Maybe it was just a coincidence, but soon after the Braves signed Ben Sheets and after it became known they were scouting several starting pitchers who could be available on the trade market, the starting rotation finally stepped it up a bit. The Braves starters got more consistent, a big factor in the current seven-game winning streak along with improved offensive production.
The Braves have just 37 quality starts (six innings or more, three earned runs or fewer) this season, second-fewest in a league where nine teams have more than 50. Only the Rockies have fewer quality starts, and they have a pretty legit excuse – Coors Field.
But the Braves have six quality starts in their past eight games, including five during the seven-game winning streak, the longest for the Bravos since they won nine in a row two summers ago. The most recent of those quality starts, and the most significant for the Braves at least since Jair Jurrjens returned from Triple-A, if not the entire season, came in Sheets’ debut Sunday against the Mets.
I don’t know of anyone, and I mean anyone, who thought Sheets could do what he did Sunday after being out of baseball for two years and making only two Double-A starts prior to facing the Mets. Two hits, one walk and five strikeouts in six scoreless innings.
It was stunning, and if he stays healthy and pitches with the stuff he had Sunday, the four-time former Milwaukee All-Star is going to win plenty more games for the Braves and make himself a strong, late entry for NL Comeback Player of the Year.
Whatever Braves GM Frank Wren and his top assistants saw a few weeks ago when Sheets threw for officials from the Braves, Yankees and a few other teams in 100-plus-degree temperatures at Georgia Tech, you’ve got to hand it to them for making Sheets a minor-league offer and impressing him enough to get him (the Yankees also made a minor-league offer).
And credit them for not making Sheets spend any more time in the minors, because I also didn’t hear anyone say they believed two starts in Double-A — not particularly impressive starts at that – seemed sufficient before bringing Sheets to the majors. Personally, I thought they were rushing things a bit.
Braves officials pulled the trigger, and Sheets showed Sunday they were right to do so.
So anyway, here we are, in the third week of July with a Braves team that has taken everyone on a rollercoaster ride through the first 88 games of the season, and now sits in a far better position than many of us anticipated a few weeks ago. It was that recent when things didn’t look at all promising for their inconsistent team and its shaky rotation and too-often-punchless lineup.
The Braves (49-39) have the third-best record in the NL and fifth-best record in the majors, better than two division leaders — the AL Central’s White Sox (49-40) of the NL West’s Giants (49-40, who are in town for a three-game series beginning tonight at Turner Field.
Atlanta is a half-game ahead of Pittsburgh (49-40) atop the NL Wild Card race, and remember there’s an additional wild card added to each league’s postseason format this season. That means if the playoffs started today, the Braves would face the Pirates in a one-game playoff, with the winner advancing to a best-of-five division series and the loser going home.
That means the Braves can’t afford to be content with winning a wild-card playoff berth, and they know it. Because unlike in the past, it doesn’t guarantee a first-round best-of-five series against a division winner. It only makes for a do-or-die game against the other wild card, which makes it something of a crap shoot. For instance, if one team has to use its best starting pitchers in those last days of the regular season and the other is able to hold back its ace for the one-game playoff.
No, you’re obviously much better off winning a division now under the new format than going in as a wild card where everything is riding on that one game.
And the thing is, the NL East is very winnable.
The Braves are only 2-1/2 games behind Washington, which has definitely had an upper hand against Atlanta in recent years, but which might be without ace Stephen Strasburg in the final weeks of the season if the Nationals stick to their plan of shutting down the phenom after he pitches about 160 innings in his first full season since Tommy John elbow surgery.
It’s going to be unprecedented if they do that, if a team that’s waited so long to get to the postseason in effect tells its excited fan base that it’s taking the staff’s healthy, most overpowering starter and putting him on the shelf until next year when there is no evidence that says he’s more likely to get hurt by pitching 185 innings than by pitching 165 innings.
Privately, the Braves and the rest of the NL have to be hoping the Nationals follow through with that plan. Well, the Braves maybe a little less than other playoff contenders, since they’ve fared better against Strasburg than any other team has. But even Atlanta would benefit from him being shut down, because Strasburg gives the Nationals a very good chance to win every time he pitches, and his replacement surely will not give them as good a chance to do that and to keep adding wins in the last month of the division race that could well be close to the wire.
