The Braves were leading the NL East. They aren’t anymore

"First place is over that way, I do believe." (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

"First place is over that way, I do believe." (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

(Updated to reflect Wednesday’s rather shabby outcome.)

Not so long ago, some believed the National League East had grown too tough for the local nine. Sports Illustrated even picked this club to finish fourth in a five-team division. And yet, with almost one-fourth of the six-month season gone, who awoke Wednesday holding first place?

Said Brian McCann, smiling: “Bravos.”

Yep. The team that didn’t spend big on free agents — unless you count paying Derek Lowe $10 million to leave — stood atop the division that has stamped itself as the NL’s best. OK, so it was only by a half-game over Washington, and so the skinny lead didn’t last the night. (The Nationals won at home and the Braves played horribly and lost to Miami here.) Still, let’s focus on the bigger picture:

The Braves were rather easy to forget amid the winter Eastern movement, and through 37 games they’d looked pretty darn good.

Granted, the 38th was a downer. They yielded a steal of home and Mike Minor pitched badly again and Juan Francisco got thrown out trying to stretch a leadoff double with his team four runs down. There were only two blessings: It wasn’t a doubleheader, and it’s over.

Looking long-term, we ask: Can the local nine hold up? “Yeah,” Chipper Jones said. “That’s a no-doubter – ‘Can we?’ No doubt.”

OK. Better question: Will they?

Jones: “If we play as well as we’ve played the first quarter of the season.”

McCann: “Yes. We feel like we’ve got a really good team. If we continue to play like we’ve been playing … ”

Actually, the Braves will need to play better — or at least pitch better. Their hitting turnaround has been documented — who knew that the most important newcomer in a division that added Jose Reyes and Gio Gonzalez and Jonathan Papelbon would be hitting coach Greg Walker? — but the Braves’ pitching staff has compiled the 13th-best ERA in a 16-team league. That number drops with every good turn taken by Tim Hudson but rises whenever Minor toes the slab.

To date, Washington and Miami and Philadelphia have outpitched the Braves. This being baseball, pitching tends to matter.

Said Miami manager Ozzie Guillen, whose Marlins arrived Wednesday for their first collision of the season with the Braves: “We’re not hitting. We just started hitting last week … [But] the offense will come. A manager always worries [more] about his pitching.”

Another source of (admittedly early) concern: The Braves are 20-8 against the NL Central and West — but 3-7 against division brethren. Said Jones: “We have to play better than we have within the division. The last couple of years we haven’t been able to play [inside the division] in a way that would enable us to hold up near the top. If we don’t find a way, the same will hold true this season.”

But now the good news: Early though it is, the Braves have passed the eyeball test. With the way they’re hitting and the way they should be capable of pitching, they won’t be outclassed by anybody in the East. The Mets probably won’t hold up much longer. The callow Nationals have lost half a lineup’s worth of everyday players, and the Phillies are still without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. More and more, the East is looking like the Braves’ and Marlins’ to contest.

Said Guillen, speaking of Walker, his old hitting coach with the White Sox: “I told him, ‘It’s too bad you’re in my division.’ ”

Being in the beefed-up East has to be bad for somebody. Philadelphia entered play Wednesday with 18 wins, good for last in the division; by way of comparison, the second-place teams in the Central and West — Cincinnati and San Francisco, respectively — had each won 18 times.

McCann: “There’s no room for error. All five teams are above average, and when you play each of them 18 times apiece it makes for a good summer and a good finish.”

Or it could make for a bad summer and a worse finish. The Braves, as we know, faded at the end of the past two summers. They won the wild card on the final day of the 2010 season, lost it in the 13th inning of the 162nd game last year. Assuming the pitching returns to something close to form, this looks like a much better team than its immediate predecessors.

“We’re swinging the bats — that’s a pretty big thing,” Jones said. “If we swing the bats this way last year, we’d have won at least 95 games.”

Which would have claimed the wild card over St. Louis by five games, and the National League wild-card winner wound up taking the World Series. This year there will be, at least for one postseason day, two wild cards. We shouldn’t be shocked if three NL East teams play beyond the 162nd game. We should be shocked if the Braves aren’t among them.

