Posts Tagged ‘Eric O’Flaherty

22
Feb
12

Hope springs eternal: The Braves are back to right wrongs

Pitchers and catchers are in camp and the Braves’ spring workouts have commenced.

This year in particular, players were itching to get to camp to erase the dubious end to their now infamous and tragic 2011 meltdown. What’s encouraging to note is that a majority of position players have arrived early to camp and have begun their workouts, poised and more determined than ever to start fresh in 2012.

Unlike the Boston Red Sox, who also suffered a monumental collapse to their season in 2011, the Braves chose to not play the blame game — for that, they should be applauded.

Whether you agree with General Manager Frank Wren’s decision to keep his roster almost entirely intact, you have to respect that a knee-jerk reaction did not take place in Atlanta.

Sure, the Braves embarrassed themselves to a lowly 8-18 record after September 1 and squandered a seemingly insurmountable 10 1/2 game lead in the NL Wild Card to the eventual World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

What’s unfair to the Braves is that they are being judged and evaluated solely on how they finished their season in shame. While it’s without question, inexcusable — they’ve been punished enough.

Let’s not forget that this same team that Frank Wren is returning in 2012 had the fourth-best record in the majors through the first week in September.

The Braves suffered the loss of two of their best starting pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson for most of the second half. Jason Heyward’s sophomore season was a colossal disappointment and Dan Uggla didn’t find his stroke until after the All-Star break.

They watched two of their perennially clutch performers, Brian McCann and Martin Prado, rush back from injuries in the late summer months but never quite hit their stride down the stretch.

Most alarming of all, the Braves’ greatest strength — O’Ventbrel — the triple threat of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Rookie of the Year closer Craig Kimbrel at the back end of the bullpen, faltered mightily down the stretch. The threesome posted a remarkable 60-3 record when leading after 7 innings from April-August before going 7-5 in September. They also saw their ERA rise from a collective 3.34 to an inflated 4.17 in the season’s final month, according to Jayson Stark of ESPN.com.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez received a lot of criticism for the overuse of his bullpen after the Braves narrowly missed the playoffs on baseball’s final day. Jonny “Everyday” Venters earned his nickname, being called upon a Major League-high 85 times in 2011. Kimbrel’s 79 appearances were more than any other closer in baseball.

While the second-guessing is surely warranted, the Braves did partake in 55 one-run games, which was tied with the San Francisco Giants for most by any National League team with a winning record, Stark reported. They also played in 26 extra-inning games, which took an even greater toll on their relief corps.

It’s almost incredulous to reflect upon the Braves’ final month of the season — and how everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

This team didn’t have the character issues or the dissention in the locker room that the Red Sox had. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The Braves possess one of the most harmonious clubhouses in baseball. They are a tight-knit group that never pointed fingers and placed blame on each other. They took their lumps as one collective group and exuded tremendous class and dignity in defeat.

I don’t doubt Frank Wren wanted to improve his club, if the right deal came along. But I also think he was right not to panic because he has given his troops an invaluable gift — confidence.

It’s early but players have seemingly come into camp with a positive outlook and a renewed sense of hope and optimism. They also have something to prove to themselves and the rest of the league — that last year was an aberration and that they’ve learned from it.

Jason Heyward is reportedly in fantastic shape, having shed over 20 pounds this winter. He’s worked tirelessly with new hitting coach Greg Walker this offseason in an effort to revamp his swing. The early results have been lauded by his teammates, who claim Heyward has begun to regain his old form and power.

Jair Jurrjens was fitted for orthotics after a troublesome toe contributed to his knee discomfort. Now Jurrjens claims to feel better physically than he has in months and doesn’t appear to have any limitations this spring.

Tim Hudson underwent back surgery this offseason and his recovery is going smoothly. Hudson won’t be rushed back to the rotation and his projected timetable for return is May. The Braves will turn to one of their many talented young arms to pick up the slack in Hudson’s absence.

Tommy Hanson suffered a minor concussion after blowing his tires on the way to the Braves’ Spring Training facility. He shouldn’t fall behind the other pitchers, even taking a few days offs, since he began his throwing program early this offseason.

