If pitching is 75 percent — or 90 percent; estimates vary — of baseball, why are the Braves further under .500 than they’ve been all season?
Because the other 25 (or 10) percent of their team is worth about 10 cents.
Without meaning to say it, Brian McCann said it perfectly: “We’ve got to start playing better baseball.” Then he checked himself. “Not better baseball — we’ve got to swing the bats better.”
The Braves swing the bats just fine. It’s the hitting part that bumfuzzles them. They’ve scored one run in two games against the Red Sox, who have managed only five but have already won this loud and steamy series. Jair Jurrjens was rather good Friday night but wound up the loser. Javier Vazquez was nigh-great Saturday and got beaten 1-nil by a 42-year-old who throws about 42 mph.
The Braves mustered three singles against Tim Wakefield, who was knuckle-dusting the Braves in October 17 years ago, and Garret Anderson’s two-out double off the heat-bringing Johnathan Papelbon. Their biggest threat, such as it was, came when Matt Diaz walked in the eighth, took second on a wild pitch and moved to third on a groundout.
McCann again: “This team should win more games. You win with pitching.”
And usually you do, provided you have anything approaching a big-league batting order. The Braves have three only real hitters, and one of them (the increasingly peculiar Yunel Escobar) didn’t play Saturday because of what was described as a twitchy hip. McCann went 0-for-3 but walked and stole a base. Chipper Jones went 0-for-4 and saw his average dip to .290.
The Braves keep marveling about how lucky they’ve been, having not won a series since Memorial Day but still hanging within five games of first place. They can’t expect to be lucky much longer. The Phillies come to town Tuesday, and if the Braves lose that series we can bid adieu to 2009.
“We’re not out there trying to get shut out or stay only four or five games back,” Chipper said. “We’re busting our humps. But we seem a little offensively challenged this year for some reason, and I’m not talking about the front or the back of the lineup. It’s the whole lineup. Nobody’s exempt.”
This could well be the best these Braves can do, and there’s no real reason a team with a right fielder, a left fielder and a first baseman who have managed 10 homers as a triumvirate should bust any fences. We can credit Frank Wren for getting half his offseason spectacularly right — the Braves can really, really pitch — but having whiffed egregiously on the other half.
Still, unless you’re the Red Sox or the Yankees, there’s only so much you can fix over one winter. The good news is that these Braves should be pitching well for a nice long while. The bad is that 70 games’ worth of deft pitching has positioned them fourth in a five-team division.
The feeling in the Braves’ clubhouse Saturday was of reality descending like the crack of dawn . They can’t hit. They’re not apt to hit. You can only be shut out so many times — the number is now at nine — and still retain hope. “We’ve got to keep plugging away,” McCann said, and that, sad to say, is the trouble.
Plugging the Braves can manage. Hitting they cannot.