By Mark Bradley

56 comments Add your comment

Najeh Davenpoop

May 16th, 2012
7:07 pm

Bradley Curse

kreedham

May 16th, 2012
7:27 pm

Less harmful than the Davenpoop curse!

Whopper Dawg

May 16th, 2012
7:28 pm

Much better than I anticipated. Worried sick coming out of the spring. Minor has to come on.

Real good deal that we didn’t pull the trigger on trading our young pitching talent when it looked like we could, we need every one of them.

Blazerdawg

May 16th, 2012
7:40 pm

Yes! Even with injuries/subs this team will holdup. Kudos to Bourne, P-Nicky, and Wren! Cannot wait for July, August, and September.

SimpleDawg

May 16th, 2012
7:51 pm

There’s a long season ahead. The Braves look pretty good up ’til now, but let’s see whether they’re a pace setter or a true thoroughbred that can bring it down the stretch.

Pitching will be key. Huddy needs to maintain his start, Minor needs to prove that he is a reliable major league starter, Delgado needs to continue to improve and not cave in to pressure, Beachy can’t waver as he shows he’s a real solid ML pitcher, and Medlen better stay ready because I feel like the Braves will need him to move into the starting rotation when Hanson falters in the second half…..he shows the ball to the hitters longer and more plainly than any pitcher in history.

Hitters….next time.

stevie zero

May 16th, 2012
7:55 pm

nice piece, mark. agree about pitching….bullpen still a little shakey

Larry Munson

May 16th, 2012
8:05 pm

U just wate N see this team will emplode by the all star brake. Mark my words

Loosing Managar = Loosing Record

May 16th, 2012
8:08 pm

Why am I bein sensored?

U just wate N see this team will emplode by the all star brake Mark my words

Mike Jay

May 16th, 2012
8:17 pm

I would be interested in seeing the Braves ERA minus the JJ starts. I bet it is closer to the top. Speaking of JJ…. What gives with him? I get the feeling that he showed up out of shape and slacked on his rehabbing. He does appear to be taking his demotion well and can hopefully turn it around. Who knows he might swap spots with Minor sooner than later. If he can get back to his first half Cy Young he had going last year….oh My will the Braves be good.

Since I’m on pitching… Anyone else get the feeling that Huddy could have an outstanding year? You could argue that he has been our best starting pitcher the last few seasons. That was with a bad back! He’s well rested and pitching pain free. I say look out!

Lastly, Beachy for Cy Young 2012!

Art

May 16th, 2012
8:18 pm

Can someone tell me why Larry Parrish was paid for being a hitting coach last year. The Braves basically have the same in the field but the hitters seem like they know what they are doing and not like last year when they were lost. Kudos to Greg Walker. One negative. What is going on with Derek Lowe. He is 6-1 and could not get a winning season in Atlanta. Does that mean no Kudos for McDowell. And what has happened to Minor and Jurrgens.

The Grinch

May 16th, 2012
8:19 pm

Yeah, they still have a ways to go to catch the Hawks as the class of Atlanta. Right, Najeh?

Mark Bradley

May 16th, 2012
8:34 pm

Mike Minor allowed no hits through three frames. He leaves in the fifth trailing 5-1.

eastbound and down

May 16th, 2012
8:42 pm

MB,
so when the Braves collapse or fail to win the World Series or you going to have a column entitled,
“they could have won it, but being the Braves they blew it?” like you did for the hawks?

JC Boscan III

May 16th, 2012
8:44 pm

We have a great shot this year, but we have 2 weaknesses:

1. Mediocre pitching performances – 21st in major league ERA before tonight’s bad Minor start.
2. Continuing our past trend of poor play against NL East rivals, whether a good or bad team.

Hopefully, they’ll do something about these 2 factors……………….?! GO BRAVES!

Nativebird

May 16th, 2012
8:44 pm

“Their hitting turnaround has been documented”. it’s May 15th. It’s a long season. We hope continues, but Let’s reserve judgement for awhile. at least to the 1/2 way point shall we?