Hanson altered his delivery in an effort to take pressure off his balky shoulder and back and also to limit the number of stolen bases against him in 2012. Hanson allowed a major-league leading 30 steals in 22 starts before being shut down for the season.

The Braves attribute a lot of last season’s late struggles to an injury-depleted rotation, an overworked bullpen and atypical performances from their biggest sluggers. If their arms stay healthy, their bullpen rested and they see a resurgence from some players who had poor years, they’ll be able to contend with the rest of the very competitive National League East.

There are a lot of questions and ‘what if’s’ surrounding the Atlanta Braves this season, but there is no shortage of talent and potential.  They may be receiving criticism for not being proactive, but sometimes the answers really do lie within one’s own roster.

It’ll become apparent quite early if Wren’s decision to give this group another go together was best in the long-run. I believe the Braves deserve the chance to right their wrongs in 2012, and hopefully write a storybook ending in the process.

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17
Nov
11

Braves face uncertain future after 2011 collapse

They say acceptance is the final stage of the grieving process. After one’s been in denial, gotten angry, spiraled into the depths of depression comes the “epiphany” — the moment when one must accept a harrowing loss so the healing process can begin.

For the most loyal of fans, the 2011 Atlanta Braves’ late season collapse very much mirrors the loss of a relationship that one holds dear. Many diehard Bravos’ supporters find themselves struggling to cope with what was such a bitter, excruciating, downright cruel end to what appeared to be such a promising season.

For the majority of the year, the Braves held one of the four best records in all of baseball. At the All-Star break, their sparkling starting rotation was led by All-Star Jair Jurrjens and All-Star snub Tommy Hanson — who helped lessen the load on an offense that struggled mightily all season and never quite found its stride.

Still, the infamous baseball adage claims that good pitching always beats good hitting. And, Atlanta’s hurlers were second to none.

The 2011 Braves started strong with Jurrjens and Hanson at the helm of a rotation that was also comprised of the ever consistent Tim Hudson, veteran Derek Lowe and one of the team’s biggest surprises — rookie Brandon Beachy. They also rolled out one of the most feared and vaunted bullpens in all of baseball. Atlanta’s relief corps were led by a three-headed monster, which was affectionately coined, “O’Ventbrel”. The talented trio of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny “Everyday” Venters and rookie baby-faced closer Craig Kimbrel set the Braves apart from the rest of the league and seemed destined to shine their brightest in October.

But, destiny and fate can often offer up cold, hard dishes of reality and that’s exactly what occurred in late-August and September for Atlanta.

The Braves held what looked to be an insurmountable lead in the NL Wild Card — a 10 1/2 game cushion over the St. Louis Cardinals on August 25. It would take a miraculous comeback by the Cardinals and an unforeseen, epic meltdown by Atlanta for these Bravos to not play postseason baseball.

The Red Birds went on to win 23 of their last 31 games and the Braves, well, you know the rest.

They returned from three idle days off following Hurricane Irene only to go 10-19 the rest of the way. But that’s only one scenario in which you’d drive yourself crazy asking, “what if”?

What if there was no hurricane?

What if Atlanta had won at least ONE game and avoided a sweep against St. Louis in early September?

What if Chipper Jones didn’t lose a ground ball in the lights at Florida?

But, alas, I digress.

The Braves could stew over all the unfortunate mishaps about the end of their 2011 season or they could use the embarrassing finish as fuel to come back better and with more heart, determination and resiliency than ever in 2012.

All excuses aside, the Braves did see their team besieged by injuries after the All-Star break.

The aforementioned Jurrjens and Hanson, who both factored so heavily into the team’s early success, were sidelined by injuries late in the season and remained out of commission for the club’s ill-fated stretch drive.

“O’Ventbrel” proved to be overworked, overused and overexposed by Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves coaching staff. The threesome showed signs of exhaustion from a heavy workload throughout the early portion of the season and faded down the stretch.

Venters led the NL with 85 appearances, Kimbrel was tied for third with 79, just ahead of his teammate O’Flaherty’s 78. To make matters worse — Kimbrel, the eventual and well-deserved 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, also surrendered the save in Game 162 — one the Braves needed to win to force a one-game playoff with St. Louis to keep postseason dreams alive.

As for the Braves bats, well, they too went deadly silent.

