A starting rotation that was supposed to be a strength for the Braves this season had turned into an injury- and inconsistency-plagued weakness by early summer. And given the team’s payroll constraints, it didn’t look like they had many viable options to fix it without mortgaging the future and getting upper management to approve a budget-busting trade.
So give GM Frank Wren credit for somehow managing to not only plug holes on the cheap, but actually make this rotation as formidable as it was supposed to be.
To put it another way, name another team that made midseason moves that look as astute now as Wren’s signing of Ben Sheets off the scrap heap and trading for Cubs lefty Paul Maholm, who threw a three-hit shutout Friday in his second start for the Braves.
Not to mention getting outfielder Reed Johnson in that same trade with the Cubs, for which the Braves gave up promising but thus far injury-plagued pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino, who’s recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery.
Sure, it’s too soon to know if Sheets’ elbow will hold up or if Maholm can keep pitching anywhere near as well as he has for the past two months with the Cubs and now Braves. But so far, those two pitchers are a combined 5-2 with a 1.50 ERA in seven starts for the Braves – all seven of them quality starts.
And get this: Sheets and Maholm together will make less than $4 million during their time with the Braves this season, which includes more than $1 million in bonuses that Sheets will earn as long as he stays healthy and in the rotation. And that doesn’t include the money that the Cubs sent to the Braves in the trade to help offset the salaries of Maholm and Johnson.
One other thing: Maholm is under contractual control for 2013 through a $6.75 team option that’s starting to look like a stunning bargain. I mean, this is a guy who looks like he’s really figured out something. He’s 10-7 with a 3.50 ERA, including 6-1 with a 1.20 ERA and sub-.200 opponents’ batting average in his past eight starts.
Last night he faced a top Mets prospect, Matt Harvey, who was the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft. Harvey showed his considerable potential while holding the Braves to two runs and two hits in six innings, though he also issued five walks including one to Michael Bourn to start the game. Jason Heyward homered two batters later.
“You look over there at the guy they threw out there [Harvey], he’s got great stuff,” said David Ross, who handled the catching Friday night while Brian McCann rested a sore shoulder three days after getting a cortisone shot. “The guy’s throwing 96, throwing hard. But he’s got to learn how to pitch. Once he learns how to pitch he’s going to be really good.
“Pauly, when you’re throwing 87 [mph] out there, you’ve got to know how to pitch from the get-go. And he’s gotten nothing but better as he’s gotten older. There’s something to be said about veteran pitchers that know what they want to do to every hitter and know how to read hitters like catchers do and try to get on the same page as catchers. And that’s why you try to bring young pitchers along and try to let those guys work through things and figure it out. Because this isn’t Triple-A, this is the big leagues. So you’ve got to go through some bumps and bruises.”
Ross pointed out how Mike Minor has gone through his share of difficulties and learned from it, and how he’s now begun to come into his own in the Braves rotation. It’s a strong rotation now, with Sheets and Maholm joining Tim Hudson, Minor and Kris Medlen, who makes his third start tonight since moving from the bullpen.
When Tommy Hanson comes back from the DL in a week or so, the Braves may go to a six-man rotation for the remainder of a 20-games-in-20-days stretch that began Friday. But then what? Too soon to know what move they’ll make, and we’ve all seen how these decisions often take care of themselves when someone gets hurt or struggles or whatever.
But again, the Braves are back in a position they thought they were in at the start of the season, having more legit starters than can fit in a five-man rotation. Obviously a good position to be in, as all those teams with inexperienced or just plan bad starters at the back end of their rotation can attest.
And without Wren’s midseason moves, including the decision to finally move Medlen from the ‘pen to the rotation, the Braves would not be on the roll they’re on now, which includes a 23-8 record and 2.90 ERA in their past 31 games, and 13-3 record and 1.76 ERA in their past 16.
We’ve all picked apart and criticized him for trades or signings that fell through or didn’t work out well in the past. But if you can’t see that Wren has done a fine job renovating this team on a budget, well, then you might be looking at the situation from a jaundiced point of view.
• Maholm’s night: Just a couple of notes to follow up on Maholm’s three-hit shutout, which included five strikeouts and no walks. He did it in 95 pitches (64 strikes), the fewest by a Braves pitcher in a shutout since future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux threw back-to-back four-hitters in September 2000, in 90 pitches against Arizona and 89 pitches against Florida.
Hudson and Brandon Beachy each threw a five-hit shutout this season, Beachy with no walks and Hudson with three walks. Randall Delgado and three relievers combined on a two-hitter in 2-1 win against Miami on June 6, the season low for hits by Braves pitchers.
• Meds vs. Johan: Interesting matchup tonight, with Medlen facing Mets veteran Johan Santana in his first start back from the DL. Santana long dominated the Braves but had terrible luck and run support and didn’t get many wins to show for it.
Now he’s 3-8 with a 2.99 ERA in 15 starts against the Braves, including 0-2 with a 14.21 ERA in his past two of three starts against them this season.
