Posts Tagged ‘National League East

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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01
Jun
10

Braves surge past Phillies to overtake National League East

Oh, how the tables have turned.

The Braves extended their season-high winning streak to six games and moved into first place in the National League East with a 9-3 spanking of division rival Philadelphia at Turner Field on Memorial Day.

Chipper Jones homered for the first time this season from the left side and snapped his six-week long homerless drought with a two-run blast in the first inning, staking the Braves to an early lead that they would not relinquish.

An even more encouraging sign that Jones is finding his stroke is the single he hit in the bottom of the seventh while batting right, showing an increased comfort from both sides of the plate.

Troy Glaus capped the Atlanta onslaught with a three-run homer off Philadelphia reliever Chad Durbin to put the final nail in the Phillies coffin.

With his latest blast, Glaus tacked three more RBIs on his astounding and unexpected total of 28 for the month of May, which led the National League.

Atlanta’s good fortune comes just one month after a nine-game losing streak had them dwelling in the cellar of the NL East, staring up at these same Phillies.

Just as the Braves began to hit their stride, the Phillies fell into a slump of their own.

Since the last time these two teams played, the Braves have gone 16-4 and erased a six-game deficit in the NL East standings to overtake the sputtering Phillies, who have gone 9-10 during that stretch and have dropped out of first place for the first time since May 1st.

Ironically, the offensive woes that hampered the Braves in their last meeting with the Phillies, have seemingly been solved and now take up residence in Philadelphia.

The Phils have dropped seven of their past nine games, having been shut out five times during that span.

As a whole, they’ve hit a dismal .187 with a .264 on base percentage, a .257 slugging percentage and just one home run.

This is a serious concern for a club that supposedly boasts one of the most feared offensive units in the game. The Phillies ongoing struggles with the bat have been a far cry from the explosive power the team had come to enjoy.

For Atlanta, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

The nine runs the Braves scored on Monday were two more than they’d scored in each of their first two series losses to the Phillies.

While Atlanta’s offense was befuddling to watch in the early going this season, the turnaround of Troy Glaus is a big reason why the Braves have been able to right the ship.

No one had been more critical of and frustrated by Glaus than me, but I will give credit where credit is due.

Glaus’ red-hot May where he has hit. 330 with three doubles, six home runs, and 28 RBI in 28 games is one of the greatest single months ever enjoyed by a player.

Since May 14 when Bobby Cox permanently moved Martin Prado to the leadoff spot and Jason Heyward into the No. 2 hole ahead of Jones, Glaus has been a run-producing machine.

As a result, he has driven in 14 runs in 17 games with four home runs.

Also interestingly to note, as I suggested in my last blog, having continuity in a lineup that had so many struggling hitters, could prove to breed successful results.

That has been the case for Atlanta. As the roles in the Braves lineup have become solidified, the proof is in the numbers.

The rest of Atlanta’s hitters have found a newfound comfort and confidence that has now transcended onto the field and in the standings.

But, there is no time for complacency.

The next two games against the Phillies loom as large as ever as the Braves look to not only stay in first place but to build upon their lead.

With a good chunk of the season left, it is awfully early to gauge how the season may end. But, the Braves may have history on their side.

The last time Atlanta was in first place on June 1 was in 2005, which just so happens to be the last year they made the playoffs.

Also, 66% of the teams that are atop their division on the first of June, have made it into postseason play.

Will the same ring true for the 2010 Atlanta Braves?

Only time will tell.

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10
May
10

Observations of the Braves from a weekend at Citizens Bank Park

My cousin Jaime (left) and I enjoy a game at Citizens Bank Park.

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:

Omar Infante

Martin Prado

Chipper Jones

Troy Glaus

Matt Diaz

David Ross

Melky Cabrera

Nate McLouth

Derek Lowe

Yikes.

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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21
Apr
10

Braves stun Phils with improbable comeback win

Just call him Nate McClutch.

The Braves center fielder, who was hitting a mere .138 with just one RBI all season, sure picked a good time to break out of his slump.