Martin Prado, who was given the nickname “MVP-RADO” by the Atlanta faithful due to his knack for clutch hitting, couldn’t  find his stride after a staph infection that many believed was the culprit for his career-worst slump.

Brian McCann, often one of the team’s most clutch and dependable sluggers, suffered the ill effects of an oblique injury and his numbers slid when it counted the most. B-Mac hit a mere .180 when he returned to the Braves lineup  in mid-August.

A Braves offense that was picked up all year long by superb pitching couldn’t rise to the occasion when the injury bug struck its hurlers. Instead, the Braves coiled and crumbled — along with the hearts of Braves Nation.

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03
Aug
09

The state of the Braves… post trade deadline.

Adam LaRoche returns to Atlanta

Adam LaRoche returns to Atlanta

The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone leaving many in Braves Nation wondering, does this team have the horses to be legitimate contenders for a playoff spot heading down the stretch?

Before Monday night’s game against the San Diego Padres, the Braves find themselves in third place in the National League East, seven games behind first place Philadelphia. While the division remains a lofty goal for Atlanta, it is certainly not out of reach.

The Braves have dominated the defending champions this season winning seven of nine games against them. The Bravos overwhelming success against the Fightin’ Phils coupled with the fact that the two rivals are still scheduled to meet nine more times before the season concludes, offers a definite sense of hope.

Still, Philadelphia has been riding a hot streak since the All-Star Break and with the addition of a bona fide ace to their rotation in Cliff Lee, the division does appear to be a long shot.

That means Atlanta’s best chance of playing October baseball will likely be if the team nabs the National League Wild Card.

The Braves are only five games out of the Wild Card spot but are chasing four teams, including the Florida Marlins, another divisional foe.

So, are the Braves contenders or pretenders?

With a starting rotation that ranked third in the National League heading into Sunday night’s game against the Dodgers, and a revamped line-up which has improved on the dearth of power that has plagued the team all season long, the Braves seem poised to make a run.

In July, the Braves manufactured an NL-best .828 OPS and ranked third in both runs (139) and home runs (32). That production is a stark contrast from an inconsistent and often shoddy offensive showing from the team in the season’s first three months.

The Braves also feel their mid-season acquisitions of Nate McLouth and Adam LaRoche give the club a more potent offensive punch going forward.

McLouth has been a stabilizing force in the lead-off spot, allowing the rest of the line-up to gel and settle into their roles.

LaRoche, who played for Atlanta through the 2006 season, knows the organization well and has statistically performed big in the second half of the season.

While LaRoche’s career .252 batting average leaves something to be desired, his .295 average after the All-Star break combined with his impending free agency, are reasons why the Braves decided to re-acquire their former slick fielding first baseman.

The improved offense stands to benefit what has been a solid, but often under-appreciated Braves pitching staff.

A rotation comprised of Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez, Kenshin Kawakami, and rookie sensation Tommy Hanson could go up against any rotation in baseball.

And, in the coming weeks, the Braves staff looks to get that much stronger and deeper with the return of Tim Hudson from Tommy John surgery.

The Braves bullpen boasts three relievers in the top six in appearances in Peter Moylan (58), Mike Gonzalez (53) and Eric O’Flaherty (43).

While the back of the bullpen has held up thus far, the team wouldn’t mind adding another arm to the mix for the stretch run.

Any reliever acquired would have to pass through waivers, sometimes making it harder for a team to complete a deal, although the Braves are still exploring any and all options.

If the Braves could indeed bolster their bullpen, that fresh arm could provide added security to what could otherwise become an overexposed relief corps.

So, again, the question looms… contenders or pretenders?

The Braves have given every indication, on the field and off, that they are poised, confident and ready to compete for a playoff spot.

It was the team’s consistently strong starting pitching that has kept them afloat early in the season and it will be the team’s starting pitching that will give them their best shot at October.

One can never have enough pitching. Good pitching beats good hitting. These age old adages have been proven true time and time again and are the main reason why the Braves were able to win fourteen consecutive division titles.

With that being said… do the Braves still have holes?

Absolutely.

But, so does every team.

And, this team’s holes have become increasingly less glaring.

So, buckle up Braves fans. It’s going to be a wild ride to the finish.




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