Santana won’t have to face the DL’d Matt Diaz, who is 19-for-37 (.514) with a homer against him. But who’d have imagine, the aforementioned Reed Johnson has been even better against the lefty. The ex-Cub is 16-for-31 (.516) with two homers against Santana.
What to make of Santana? He went 2-0 with a .070 opponents’ average in back-to-back shutouts against San Diego and St. Louis May 26 and June 1, including 134 pitches in the June 1 no-hitter against the Cardinals. That’s 26 pitches more than he’s thrown in any other start, and video of manager Terry Collins during that game suggested the Mets manager was on pins and needles with every mounting pitch in the last couple of innings. Perhaps for good reason.
Since that 134-pitch no-hitter, Santana is 3-5 with a 6.54 ERA and .305 opp average in eight starts, including 0-3 with a 13.50 ERA and .452 OA in his past three (28 hits and six homers in 12-2/3 innings).
He went on the DL with a sprained ankle that occurred when he was covering first base on a grounder by – wait for it – Reed Johnson, who stepped on Santana’s twisted ankle on the play. That was in the first of his three bad starts before the DL assignment, but Mets officials think Santana might’ve developed some shoulder fatigue from compensating for the ankle injury.
I’d expect to see Johnson in the lineup tonight, probably in left field. The question is, would Fredi Gonzalez move Martin Prado to second base in place of Dan Uggla, who is 1-for-21 with 12 strikeouts against Santana? I doubt it, only because it would be the second time in four games that Gonzalez made that move, after he rested Uggla against Cole Hamels, another lefty against whom he’s struggled.
And Prado, who has cooled off lately, also hasn’t done a whole lot in his career against Santana (5-for-24).
Gonzalez didn’t want to “mess him up” against Hamels when Uggla was finally starting to come out of his epic slump. That strategy seemed to work, because Uggla has continued his his hopeful offensive resurgence, including a two-run homer (and two walks) in Friday’s 4-0 win.
But the two might come to blows if Gonzalez benches him twice in four games. (Kidding about them coming to blows. OK, slightly kidding.)
• Uggla halts the ugh: The second baseman is 11-for-39 (.282) with six extra-base hits, 12 RBIs and an .878 OPS in his past 11 games, after batting .110 with four extra-base hits, nine RBIs and a .361 OPS – not OBP, but OPS – in his previous 42 games. And in his past three games, Uggla is 6-for-10 with two doubles, a homer and five RBIs.
“Who knows, man? It comes and goes so fast,” Uggla said before Friday’s game. “I felt good the last two games, so I’m just going to keep trying to do what I’ve been doing.”
And then he did that, walking twice and hitting a two-run homer in the eighth inning to push the Braves’ lead to 4-0.
“The last two years, man, for whatever reason it just was harder to find,” he said of his timing at the plate. “Who knows? I have no idea, no reason for it at all. But last year, once I found it it clicked and it stayed for the rest of the year….
“I was feeling good early on [this year] for the first two months of the season, and then all of a sudden, I don’t know what happened. Hopefully right now is the turning point. It’s the grind of continuing to stay positive and keep working and trying to go in the right direction.”
For nearly two months this season, we watched Uggla strike out and hit sky-high pop-ups.
“It’s really frustrating when you feel like you’re on a pitch, like you’re on time, and you hit it on the barrel and it just goes straight up,” he said. “It’s not a fun feeling. You’re going to have those games every once in a while, but to have to deal with it day after day … oh, man, enough’s enough. Then you start to think, why is this happening? Why am I popping balls up that I should be hitting on a line or out of the ballpark?
“…. There’s different styles of hitting. My thing is, I’ve got to be on time. I’ve got to be on time with the fastball and be able to recognize off-speed [pitches] and make the adjustment. And if you’re not on time, if you’re late, it creates problems. There’s other guys that get their [front] foot down real early, but if they’re feet are in the wrong position or if they’re too closed or something, then it causes problems. Mine, it’s not so much where my hands are, it’s just being on time.”
• OK, let’s close this and get over to Citi Field. We’ll close with a Dylan tune that, according to many accounts, he was inspired to write after being refused a hotel room due to his unkempt appearance (this was in the early ‘60s). Love this song, which you can hear by clicking here.
“WHEN THE SHIP COMES IN” by Bob Dylan
Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin’
Like the stillness in the wind
’Fore the hurricane begins
The hour when the ship comes in
Oh the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking
Then the tide will sound
And the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking
Oh the fishes will laugh
As they swim out of the path
And the seagulls they’ll be smiling
And the rocks on the sand
Will proudly stand
The hour that the ship comes in
And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean
A song will lift
As the mainsail shifts
And the boat drifts on to the shoreline
And the sun will respect
Every face on the deck
The hour that the ship comes in
Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin’
And the ship’s wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin’
Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real
The hour when the ship comes in
Then they’ll raise their hands
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharoah’s tribe
They’ll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog