Being born and raised just outside the Philadelphia area, I make it a tradition to see at least one Braves-Phillies series a season.
This year, I made my first trip to see the 2010 Braves in a weekend set against the Phillies on May 7-9.
The results weren’t pretty.
On Friday night, Derek Lowe was on the mound for the Bravos. He was opposed by the 86-year old Jamie Moyer.
I kid, but from a pitcher’s standpoint, the dude is old.
However, he carved up the Braves lineup like he was Tim Lincecum, enroute to a 7-0 victory in the series opener.
At age 47, he is the oldest player in Major League history to toss a shutout.
While, Moyer steamrolled through the Braves lineup, it didn’t come as a surprise to me.
I knew the Braves were in trouble from the moment I took my seat, in the first row nonetheless, and heard the starting lineup announced.
This is how it read:
The first thought that ran through my head after hearing our starting nine was—”Who are these Braves?”
I didn’t mean it in a literal sense.
Of course I know who these guys are and what their different roles are with the club.
I meant it more figuratively—and, symbolically.
The Braves are unrecognizable these days.
Sure, missing on this night due to various injuries or ailments were the team’s regular cleanup hitter Brian McCann, along with their dynamic shortstop Yunel Escobar, and the phenom himself, rookie sensation Jason Heyward.
But still, these are not the Braves that fans, management and the league had all grown accustomed to over the years.
While the names on the back of their jerseys had to change and players moved on or retired, the aura of excellence and swagger that this team use to possess is gone.
The Braves, who use to be one of the elite teams in baseball, are now spitting mediocrity like any average major league club.
Although, on paper, it looks even worse.
Atlanta has performed below average as of late becoming victims of their sputtering offense and numerous injuries, which has them dwelling in the cellar of the National League East.
When I left the ballpark Friday night, I took comfort in knowing that the Braves are not this bad.
They have serious issues that go far beyond their injuries, but they are not the hopeless cause they appear to be on the field.
However, it doesn’t make them any easier to watch right now.
When it was reported that the Braves clubhouse resembled a morgue after Friday’s embarrassing defeat, I was not surprised.
The Braves are their own harshest critics.
They know how bad they are right now.
But, they also know they can and will get better.
A small beacon of hope emerged on Saturday afternoon when the Braves snatched a victory out of the jaws of defeat.
Atlanta was getting no-hit, yet again, through four innings against Phillies hurler Joe Blanton and trailed 1-0 after five.
In the sixth, the Braves bats woke up and Atlanta rallied for three runs against Blanton, and added an insurance in the ninth after Troy Glaus’ RBI single.
There were many positives to take from this game besides the “W”.
The Braves pitching was excellent, top to bottom.
Kris Medlen, who was called upon from the bullpen to make the start for the injured Jair Jurrjens, gutted through 4 1/3 innings, allowing only a single run.
Medlen pitched out of numerous big jams, one of which came in the bottom of the third, when he struck out Ryan Howard and got Jayson Werth to hit into an inning-ending double play.
Following Medlen were six relievers who combined to shutout the Phillies the rest of the way, allowing Atlanta’s offense the time to rally to secure the 4-1 victory.
The Braves bullpen has been the unsung hero for the team so far this season.
They have been nothing short of brilliant.
What is unfortunate is due to the Braves prolonged woes with the bats, Atlanta hasn’t been afforded the luxury of having a deep bullpen.
It doesn’t do a team any good to have a lights-out setup man and closer when they can’t get the ball to them with a lead.
But, what is reassuring is that when the Braves right the ship from an offensive standpoint, they have a strong bullpen to fall back on and depend on.
A reliable bullpen is an asset that many contending teams lack so Atlanta should feel so fortunate.
The Braves tapped Kenshin Kawakami to start the rubber game of the series against Phillies starter Cole Hamels.
It was an ugly beginning for the winless Kawakami.
He staked the Phillies to an early 4-0 lead before finding his groove in the later innings.
With the Braves rallying to within one, Kawakami didn’t allow another run until Shane Victorino’s solo home run in the bottom of the 7th inning sealed his and Atlanta’s fate.
For the day, Kawakami allowed five runs and seven hits in 6-2/3 innings pitched.
While it was the first time he pitched into the six inning all season long, he still suffered his sixth loss of the season.
For the Braves, they have now lost five of six road series, and dropped two of three from Washington and Philadelphia on this current nine-game road stretch that concludes with a trip to Milwaukee that begins Monday night.
Offensively, they have only mustered a .211 average over their past 17 road games.
After witnessing their performance in person, I offer you my observations of their offensive woes and some suggestions on how to fix them:
1) No game plan: It seems many of these hitters come to bat with no approach.
I am watching too many guys swinging at first pitches and I’ve come away with a general sense of a far too aggressive, almost reckless approach at the plate.
I am not seeing enough plate discipline, which is resulting in too many frequent short at-bats and quick innings for opposing pitchers.
The Braves hitters aren’t working counts and they aren’t executing the fundamentals in run producing situations.
They are also not advancing guys when their are runners on first and second with less than two outs, which is a crippling rally killer.
I’m also not seeing enough sacrifice bunts, hit-and-runs, sacrifice flies, and contact hitting with runners on base.
This team strikes out too much and runners are stranded left and right.
As a result, the team squanders far too many scoring chances and wastes the opportunities they do generate.
2) Listless at Leadoff: The Braves have no answer at the leadoff spot, that much is crystal clear.
Cox has toyed with too many different guys in the leadoff spot, and now I feel that’s creating more harm than good.
In the Phillies series alone, both Omar Infante and Nate McLouth served as the leadoff hitter. Yunel Escobar has also seen time at that spot throughout the early portion of the season before going down with an injury.
Consistency can serve a team well.
And, it might also spark one of these guys to get going.
It is hard to produce when a player isn’t comfortable at the plate and comfortable in their role.
It is important that Cox make a decision about the leadoff spot and stick with it, at least for the immediate future, or until a replacement is brought in.
This patch quilt attempt to find his answer at the top of the order hasn’t been working.
It’s time to commit to a change.
3) Lineup Roulette: To go along with my observation and suggestion for the leadoff spot, I offer a similar approach be taken with the overall lineup construction.
While a certain good can come from juggling a lineup to find a formula that works, too much maneuvering can become chaotic.
Too many of the Braves hitters are struggling to find their stroke right now that moving them up and down in the order isn’t serving much of a purpose at this time.
Case in point—If you take a look at Sunday’s starting lineup excluding the pitcher, the Braves had three players in Matt Diaz, Brooks Conrad, and Nate McLouth who were hitting below .200.
Cox might find that settling with one lineup combination over the next couple of weeks could prevent the guys from pressing any further and allow them to relax into their defined spots.
While this is a unique circumstance because the Braves are subbing many players into the starting lineup due to injuries, the message I feel remains the same.
When this team gets healthy, they still need consistency in the lineup, beginning at the leadoff spot.
From there, the Braves can see what they have to work with and what moves they need to make from the outside to fix this mess.
The end of the downward spiral begins with a baby step.
It is time for Cox and these Braves to take the first one.
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