin Prado from the DL presumably around the All-Star break, and the expected – at least by most in the clubhouse – improvement of Dan Uggla.
Uggla’s had a half-season worse than anyone could have ever imagined, and still isn’t hitting with any consistency as the second half gets underway. However, he’s got three homers in his past six games, including two on this trip in spacious ballparks at San Diego and Seattle. The Braves will take any encouraging sign from Uggla.
He still has the league’s lowest qualifying batting average (.177) and on-base percentage (.247), and its third-lowest OPS (.588).
But I wondered what players thought about the record, which is two wins fewer than they had at the same point a year ago, when their big injuries were in the second half instead of the first (including Chipper’s season-ending knee surgery in Augurst, and Prado’s season-ending injury a week before the playoffs, etc.)
Here’s what some had to say this morning about where the Braves are at the midway point:
– Eric Hinske: “I think it’s a good record. I think honestly we’d have taken that with everybody doing well. So you can’t complain. We’ve got 81 more to go. I think we’re pleased with the way we’ve been playing. Our pitching’s been great. We’re not hitting for a great average, but we’re hitting well with runners in scoring position. Just thank if we didn’t hit with runners in scoring position, how bad we’d be…. (laughs)
“I think as an offense, we’re looking for a big second half. It didn’t obviously go the way we planned in the first half with the offense, and we’re hoping to get hot in the second half. You’ve got to play all 162, you can’t take the first half and say, this is it.
“Especially with a guy like Dan. His average isn’t there, but to me, he’s got 12 home runs. I think Dan’s doing great. I think he’s making strides and could be carrying us in the second half, and hopefully Heyward gets back there too.”
– Jason Heyward: “We’re starting to gel, as far as hanging in some tough games. That’s big. Carry that into the second part of the season and just finish strong. We’ve got a lot of baseball left to play.”
“[The record] could be a lot worse. We want to be a lot better, but it could be a lot worse. We’ve dealt with some injuries.”
– Chipper Jones: “It’s [46-35] really good. I don’t know where we are in the wild card, but not being at full strength, as bad as we’ve been offensively, to be 11 games over is pretty good. What did we finish last year?” [You finished 91-71, I said].
“We’re halfway to that, anyway. So…”
And the offense has to be better in the second half, right?
“Can’t be any worse… Getting Prado back. Yeah, I think we’re poised to play pretty well in the second half. We’re looking forward to it.
“Whatever comes. I mean, we’re shooting for the top, but if the wild card is a byproduct of finishing second in the division, we just want to get there [to the postseason].”
– Brian McCann: “The difference this year is there’s a lot of teams hovering around .500. There’s not many teams at the bottom, and a lot of teams got better. We’re excited where we’re at right now. We’re in great position. If you had told us before the season [46-35 at midway point], we’d definitely have taken that. Especially with all the injuries we’ve had.”
♣ Too hot to sit: Manager Fredi Gonzalez wanted to give catcher Brian McCann a breather in today’s day game after a night game, but he also wanted to keep his hot bat in the lineup. So McCann is the DH today, and David Ross is catching.
“The only thing is you can’t pinch-hit for Ross,” Gonzalez said. “Well, I guess you can in the ninth inning and roll the dice.”
The Braves’ emergency catcher is Brooks Conrad, who caught a couple of games at Triple-A Round Rock (Astros) in 2007.
As for McCann, hitters just don’t get much hotter than he’s been lately.
He’s hit .396 (36-for-91) with six doubles, 10 homers and 21 RBIs in his past 25 games, with 14 walks, a .481 OBP and .791 slugging percentage (1.272 OPS).
That includes 15-for-32 (.469) with five HRs, nine RBIs, six walks and a .553 OBP and .938 slugging in past nine games. McCann went 7-for-9 in the first two games of the Seattle series, getting more than half of the Braves’ 13 hits in the series before today’s finale.
And going back further, he’s hit .355 over his past 33 games with 12 homers, 26 RBIs and a 1.163 OPS.