Ryan's Dad

May 16th, 2012
8:45 pm

I think the biggest difference-maker is speed at the top of the lineup. Not since we lost Furcal have we been this offensively potent. Having some stolen bases from Heyward at the end of the lineup is great too. Prado and Pastornicky’s speed seems nice to compliment the base stealing threats. I think having distracting speed makes everyone else in the lineup more productive and it is what we’ve been missing for a while.

TampaGator

May 16th, 2012
8:54 pm

I think Mike Minor is buying Jar Jurgens (sp?) a cab ticket out of Gwinnett….and him back there. Way too many pitches in the middle of the plate…..and no consistent control on the change up for more than a couple of innings.

Birdhair

May 16th, 2012
9:05 pm

Time for medlen to start….the bottom line though is that there’s no hope for the braves so long as frank wren is the gm

Deciduous Tompkins

May 16th, 2012
9:14 pm

if there are two wild cards does that meen the Braves are going to win a wild card even if they finish in thrid place in the east?

Minor is a Minor Leaguer

May 16th, 2012
9:18 pm

Like Jurgens, Minor needs to go figure it out in the Minors. Needs to happen tomorrow. Medlen promoted to starter to fill his slot. Wow… Our pitching is the question mark this year… Weird… Can we get it all working together at the same time?

Don't re-sign McCann

May 16th, 2012
9:22 pm

Don’t re-sign McCann… He is clearly trending down stat wise and his defense will suck in another few years… Sign Bourne to a long term deal.

Delbert D.

May 16th, 2012
9:31 pm

The early beast.

Skeezix

May 16th, 2012
9:36 pm

The pitching is my big concern at this point. It has got to get better.

Skeezix

May 16th, 2012
9:38 pm

Minor has the talent, but not all the pitches yet and his confidence seems to wilt when he gets in a jam.

DaveinNEPA

May 16th, 2012
9:44 pm

No Bradley, we’re not the “beasts of the East”!!!!

First of all, based on what we’ve seen so far this season, evey team in the division has at least as good or better starting pitching than we do.

Second, until we can beat the other teams in our division, we’re not going to win anything. We played about .500 ball against the East last season and so far we’re not even close to that this year.

todd grantham

May 16th, 2012
9:48 pm

what’s the score Mark?

Hy Ronatt

May 16th, 2012
9:51 pm

Nope, Can’t even beat the Terrible Tilapia.

Just Because

May 16th, 2012
9:52 pm

This season is starting to look more and more like last year every day.

Dan Uggla

May 16th, 2012
9:53 pm

Baseball is okay but I really prefer to hang out with porn queens.

Sid

May 16th, 2012
9:54 pm

oh yea get those World Series tickets ready……delusional Atlanta Sports Media.

Biff Pocoroba

May 16th, 2012
10:06 pm

This team now has two top hitters that can’t see and Heyward can’t anymore either. Some of these guys should have been traded when they still have value. Chipper will be out 2 – 3 games a week and his back up is fat and lazy and swings for the fence everytime up. They are trying to make it through the season with no shortstop and the pitching has been awful and 2 of their top 3 relivers can’t pitch this year and they signed two washed up journeymen to fill out the bullpen. With Fredi and his mystery moves, this team will be out of contention in July.

anotherdawg

May 16th, 2012
10:33 pm

Mark, could you please write a column tommorrow about how the Nats are the Supreme Beasts of the East, and will probably go undefeated the rest of the season, so they can follow in the footsteps of the Dawgs. Hawks, and every other team that you have pumped up. I’ll say one thing for you, you are not afraid to go out on a limb, even if it’s one that might have a hard time supporting a grasshopper.