McLouth hit a leadoff 10th-inning solo blast against Jose Contreras to cap Atlanta’s stunning comeback 4-3 win over division rival Philadelphia.

The Braves have now won five of their last six games and find themselves in a first-place tie with the Phillies atop the National League East standings.

For McLouth, his heroics couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

This is the first walk-off home run he’s recorded at any level of ball he’s played in, from Little League up to the Majors.

McLouth got a chance to be a hero in the 10th thanks to back-to-back two out homers from Troy Glaus and Jason Heyward in the bottom of the ninth.

The Braves may have enjoyed other improbable comeback wins in the past, but this stunning turnaround is one of the most unpredictable and character building victories in team history.

For 8 2/3 innings, Atlanta only managed four hits and was an out away from being shutout.

Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick, who was sporting an ugly 17.47 ERA this season, put the Braves offense on the defensive.

This isn’t the first time struggling pitchers have faced the Braves lineup and left the game looking like Cy Young.

The difference now is that this team didn’t fold.

Kendrick handed the ball to Ryan Madson in the ninth, who is filling in for the injured Brad Lidge at closer, and suddenly the Braves found new life.

Madson walked Chipper Jones with one out and then retired Brian McCann, which brought Troy Glaus to the plate.

The Braves fans’ new whipping boy, who again was the target of the hometown faithful’s wrath after committing a costly error earlier in the game, couldn’t possibly come through with two outs—could he?

He did.

Glaus smashed a two-run blast, sending a jolt through Turner Field and giving the Braves a sliver of hope.

While still down a run, the Braves turned to their No. 6 hitter in the lineup to keep the game alive.

On a normal night, that would be Yunel Escobar.

But, not on this night.

No, on this night, Bobby Cox adhered to the ongoing chatter of moving rookie stud Jason Heyward up from the seventh spot in the lineup.

So, there he was, “Joltin’ Jason” as some are now calling him—with a chance to tie the game, again.

If you remember, Heyward was the hero in Sunday’s come-from-behind win over the Rockies with a two-out, bases loaded single in the ninth.

No way he does it again, does he?

He does.

Heyward’s shot heard ’round the world tied the game and made Cox look like a managerial genius again.

From there, pandemonium ensued.

Jason Heyward found himself in the middle of two unlikely heroes.

Who would have thought Troy Glaus and Nate McLouth would deliver late-inning home runs, when they’ve been the subject of boos and ridicule all season long?

And, with each passing day, the legend that is the “J-Hey Kid” grows even larger.

For two straight games, the 20-year-old sensation has helped usher the Braves to back-to-back comeback victories.

He leads all major league rookies in home runs (four) and RBIs (16) by a large margin.

But, Heyward’s impact on the Braves is not just all in the numbers.

The electricity that he’s brought to the table has lit a fire under the entire team and has them playing their most inspired and exciting baseball since, well, 1991.

Yes, the year the Braves went from worst-to-first in their division and came within one win of being crowned World Champions.

That year began the rich, glory days of excellence that Atlanta had then enjoyed for 14 consecutive seasons.

But, that competitiveness and winning attitude that has been missing since 2006, appears to finally be resurfacing.

As I said yesterday, the Phillies know all too well what a young, rising superstar can bring to the clubhouse.

What Howard did for the Phillies when he came on the scene in 2005 is what Heyward is doing for the Braves in 2010.

Howard began a new era of winning baseball in Philadelphia.

And, now it seems Heyward is bringing that mantra back to Atlanta.

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20
Apr
10

It’s early but it’s big… Braves and Phils set to collide

For 14 years, opponents knew they had to go through Atlanta to get to the playoffs—and, to the World Series.

For the past three years, they go through Philly.

It may only be April 20 and the first of many meetings between these two divisional foes, but for the Braves it is never too early to make a good impression.

After all, first place is up for grabs.

The Phillies hold a one-game lead over the third-place Braves in the NL East standings coming into tonight’s series opener at Turner Field.

Atlanta spent over a decade at the top of the National League East, but in recent years they have taken their lumps in an effort to regain the level of excellence they had come to expect.

