A year ago the Braves beat Brandon Webb on Memorial Day, and these fallible fingers went to work. “They’ll be in first place by the Fourth of July,” they typed, “and come Labor Day they’ll be pulling away.” In a career of Dewey-defeats-Truman moments, it was among the dewiest.
One year on, no rosy proclamation will be offered. The forecast of May 2008 was based on the Braves getting healthy. (They would, alas, get hurt at an even more alarming rate.) These Braves are getting healthy, too, but there’s difference. What we’ve seen is apt to be what we’re going to get: Good starting pitching, not much hitting, a slew of games that must be won 1-0 or 4-3, which, not coincidentally, were the scores the first two nights of the Toronto series.
At peak capacity, the Braves as constituted could win 88 games. They cannot win 95. At best, they seem a wild-card team – good, but not that good. A lot of things have to go right for them to win, and lately they have. But I don’t see this offense holding up over six months.
The Braves’ starting outfield against the Blue Jays on Sunday carried a total of five home runs, two of which came on Opening Night in Philadelphia. The Braves as a team entered the game with 30 homers, which ranked 13th among 16 National League clubs. They’ve been putting the ball in play a bit more – they had the fourth-fewest strikeouts among NL teams – but it isn’t as if they’ve been reincarnated as the 1982 Cardinals.
This isn’t an offense built on speed. The Braves have 10 stolen bases, the fewest in the majors. (Brian McCann is tied for the team lead – with two.) This is simply an offense that, as much as it would like to generate the three-run homer on cue, doesn’t anymore.
Speaking of those 1-0 and 4-3 victories, Bobby Cox was moved to recall a time when the Braves won such games as a matter of course. “Those were the days, man,” he said, but there are clear differences.
As good as Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens and Javier Vazquez are, they’re seven Cy Youngs short of matching the rotation of the ’90s. And there’s no Fred McGriff playing first base, no Ron Gant or David Justice in the outfield.
There’s Chipper Jones, who’s still great, and Brian McCann, who’s very good. And Yunel Escobar is a threat. But who else? Garret Anderson and Casey Kotchman are doubles hitters. Jordan Schafer is fighting to stay above .200. True, Jeff Francoeur seems to be coming around, but weren’t we saying that a month ago?
To their credit, the Braves just swept a good team. But the first two victories were hairbreadth things, and Sunday’s game was in the balance until the seventh, when the Jays left the go-ahead run at third and Jones, in his only at-bat of the series, lined a pitch off first baseman Lyle Overbay’s mitt to untie matters.
Said Cox afterward: “The hitting is timely, most of the time.”
Earlier in the day Cox had offered this appraisal: “I can’t say I’m thrilled with where we are, but I like our team.”
I do, too. But I’d like it more with another bat in the outfield. I suspect Cox would, too.