Meanwhile, the Braves don’t seem content to rest on their improved rotation. They continue to scout top available or potentially available starters, either just in case they have an injury or a current starter falters, or because they want to make the rotation deeper still than it is with an improved Jurrjens – who faces Giants lefty Barry Zito tonight — and the addition of Sheets.
But with Sheets on board, if he stays healthy these next couple of weeks, I think it decreases the likelihood of the Braves mortgaging part of the future by trading away multiple prospects in any deal to acquire a starter before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
By the way, in case you missed it, Carroll Rogers did a story on Jurrjens in today’s paper, in which he discussed his improvement since his stint in Triple-A, and how he overcame his admitted frustrations after being sent down in April.
• Deeper lineup: Another key part of the Braves’ midseason resurgence, probably the biggest part, has been the renewed punch they’ve gotten from a lineup that suddenly seems a lot deeper and more balanced with Freddie Freeman’s return to good health and Brian McCann’s return to being himself after a long slump that began when he came back too quickly from an oblique strain last season.
The Braves are getting contributions from so many spots in their batting order lately that they’ve been able to offset the loss of Andrelton Simmons and the continued struggles of Dan Uggla.
Some of the recent highlights:
– Chipper Jones has hit .400 (24-for-60) in his past 16 games with 10 extra-base hits, 10 RBIs, nine walks, six K, .478 OBP and .633 slugging
– Freeman, in 21 games since returning from a finger injury, has hit .342 (26-for-76) with 10 extra-base hits (four homers), 17 RBIs, a .420 OBP and .579 slugging percentage (.999 OPS). The team is 14-7 in those games. During his current seven-game hitting streak, Freeman’s hit .462 (12-for-26) with three doubles, two homers, seven RBIs, three walks and only two strikeouts.
– Jason Heyward has hit .333 in his past 33 games (oh, the symmetry) with 18 extra-base hits (eight homers), 19 RBIs, a .380 OBP and .611 slugging percentage (.991 OPS).
– McCann also has a seven-game hitting streak going, during which he’s 10-for-26 (.385) with four homers and 11 RBIs.
– Martin Prado, who didn’t make the All-Star team but might be the Braves’ MVP so far, in his past 20 games has hit .351 (27-for-77) with seven doubles, one homer, 13 RBIs, eight walks, a .393 OBP and .481 slugging percentage. Prado’s .341 home average is seventh-best in the NL, and his .362 average vs. lefties is eighth-best in the league.
Michael Bourn, another obvious candidate for team MVP so far, in his past 10 games has hit .385 (15-for-39) with 11 runs, six RBIs, eight walks and a .489 OBP. The team is 8-2 in that stretch. Bourn’s .328 average vs. right-handers ranks seventh in the NL (Uggla’s .214 is fifth-worst).
Among NL leadoff men, Bourn ranks sixth with a .367 OBP, while ex-Brave Gregor Blanco is 10th in the league with a .339 leadoff OBP for San Francisco. Another ex-Braves outfielder, Melky Cabrera, is having a career-best season for the Giants and ranks third in the majors with a .366 road average.
The Braves have hit .283 during the seven-game winning streak, with 11 homers and 43 runs, including six or more runs in five of seven games. They’ve allowed three or fewer runs in five of seven games.
Also, the Braves are 4-0 with .305 average and 28 runs in their past four home games, after going 5-11 with .257 average and 57 runs in previous 16 home games.
As long as a bunch of Braves are swinging the bats more consistently, the team can afford to have an all-glove, no-stick guy at shortstop until Simmons returns from a broken hand. That’s what they have with the recently acquired Paul Janish.
• Big K in Kimbrel: He finished ninth in the Cy Young Award balloting last season as a rookie closer, and Craig Kimbrel could be headed toward a top-five or maybe even top-three Cy finish this season. He’s been that dominant. Utterly dominant.
As in, league-leading 27 saves with a 1.29 ERA and 0.686 WHIP. But lately, he’s taken it to another level.
