As Craig Kimbrel pointed out last night, what made giving up a game-winning homer in the ninth inning against Arizona even harder to take was the fact that the Braves missed an opportunity to pick up a game on the Nationals, who had lost in 11 innings at Colorado before the Braves game began.
That meant the Nationals would still be 3-1/2 games ahead of the second-place Braves entering tonight’s opener of a hotly-anticipated – and simply hot, as in blazing hot outside – series against the NL East upstarts from D.C. The temps are expected to soar past 100 this weekend at Turner Field, where the Braves want to cut at least a game or three off Washington’s lead.
It won’t be easy.
Tonight, Randall Delgado (4-8, 4.52 ERA) faces lefty Ross Detwiler (4-3, 3.09), who has an 0.98 ERA and .175 opponents’ average in his past seven outings, including one start after moving back into the rotation from the bullpen. He pitched five scoreless innings of four-hit ball Sunday against Baltimore.
The Braves got to Detwiler for three runs, five hits and four walks in just 4-1/3 innings on May 25 in Atlanta, but the Nationals won that series opener and went on to sweep the three-game series, part of a six-game winning streak against Atlanta that the Braves finally snapped with a June 3 win at Washington.
The Braves are 1-4 against them this season, and have hit .204 with 14 runs in their past seven games against the Nationals. The Braves are 18-27 against the Nats going back to the final week of the 2009 season. The Nats have had the upper hand, regardless of which team was better at the time.
And to make matters worse, the pesky Nats have added a new Braves Enemy No. 1, the ballyhooed rookie outfielder Bryce Harper, who has more than lived up to the hype when facing Atlanta. Harper is 8-for-16 with three homers, six walks, one strikeout and a .636 OBP in his first five games against the Braves.
He has half of the Nationals’ six homers against Atlanta this season, and he’s also made a few strong plays in the field (but also been thrown out a couple of times going for an extra base).
But you know what’s made the Nationals the class of the division so far this season? The factor that we thought coming out of spring would put them in position to compete for a playoff berth this season: Pitching.
The Nationals are first in the NL in overall ERA (3.11), first in starters ERA (3.16), and third in bullpen ERA (3.03). Meanwhile, the Braves are tied for ninth in the league in overall ERA (4.01), 12th in starters ERA (4.14) and eighth in relief ERA (3.77).
And in the NL, only Colorado relievers (32) and Houston relievers (29) have allowed more homers than Braves relievers (27).
• Trade talk: Braves GM Frank Wren is sometimes a bit more forthcoming about trade and free-agent matters when speaking with members of the national media, and here’s what he had said in an interview Thursday with MLB Network’s The Rundown program.
On what the Braves might do before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline:
“We have the flexibility to make a big deal. If one presents itself and we think it can improve our club, we’re gonna be there trying to finish it. I think we have the talent in our minor league system [and] we have the payroll flexibility to make a deal.”
On possibility of re-signing Michael Bourn, who’s eligible for free agency after the season:
“We really would like Michael to be here a long time. He’s proven that he’s the kind of player who fits in well here…He’s a real big part of our team.”
OK, so looking back at that last quote on Bourn, he really didn’t say anything new on that subject.
But the comment about having payroll flexibility echoes what I was told by Braves CEO Terry McGuirk, the direct liason to Liberty Media ownership. McGuirk said Thursday that there is no available player who is out of the Braves’ affordability range, if they decided it was a deal that made sense for the team. That includes the likes of pitcher Zack Greinke, as well as pitchers such as Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza.
At the same time, he and other Braves officials continue to make it clear the Braves aren’t going to overpay for free agents or mortgage the future by trading multiple prospects for a rental player they would only have for the rest of the season.
To me, both of those caveats make it seem unlikely the Braves would deal for Greinke, a pending free agent who would presumably cost the Braves multiple prospects and also cost them around $20 million or more in a long-term contract if they wanted to re-sign him.
Just a hunch or educated guess, and maybe it’ll change with something new I hear in next few days, but to me if Dempster returns from DL and is sound (he had a lat strain, not any arm injury), then he or Garza makes more sense and is more likely. Dempster in particular, because the Cubs would pay part of what he’s owed for rest of the season and he wouldn’t cost nearly as much in the way of talent going to Chicago in a trade, and he has a history with Wren and Fredi Gonzalez from the Marlins.