McCann has climbed to sixth in the league in OPS at .924, behind Kemp, Fielder, Berkman and Votto, and just ahead of Jose Reyes (.922).
His four-hit night Tuesday raised McCann’s average from .307 to .317, fifth in the league and just ahead of Votto (.316).
It’s early, but it looks like McCann is going to be thrust into MVP consideration if he continues at anything resembling his current pace.
“Absolutely,” Hinske said. “ t’s amazing to watch on a day-to-day basis, especially from a catcher. He plays every day; he wants to play. The at-bats he puts out there, the way he handles left-handed pitching is amazing, to me. He hammers lefties, and it’s not that easy. He’s one of the best players in the game, no doubt in my mind.”
“He’s carrying us right now,” Chipper Jones said. “Absolutely carrying us.”
“Oh, there’s no doubt he’s going to get some votes,” said Jones, the 1999 NL MVP. “He’s going to get a lot of votes.”
♣ Jones rests: It’s a day off for Chipper, whose right knee is barking a bit again. That’s the knee with the meniscus tear that he’s been playing on for the past couple of months.
The hope is that resting today and tomorrow’s team day off will help calm it down before the homestand that starts Friday.
Chipper still hopes to avoid having arthroscopic surgery, which would likely keep him out about three weeks. He continues getting it treated each day.
“If you’ve got torn meniscus, you’ve got torn meniscus,” he said. “There’s not a lot you can do about it. Just have to stay on top of it.
“If I have to go on the DL for it, I’ll probably get the surgery. But if can avoid it, I’d rather not.”
Conrad gets the start today at third base.
♣ Gonzo struggling: Shortstop Alex Gonzalez has not reached base in five games, going 0-for-17 with no walks and a sac-bunt RBI in that span. He didn’t try to bunt with two on and none out in the seventh inning Tuesday, when the Braves trailed 3-2. He struck out in that at-bat.
In his past 15 games, Gonzalez is 6-for-54 (.111) with three doubles, two RBIs, four walks and 14 strikeouts. His average is down to .240 and his .274 OBP is fifth-lowest among NL qualifiers, giving the Braves two of the league’s bottom five.
The Mariners are 5-9 despite a 2.39 ERA in their past 14 games, They’ve scored 33 runs in that span….
The Braves are league-best 24-18 on the road with league-best 3.12 ERA
Tommy Hanson (.193) leads the NL in opponents’ average….
Tim Hudson (.316), Hanson (.324) and Jair Jurrjens (.334) are ranked third, sixth and eighth in the NL in lowest opponents’ slugging percentage.
Jonny Venters (.155) and Hanson (.156) are 1-2 in NL for average allowed with men on base, and Brandon Beachy (.176) is seventh.
♣ OK, let’s get this up before first pitch. We’ll close with a classic from the mighty, mighty Van the Man, and you can see him sing it live by clicking here. (Great performance.)
“CLEANING WINDOWS” by Van Morrison
Oh, the smell of the bakery from across the street Got in my nose As we carried our ladders down the street With the wrought-iron rows I went home and listened to Jimmy Rodgers in my lunch-break Bought five Woodbines at the shop on the corner And went straight back to work Oh, Sam was up on top And I was on the bottom with the v We went for lemonade and Paris buns At the shop and broke for tea I collected from the lady And I cleaned the fanlight inside-out I was blowing saxophone on the weekend In that down joint. What's my line? I'm happy cleaning windows Take my time I'll see you when my love grows Baby don't let it slide I'm a working man in my prime Cleaning windows (number thirty-six). I heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon On the street where I was born Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters sing "I'm a Rolling Stone" I went home and read my Christmas Humphreys' book on Zen Curiosity killed the cat Kerouac's "Dharma Bums" and "On The Road". What's my line? I'm happy cleaning windows Take my time I'll see you when my love grows Baby don't let it slide I'm a working man in my prime Cleaning windows ...