Kimbrel has allowed one hit, no walks with 14 strikeouts in six scoreless innings over his past six appearances, and allowed five hits (.064 opponents’ average) and one run with two walks and 43 strikeouts in 24 innings over his past 24 appearances while converting 18 consecutive save opportunities. Yes, two walks and 43 strikeouts in 24 innings.
• This series vs. San Francisco: The Braves are 8-1 with a 2.36 ERA in their past nine regular-season games against Giants, going back to Aug. 7, 2010, including 6-1 in seven games last season. But the Giants, of course, can hold up their win in by far the most important series during that time period – the 3-1 division series win against the Braves in 2010, when every game was decided by one run.
The teams haven’t faced each other this season, and the Giants have had an unusual season much like the Braves, getting huge contributions from Cabrera and inexplicably bad work from former two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Linceum, who at age 28 is 3-10 with a 5.93 ERA and 1.519 WHIP. No one in the league has more losses or has allowed as many earned runs (69 in 104-2/3 innings).
The Braves won’t face Lincecum in the series, and who’d have ever thought that’d be seen as an unfortunate development?
The Giants returned from the All-Star break to post a 0.90 ERA while sweeping a three-game series from lowly Houston. This after San Francisco had a 7.43 ERA while losing five of its last six games before the break.
Los Gigantes allowed one earned run in each game vs. the Astros, after giving up 41 earned runs in their last six games before the break.
• Tonight’s matchup: It’s Jurrjens against Zito, who has faltered lately. The veteran lefty is 2-4 with a 6.12 ERA in his past six starts after 5-2 with a 2.98 ERA in his first 11. There’s also this: Zito has a 5.19 ERA in eight road starts, compared to 3.09 in nine starts at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park in San Francisco.
And this: He has 4.80 ERA in 10 night games, compared to 3.05 in seven day games.
However, Zito is 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA in five starts vs. Braves, including 3-0 with a 2.08 ERA and .178 opponents’ average in four at Turner Field. Much of that success came against previous incarnations of the Braves, not the current lineup. But he had 10 strikeouts in seven innings of his last start against the Braves in August 2010 in Atlanta.
Right-handers are hitting .268 with an .812 OPS and 10 homers in 284 at-bats against Zito, while lefties have a .193 average and meager .552 OPS and two homers in 88 at-bats against him.
As for the aforementioned Jurrjens, he is 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA in four starts since returning from Triple-A, despite just 10 strikeouts (with five walks) in 25-1/3 innings. He’s allowed one homer since he returned to the majors, that in his last start vs. Philadelphia when he gave up three runs and six hits in seven innings for the win.
Against Zito, Uggla is 6-for-20 with a homer and Chipper is 2-for-9 with a homer. They are the only Braves with more than one hit or eight at-bats against him.
Against Jurrjens, Freddy Sanchez is 6-for-13 and Pablo Sandoval is 4-for-9, while Angel Pagan is just 3-for-29.
• Let’s close with a tune from Dave Alvin, who has made so much great music since his days with the mighty X. This song appeared on the TV show Justified, which we love. It’s from his most recent album, Eleven Eleven, which is strong from start to finish. You can hear the song by clicking here.
“HARLAN COUNTY LINE” by Dave Alvin
Another morning, another motel bed,
another city waitin’ up ahead…
Light another menthol, to clear my mind…
Of those memories I pretend to forget,
cause I always want to live with out regrets
I still think of her from time to time
Only she’s still livin’ across the Harlan County Line
Now when we met we were both livin’ far from home
tryin’ to get by and tired of being alone,
for a moment I thought she was mine…
Cause she had a voice I just wanted to believe…
She said her mother was full blood Cherokee and her
Daddy was a union man down in the mines…
Fighting the good fight across the Harlan County Line…
People can be Noble, and People can be Cruel
they’ll make you President or they’ll make you a Fool but,
she always treated me nice and kind…
Until that day she left me on my own said there
was trouble she had to handle back home…
Then she gave me a number and said call any time
if I ever made it across the Harlan County Line…
Now the years disappear out on the highway
And I lost her number somewhere along the way
So I’ll say a little prayer that she’s doing fine…
Another morning, another motel bed,
another city waitin’ up ahead…
And another small memory to leave behind
somewhere across the Harlan County Line…
across the Harlan County Line….
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog