Mark Bradley is off for a bit. Normal service will resume soon.
Because there are so many baseball games, it’s tricky to ascribe any lessons to any single game. But the doings Saturday, I submit, showed us the 2012 Braves for better and worse.
For better: They won by scoring three runs in the eighth inning.
For worse: Their starting pitcher twice couldn’t hold a two-run lead, necessitating the late rally.
Even with their No. 1 shortstop hurt in the final game before the All-Star break and his understudy injured in the first game after, the Braves have one of the better everyday lineups in the National League. On Saturday, they scored five runs in five innings off R.A. Dickey, the knuckleballer who has been baseball’s best pitcher. When you score five runs and you have Craig Kimbrel to close, you should win.
Which the Braves did, but they needed three more runs — and a slew of unyielding at-bats, we should note — off the Mets’ wretched bullpen to do it. “When we get guys firing on all cylinders, that’s a pretty long [meaning deep] lineup,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, speaking of his own.
It is. It’s the sort of lineup you can envision playing and winning in October. At issue, however, is whether the starting pitching will allow it.
Hanson is 10-5, making him the biggest winner among Braves. But his ERA rose above 4.00 after yielding six earned runs (on nine hits) in 5 1/3 innings Saturday, and it would be a stretch to dub him a No. 1 starter. Nor is Tim Hudson a No. 1, not anymore. The Braves will deploy the retread Ben Sheets against the Mets on Sunday with the hope — general manager Frank Wren’s words here — of adding “consistency to the back end of our rotation.”
Good idea. But the front end needs propping up, too.
Let’s dare to think ahead to October, and let’s say the Braves qualify as one of the wild cards. Those two teams will meet in a one-game playoff — or play-in, if you prefer — and is there a Braves starter you’d take over the Giants’ Matt Cain or the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw? And even if the Braves win the National League East and avoid that one-game crucible, are any three of these starters apt to dominate in postseason?
Maybe Sheets will be the rising tide that lifts all boats. As it is, he’s merely replacing Randall Delgado at the shank of the rotation. Which brings us yet again to the July 31 trade deadline. It will take a lot to land Zack Greinke or Ryan Dempster, both free-agents-to-be, but the more these Braves play, the more a move to land a true No. 1 seems warranted.
“We’ve got a little swag going, got a little winning streak going,” Chipper Jones said after the streak reached six, but the Braves won’t be seeing any bullpens this awful in the postseason. (The Mets’ relievers have compiled the worst ERA in the majors, and closer Frank Francisco is on the disabled list.) The path to victory in October — the other New York team once made this a way of life — is to get ahead early and let a stellar bullpen do its stuff.
The Braves’ bullpen, with or without Jonny Venters, is playoff-caliber. The starting staff isn’t quite. Hudson lasted only four innings Friday night after being spotted a five-run lead, and Hanson couldn’t nurse a two-run lead through the sixth. Said Gonzalez: “You feel pretty good when he goes out in the sixth and gets the first hitter.”
The next three Mets — the bottom of their lineup, plus a pinch hitter — mustered singles, and Hanson left with the lead down to one and two aboard. The sixth inning is the bridge inning, the time for a starter to drop the hammer on a trailing opponent and then hand the lead to relievers. Hanson couldn’t do it. He’s a good pitcher, but he’s not a Halladay or a Sabathia. Or a Greinke.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Braves were chasing the Mets for second in the East, but they’ve surged 2 1/2 games in front. The Mets have begun to flag, while the Braves are gathering speed. For this team to take full flight, however, a big-time starting pitcher will be required. The Braves can make the playoffs with the rotation they have; to win once there, they’ll need more.
Unless, that is, Ben Sheets happens to turn into Sandy Koufax. Should that occur, forget I said anything.
By Mark Bradley