(Updated: 10:45 p.m.)
Maybe the analogy Fredi Gonzalez chose was a little dated, but the context still translates clearly in 2011.
“You look at the back of the bubble-gum cards and you see the [career] numbers by these guys and you think, ‘It can still happen,’” the Braves’ manager said Wednesday night.
Back in the day, I didn’t have the patience to wait. So my seven Matty Alou baseball cards — I chewed a lot of bad gum, hoping to land a Willie Davis or a Bill Freehan, always getting an Alou brother — ended up clicking in my bicycle spokes if he was hitting .258 in May.
The Braves don’t have that option. (With the cards maybe, but not the players. They’re under contract.)
Right now, they are an average team. After dropping the first two games of the San Diego series, they salvaged one against the Padres on Wednesday night, winning 4-3 behind the strong pitching of Tommy Hanson and the bullpen and a great game-ending catch by Jordan Schafer. But a 3-3 homestand and a 12-11 record since May 7 won’t stir the masses.
“Good [way] to finish after the first two nights,” Gonzalez said. “Good start to June.”
These small victories are welcome. Nobody expected mediocrity. Nobody expected losing consecutive home games to the Padres, who hit town with the second-worst record in the National League (22-31).
Is it panic time yet? Hardly. General manager Frank Wren isn’t going to make any trades, at least not for a while. It’s early. Also, it doesn’t make sense to swing a deal when the team has players on the disabled list (unless they’re viewed as long-term injuries). Also, even with Philadelphia off to a good start, the Braves are only 3½ games out of first place.
To put it another way, the Braves have 105 games left and their magic (elimination) number in the East Division is 103.
The question is: When does concern turn into some sort of action? The Braves can deal from a position of strength — pitching — whether that involves a veteran or a prospect. But they would like to get a better read on Jason Heyward’s health, Schafer’s viability as a permanent center fielder and leadoff hitter, and Dan Uggla’s general vital signs before making a decision.
It isn’t all bad. Brian McCann (.309) had two more hits. Rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman, after hitting .220 in his first 39 games, is 24-for-62 (.387) in his last 16 (he had two run-scoring hits against the Padres in his first two at-bats). Martin Prado, whose solo homer gave the Braves a 4-2 lead in the sixth, is still good anywhere he plays or hits in the lineup.
But nobody knows when Uggla (.175) will remember that he’s not supposed to stink or when Heyward believes his shoulder will be strong enough to play.
That is why Chipper Jones is still playing. He probably shouldn’t be. He’ll tell you that his right knee feels fine and his sore groin (used to be hamstring) is healthy enough. But the reality is, he probably is just delaying the inevitable. He’ll need arthroscopic surgery at some point for torn cartilage, and he should be healing on the disabled list.
Gonzalez said Jones probably would be more receptive to days off if the remainder of the roster was healthy and functioning normally. Jones will acknowledge this only to a certain degree.
“I think I’d still be playing,” he said.
Then this: “It’s not the best time [to be out]. The best option for me was to try the [cortisone] shot to see if it works, and to this point it has. [But] you lose your top three hitters in your batting order [including Nate McLouth and Heyward], it might be too big of a hole.”
Folllowing the win, Freeman said, “Obviously runs are coming a little difficult right now, But with the way Tommy pitched and our bullpen, four was enough tonight. But we don’t want to put that much pressure on [our pitchers].”
The Braves hope at some point the offense wakes up. But the calendar just turned to June, and discomfort is growing.
By Jeff Schultz