Norcal Brave

May 16th, 2012
10:42 pm

Love having a capable offense this year; makes for more entertaining baseball. Medlen may need to get in the rotation sooner than later, if Minor and JJ don’t figure things out. I think it was McCann who said a month ago that Minor’s future was limitless; did he jinx him? Venters is also not so dominant. I think we’ll stay in the race through the season and pitching, as always, will decide it.

iTiSi

May 16th, 2012
10:48 pm

This was one of those “giveaway” games, or as my buddy calls them, “IDGAS” games. FG is good for at least 3 or 4 of these per year, as if they don’t count as much as those toward the end of the season. (SARCASM INTENDED) How many games was that the Braves came up short last year again? You don’t “REST” two of your best offensive weapons on the same day. A game like this is exactly why I don’t buy advance tickets. If I had been someone who had bought an advance ticket for tonight’s game, I would ask for a refund due to an inferior product being put on the field.

todd grantham

May 16th, 2012
10:52 pm

no use being Irish unless you know the Braves will break your heart.

Turtsnap

May 16th, 2012
11:03 pm

3-7 in the division…. that can’t continue or we won’t have a shot for wild card. Can the Juan Francisco experiment please end? The guy is a waste of a roster spot!

tdawgmoney

May 16th, 2012
11:04 pm

what is this business of “round the horn” resting everybody?? I understand Chipper’s old bones and muscles need a break but why sit a scalding red-hot 29 yr old Michael Bourne?? he could run to the airport and back between a double header and still have energy to burn. I don’t get it. You rest somebody who is nicked up or is pressing too hard and batting .182…..not a .340 dude that can run like a deer.

Turtsnap

May 16th, 2012
11:06 pm

Oh, and the Phillies are waking up!

I said this in an earlier blog today – but I don’t see what the Braves see in Minor. He had a great Spring Training, and I guess he has good numbers in AAA, but in the majors he is below average

STRETCH

May 16th, 2012
11:10 pm

This team is in serious trouble if they think that they can compete with Minor in the starting lineup. But thats how they think. Sometimes they over think. Minor has given up 6 earned runs in the last 4 games he has pitched in.

But Fredi will continue his Bobby Cox loyalty style of coaching. Heck they should have kept Dereck Lowe then! If i were Medlen, i would be requesting a trade so that i can actually pitch and show the world what i have!

Najeh Davenpoop

May 16th, 2012
11:31 pm

What did I tell y’all about the Bradley Curse. The year Bradley finally decides to pick against every Atlanta team all year long is the year an Atlanta team finally breaks through and wins.

“Yeah, they still have a ways to go to catch the Hawks as the class of Atlanta. Right, Najeh?”

Yeah, they have to beat someone in the playoffs. Once they do that, they will have surpassed the Hawks.

tired of mediocrity

May 17th, 2012
12:51 am

Time for Minor to head to triple a. What about making Medlin a starter like he should be. Entirely too good to be being used for long term relief. Got Hernandez for that.

DawgDad

May 17th, 2012
1:19 am

“We should be shocked if the Braves aren’t among them.”

WHY? They figured to be a third or fourth place team. They’ve played very well in spurts and show signs of life offensively, Hudson looks good, and Hanson appears repaired if not quite at peak form. The bullpen is still solid. But the roster has flaws and question marks that over the course of the season figure to drag the team down. Will Chipper hold up? Will Uggla continue to hit consistently? Can they overcome markedly subpar defense up the middle (Bourn excepted, of course)? Will all the 4-5 inning starts wear down the bullpen? What happens at the trading deadline, do the Braves buy, sell, or stand pat? Can this team play ball in September? We’ll see, I’m certainly hoping for the best, still a bit shell-shocked by the finish last year.

Harpie

May 17th, 2012
1:28 am

Right now, the pitching staff, as a whole, stinks.

niedermeyer

May 17th, 2012
1:30 am

SimpleDawg: Where did you see that Hanson wont be around in the 2nd half? Stick to football ,man. Braves are playing much better than any of us thought!

Grouchie

May 17th, 2012
1:32 am

Staff is fine….Lets have a cigar bro.

extremus

May 17th, 2012
1:32 am

Disappointing to see the Braves lose the first game against the Marlins, but as hot as the Marlins have been lately it was obvious this would be a difficult series. Right now the biggest issue facing the Braves is their lack of starting pitching consistency (and the bullpen has been shaky at times as well). Coming in I admit the offense was the key reason I would have given that this team might not make October, but as always, basebal is a quirky and very unpredictable game.

I do believe that at least for now, Mike Minor is rapidly losing ground and confidence at the MLB level, though I have no idea whom I’d pick (outside possibly Medlen) to replace him in the rotation. Teheran seems like he needs more time down in Gwinnett before he’ll be truly ready, but I admit Delgado’s last few starts have left reason for guarded optimism. But the bottom line is, despite the fact the Braves’ offense is doing so much better thus far this season, having to score 8 or 10 runs a game to win isn’t a recipe for success. Answers need to be found for this staff’s troubles, and fast.

fredde

May 17th, 2012
3:08 am

what happen to peter moylan

J-Man

May 17th, 2012
3:27 am

Overall the Braves are a good team. They have some holes though heres my list of problems on the team and an Idea of possible solutions.

1. Lack of Starters being able to go 7 innings per start consistantly……. Beachy at the moment is the only pitcher you can count on going 7 but I dont see him going 9 innings. Hudson looks back and is the guy that can go 9. The rest of them its a crap shoot after the 5th inning.

2. Mike Minor has the highest starter ERA in the NL and 3rd highest in all of MLB…….Minor has dominating stuff for the 1st 3 innings but he seems to be figured out when he has to go through the line up the 2nd time around. I personally think he should go back to AAA and when September call-ups come up here have him become a bull-pen pitcher for a potential play-off run.

3. Tyler Pastornicky’s defense……I think him taking extra reps of infield practice is the best thing to do.

4. Brian McCann’s defense…….I personally think he has lost some agility and losing 10-15lbs would help him get some hop in his step.

5. Oventabrel………not being as sharp this year…….I think giving an extended break to EOF and Venters might do them some good, maybe a trip to the DL would give them that rest. This make Kris Medlen that much more valuable

6. Finding another starter…….Minor hasnt gotten the job done with his 7.09 ERA. Jair Jurrjens is no where near ready to come back to Atlanta. So that leaves Julio Teheran to try to come up here and see if he can get the job done here. Todd Redmond has an outside shot to get that call-up…..But if neither can make a difference I think the best option would be to sign Roy Oswalt as opposed to making a huge trade and giving prospects a team like the Phillies for Cole Hamels for example.

7. Fredi Gonzalez……..While he is managing a heck of a lot better this season. He still has questionable decisions and will just sit on his hands and remain emotionless. I personally think he needs to just challange more calls and defend his players more in arguments with the Umpires.

8. The Sporadic selfish ABs by Uggla and McCann….now I’m really reaching out here but Uggla and McCann will sometimes have the case of the Strikeouts especially with runners in scoring position with less than 2 outs. Like tonight we had Prado on 3rd with 1 out and all Uggla needed to do was make contact but he was trying to swing for the fences and went fishing. Also McCann needs to drive the balls opposite way more on that crazy shift.

9.Tipping Caps………lets not utter this phrase even when we do lose…..too many painful memories

10. Losing to NL East teams…….were 3-7 against teams in our division. And if were gonna make the playoffs we need to be atleast .500 in the division. We just have to play with more agressiveness and smarter (Juan Fransisco I’m looking at you your not Rickey Henderson just take the Double). And want to win more the the Nats, Phillies, Mets and Marlins.

Thats my opinion…….To lobosolo I’ll save you the time “ARMCHAIRS ARMCHAIRS ARMCHAIRS BLAH BLAH BLAH”………there ya go. To everybody else this team can win it all but they have to improve from now til September/October.

Nativebird

May 17th, 2012
6:32 am

Are we going to continue to see blogs about how great we are every day we’re temporarily in first place? Is this anaylsis or a cheering section? And btw….The one game wild card is a travesty to baseball and to the other playoff team teams that are forced to possibly participate in a game of Russian roulette after finishing ahead of the others in a 162 season.

GT71

May 17th, 2012
6:53 am

BFD – It’s May.