• Not clutch: When it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position, the Braves now rank 11th in the NL with a .235 average and 14th in slugging at .346. And here’s a stat that’s become alarming: in close-and-late situations, the Braves are 15th in the NL at .207.
They were beaten last night in the ninth inning by the only team that’s been worse in close-and-late situations, the Diamondbacks at .189
Here are the Braves who’ve hit .225 or lower in the late innings of close games: Jason Heyward .225, Dan Uggla .211, Michael Bourn .189, Jack Wilson .176, Eric Hinske .167, Freddie Freeman .161, David Ross .143, Brian McCann .061, and Juan Francisco .000 (0-for-13).
With runners in scoring position, the only Braves who’ve hit above .283 have done it in limited at-bats: Pastornicky (.290 in 31 at-bats), Simmons (.300 in 20 at-bats) and Francisco (.304 in 23 at-bats). Bourn is at .283 (17-for-60, highest among Braves regulars who’ve been with team all season) and Heyward is next at .280 (14-for-50). McCann has hit .182 (12-for-66) with runners in scoring position.
• Ugly stretch for Uggla: After another 0-for with three strikeouts Thursday, Uggla is up to 89 strikeouts, one fewer than NL leader Rickie Weeks and on pace for 192, which would obliterate his career high of 171 set in 2008.
Uggla is 7-for-65 (.108) with two extra-base hits (one homer) and 29 strikeouts in past 20 games, including 4-for-45 (.089) with no extra-base hits, one RBI and 20 strikeouts in his last 13 games. In his past seven home games, he’s 0-for-22 with five walks and 13 strikeouts
He’s also second in the NL in walks with 51, five ahead of No. 3 David Wright (46) but nine behind leader Joey Votto (60). Uggla is on pace for 110 walks, well above his career high of 92 in 2009.
Uggla hasn’t been out of the lineup all season, but Gonzalez has indicated a day off could be coming real soon. Maybe as soon as today. Backup infielder Jack Wilson hasn’t started a game since shortstop Andrelton Simmons arrived from Triple-A, and Wilson is 4-for-5 against Detwiler.
• Delgado tonight: As trade rumors swirl, the Braves are hoping for improvement and more consistency from Delgado. He’s 2-5 with a 5.35 ERA in his past seven starts, with 21 walks and 26 strikeouts in 35-1/3 innings. That includes losses in his past three starts – 0-3 with a 5.65 ERA and .264 opponents’ average in that stretch, with nine walks and 12 strikeouts in 14-1/3 innings.
His longest and briefest starts have come in his past two games — eight innings (three hits, two runs) against Baltimore on June 17, and 1-1/3 innings (six hits, four runs) at Boston on Sunday.
Chipper Jones has hit in six straight games, going 8-for-21 (.381) with three doubles, a homer, four RBIs, five walks and .500 OBP in that stretch…. Despite having his 12-game hitting streak snapped with an 0-for-5 Thursday, Heyward still has hit .370 in June with a .395 OBP, .716 slugging percentage, 15 extra-base hits (six homers), 14 RBIs and 17 runs in 22 games…. The Braves are 10-15 at home since the beginning of May, including 7-7 since ending their second four-game home losing streak during that stretch. (They also have a four-game home winning streak in that period.)…. Freeman is sixth in NL with RISP and two outs (.393, 11-for-28)…. McCann’s .141 average after the sixth inning is third-lowest in the NL, and his .061 average (2-for-33) in close-and-late situations is the second-lowest among NL qualifiers.
• Let’s close with a tune from the great Polly Jean Harvey, which you can hear by clicking here.
“BIG EXIT” by PJ Harvey
Look out ahead
I see danger come
I wanna’ pistol
I wanna’ gun
I’m scared baby
I wanna’ run
This world’s crazy
Give me the gun
Ain’t it true
When I’m with you
But I wanna’ pistol
In my hand
I wanna’ go to
A different land
I met a man
He told me straight
‘You gotta’ leave
It’s getting late’
Too many cops
Too many guns
All trying to do something
No-one else has done
I walk on concrete
I walk on sand
But I can’t find
A safe place to stand
I’m scared baby
I wanna’ run
This world’s crazy
Gimme’ the gun
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog