For starting pitchers who get traded in the middle of a season, especially to a team that’s in a pennant race, the debut can be a nerve-wracking thing. Now add the fact that Mississippi native and resident Paul Maholm will be debuting tonight for the Braves, the team he grew up pulling for, in the ballpark where he and his wife drove over to see some games when they were Mississippi State undergrads.
That said, if Maholm could have hand-picked an opponent and setting for his Braves debut, facing the 2012 edition of Astros at Turner Field would probably be both the team and venue atop the list.
Here’s what we mean: Maholm is 1-1 with a 1.62 ERA in six starts at Turner Field, his best ERA at any ballpark where he’s pitched more than once. He’s allowed one homer in 39 innings at the ballpark on Henry Aaron Drive, and collected 36 strikeouts and eight walks.
The left-hander is 12-6 with a 3.11 ERA in 21 starts against Houston, including 3-0 with a 1.62 ERA in his past five.
Against lefty pitchers, the Astros are hitting .207 with a .274 OBP and .335 slugging percentage, worst in majors in each of those categories.
Did we mention that Houston is awful? And that might be an understatement.
The Astros have lost 48 of their past 62 games, and they are a staggering 1-16 in their past 17 games.
As for Maholm, acquired in Monday’s trade from the Cubs, he’s in perhaps the hottest stretch of his career — which came directly on the heels of one of his worst stretches.
He’s 5-0 with a 1.02 ERA and .210 opponents’ average in his past six starts, after going 0-4 with a 6.43 ERA and .325 opponents’ average in his previous eight.
To hear him explain it, the reason for the turnaround has been pretty simple.
“Getting ahead of hitters. Being able to throw all my pitches for strikes,” he said, when I asked him why he’s been able to excel to such a degree lately. “Mixing it up, keeping the ball down. And just being confident and aggressive. Obviously I’m not a strikeout guy, so the defense was making some great plays. Getting some early leads.”
During his eight-game slump, he had 32 strikeouts, 16 walks and six homers in 42 innings. During his six-start unbeaten streak, he has 32 strikeouts, nine walks and one homer allowed in 44 innings (not counting one inning of relief before the All-Star break).
Keep in mind, we won’t be watching the debut of a rental player tonight, folks. Not a pitcher who’s going to make 8-9 starts for the Braves and then move on as a free agent. He’s under contractual control next year, with a $6.5 million team option the Braves will certainly pick up barring something entirely unforeseen happening in the next couple of months.
So sit back and watch the veteran lefty who handled the Braves so well in the past when he was with the Pirates, and beat then twice this season, too, while allowing one run in 13 innings of two starts. Now he’s a Brave, giving the team a pair of quality left-handers for the first time in quite a while.
But it’s also worth noting, he’s actually fared better against right-handed hitters than left-handed hitters this season. Lefty batters are hitting .304 with an .807 OPS in 112 at-bats against Maholm, while righties have hit .240 with a .694 OPS 338 at-bats against him.
• ‘Stros woes: There is bad, and there is epic fail. I covered a 54-108 Marlins team in 1998 that was the latter, because they blew up the ’97 World Series championship team and rushed a bunch of not-ready guys to the majors.
The current Astros are just as bad, but for a variety of different reasons. Terribly constructed team, low payroll, starting over with new owner before next year’s move to the AL. All have contributed to the mess that is the team they’re running out on the field these days.
Can you imagine losing 16 of 17 games? That’s taking the dog days of summer to a new level, indeed. The Astros are are 1-16 with a 7.17 ERA in their past 17, and they’ve scored three runs or fewer in 11 of those games and allowed eight runs or more in nine. Repeat, they’ve allowed eight or more runs in nine out of 17 games.
Imagine being in Jordan Schafer’s position. Started the year hitting leadoff for the ‘Stros. Now batting at the bottom of the order a lot of the time for the sorriest team in baseball, and in his last 50 games Schafer has hit .169 (24-for-142) with six extra-base hits, 10 RBI, 21 walks and 50 strikeouts. He has a .279 OBP and .525 OPS in that stretch, and the Astros lost 40 of those 50 games.
Schafer’s .614 OPS this season is second-lowest among NL qualifiers, better than only Cameron Maybin’s .613 for San Diego
• Braves taking advantage: In the past, Braves teams had a tendency to waste opportunities against the lesser teams, and those 5-10 or more losses in games they felt they should have won came back to haunt them a few times at season’s end. Take last year, for instance.
But not this season. Not lately. The Braves are cleaning the clocks of the teams that, on paper, they should beat. They’re taking care of business during the first part of a long stretch of games against .500-or-below teams.
Since July 5, the Braves are 19-6 with a 3.03 ERA, 122 runs (4.9 per game), a .250 average and 28 homers. Opponent held to two or fewer runs in 12 of past 19 games including eight of the past nine.
In their past 10 games, the Braves are 9-1 with a stingy 1.40 ERA. They’ve averaged just over five runs per game in that stretch and held opponents to one run six times out of 10 games.
The Braves went from five games behind Washington on July 26 to two games behind entering today (Saturday).
The Nationals, meanwhile, have finally cooled a bit in the past week or so, going 4-4 with a 4.44 ERA in their past 8 games. And those games were against Milwaukee, Philly, Miami.
Since July 5, when the Braves started their 19-6 tear, the Nationals are 16-11.
The most dominant closer in baseball right now is Craig Kimbrel. No question. The guy has 50 strikeouts with 1 walk in his last 28 innings, allowing seven hits and a .077 opponents’ average in that stretch. Since giving up a run in back-to-back appearances May 2 and May 4, he’s allowed eight hits and two runs in 31 appearances (31 innings), both runs on homers.
For the seaon, Kimbrel’s 6.0 runner per nine innings is lowest among MLB relievers, while Jonny Venters’ 16.8 is the highest….
Tonight’s Astros starter, Lucas Harrell, is 1-1 with a 1.82 ERA in four starts since the All-Star break. Harrell is 1-3 with a 6.75 ERA in his past six road starts. He’s never faced Braves, and only three Braves have faced him (one at-bat apiece with no hits or walks)….
Reed Johnson went 3-for-7 in first two games in his first two games for the Braves, and,is 34-for-95 (.358) with a .413 OBP and .474 slugging percentage in his past 40 games since June 3….
Jason Heyward has a .379 average, .472 OBP and four homers and nine RBIs in 10 career games vs. Houston. He had only three strikeouts in nine games (26 at-bats) against the Astros before going 0-for-3 with three strikeouts (and a walk) Friday.
• Let’s close with a great tune from Son Volt, and click here for a live video of them doing the song on Austin City Limits.
“CATCHING ON” by Son Volt (J. Farrar)
Can't find a reason Can't find a way Guess it's not you and me Only dogs have their day Another case of words that melt It's not a question of right Nightmares in broad daylight Season crash, season burn You survive another turn And now I'm reaching out, it's true When you don't see me, I'm catching on to you You don't see me I'm catching on to you Took a break to get that far Like the sound from a hundred-dollar guitar Bought from an old catalogue Yesterday's dust and heartache As the pieces fall like candy when you're young Medicine when you're old There's no reason or rhyme Sidestepping around On an elevator climb When you don't see me, I'm catching on to you You don't see me, I'm catching on to you Another jail, another burned-out inside Skeleton love left to die Take whatever lies ahead The good with the bad, and leave the rest When you don't see me, I'm catching on to you You don't see me I'm catching on to you
— David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog