On this day a year ago, the Braves were 17 games over .500 (63-46), continued their ascent to 26 over in late August, flashing the look of a legitimate contender, and muted almost every remaining skeptic when even Dan Uggla rediscovered the art of hitting (the assumption being that his 33-game hitting streak had followed the laying of hands). Then came the fall.
After the Braves’ 7-1 win over the Miami Marlins Tuesday night, giddiness abounded once again. They have won seven straight. They are a season-best 59-44. Everybody is hitting. (OK. Not Dan Uggla. The hands thing wore off.)
So. Is it safe now to project something special?
Uh … no.
There is a lot to like about this team. They score runs. They deliver timely hits. They rank second to St. Louis in the National League in runs scored. The overall team batting average (.257) doesn’t look great, but it’s up from last season (.243) and doesn’t reflect the strength of the everyday lineup: from Chipper Jones (.316) to Martin Prado (.302) to Michael Bourn (.292) to Freddie Freeman (.279, 63 RBIs) to Jason Heyward (.309 since June; 17 homers overall) to the suddenly hot Brian McCann (.309, 9 homers and 21 RBIs in the last 19).
(Not Uggla. He’s at .208. And now, we move on.)
But last year taught us something about assumptions. When a roster without a long resume for winning loses 18 of 26 down the stretch and gets swept in a three-game series at home to end the season to miss the playoffs, it’s best to remain cautious. We can’t yet know if that team is this team. We can’t be certain that this team is immune to a tailspin.
“I feel really good about this team,” Jones said in a near-empty clubhouse after most of his teammates had left for batting practice. “I like the way we’re playing right now. I like the makeup of this ballclub. Is it enough? The next two months will tell us. But I like our chances as we sit here at the end of July.”
The Braves now sit only 2½ games behind Washington in the National League East. Assume nothing. Consider the rest of the season a flashing yellow light.
The good is the offense and the bullpen. The uncertainty is the starting rotation, from which everything flows. The trade-deadline acquisition of starter Paul Maholm from the Chicago Cubs was a solid move, even if not at the level that Ryan Dempster or obviously Zack Greinke would’ve been. Maholm’s career ERA with Chicago and Pittsburgh is a mediocre 4.30, but he has been among baseball’s hottest pitchers lately (5-0, 1.00 ERA in his last seven starts).
“I feel like the front office tried to make a humongous move and they couldn’t make it work,” David Ross said. “They were trying to get a shutdown starter. I don’t know if you would put Paul Maholm in that category, but his numbers lately are great.”
General manager Frank Wren’s best move this season also has been his cheapest move: He stole Ben Sheets from a little league team.
“He has given us one more guy we could trust on a nightly basis,” Wren said.
That’s said, Sheets somewhat illustrates the questions about the rotation. He has returned from two years out of baseball with three great starts (one earned run in 18 innings). But can we expect that to continue? If you lined up the team’s starters by perceived order of strength, it might go something like this: Tim Hudson, Sheets, Maholm, and then Mike Minor and Tommy Hanson (who just went on the disabled list) in either order.
Kris Medlen reaffirmed Tuesday night that he is a viable option. He threw five strong innings, allowing only one run and four hits and needing only 57 pitches before the rain started, causing a 1 hour, 53-minute delay. He was done for the night.
The strength of the starting pitching will cause a ripple effect with the bullpen, which last year wore out down the stretch. That, along with injuries to Hanson and Jair Jurrjens and a blur of hitting slumps led to the slide.
“What happened last September will pay dividends at some point,” Jones said. He paused before adding with a slight smile, “Whether it’s this year or years down the road remains to be seen. It was kind of a perfect storm of bad things that happened to us and led to our demise. The chance of those things happening again are slim. But we’re not going to take anything for granted.”
That’s probably wise.
By Jeff Schultz