The Braves haven’t tasted October since 2005, but last season after a strong, albeit late push for the NL Wild Card, they got one step closer to returning to the playoffs.

This year, they are billed as the Phillies chief competition in the NL East.

While an April series isn’t make-or-break for either club, the buzz surrounding this series is unmistakable.

Last year, the Braves knew they waited too long before making their playoff run and just ran out of games.

It is these pesky games early in the season that often count just as large as the ones in September, but are long forgotten when a team comes up a game or two short of the postseason.

Still, don’t expect these Braves to put too much stock in this series outcome.

Atlanta won’t wave the red flag if they lose the series and they surely won’t become complacent if they win it.

But, what a series win would do for the Braves is send a message to the Phillies that the preseason hype surrounding this club was legit.

And, let’s not forget that last season, Atlanta handled Philly with relative ease in the early going.

The Braves were winners of seven of the first nine meetings between the teams, including a series sweep just before the fourth of July.

Then, Ryan Howard happened.

Howard torched the Braves over the final nine games between the clubs, of which his team won six, blasting eight home runs.

However, Atlanta still won the season series 10-8, but still fell short of the playoffs.

The Braves know at the very least, a series win is expected again this year if they hope to reach the postseason.

And, if they hope to make a legitimate run at the World Series, they figure they will see these Phillies again in the NLCS.

The hope and buzz surrounding this year’s squad lends credence to the belief that the Braves can compete with any team in the league even the big, bad Phillies.

With Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe lined up to pitch in this series, the Braves expect their starters to go toe-to-toe with Philadelphia’s.

No surprise there.

The Braves have always won with pitching, and their staff has rivaled if not exceeded the Phillies starters over recent years.

But what the Bravos have this year, that they haven’t had in the past, is their very own one-man wreaking crew.

His name is Jason Heyward.

While the comparisons between Heyward and Howard have begun, it is far too early in the youngster’s career to pit him against Philly’s RBI machine.

But for those of you looking to add to the fodder, in the season’s first two weeks, Heyward does have one more RBI.

The Phillies are about to get their first glimpse at the beast that is the “J-Hey Kid,” and pardon me if they don’t feel a little deja vu.

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11
Aug
09

Watch out NL East… these Braves are for real!

Watch out NL East … the Atlanta Braves aren’t going anywhere.

What a difference a week makes.

The Braves knew they had to make a statement and perform big against the Los Angeles Dodgers this past weekend, who came into their four-game set against Atlanta with baseball’s best record, to keep their playoff hopes alive.

And, they did.

If it wasn’t for the walk-off home run ball Rafael Soriano served up to Andre Either and the consequential blown save in Thursday night’s opener, Atlanta would have swept the mighty Dodgers.

Still, winning three out of four against the best in the business is not too shabby

The Braves series win against Los Angeles coupled with the Florida Marlins sweep of Philadelphia has lifted the Braves to within only 4 1/2 games of the division lead.

After Monday’s off day, Atlanta also finds themselves just four games behind the NL Wild Card-leading Colorado Rockies.

More impressively to note, the Braves won the last three against LA without Chipper Jones in the line-up.

Jones is nursing a strained left oblique, but is likely to return to the line-up tonight when the Braves open a two-game series against the Washington Nationals.

While the Braves are riding high — they have the league’s best record (24-14) since June 28th — surprisingly, the Nationals are the NL’s hottest team.

After dropping 15 of 18 through July 20, Washington has since gone on a tear, winning 14 of 20 games.

The Nationals have owned the Braves this season, winning five of nine head-to-head against them this season.

It is critical for the Braves to continue to build off the momentum from their successful trip to Southern California.

They cannot afford to overlook the Nats this week, as the National League East-leading Phillies are next up for Atlanta this weekend.

In contrast to their struggles against Washington, Atlanta has won seven of nine against Philadelphia this season. They have to hope that trend continues if they want to make a legitimate run for the division crown.

The Braves’ pitching has been solid all season long, keeping them in the hunt when a mediocre or lesser staff would have had them dead and buried by now.

Atlanta’s starters, who often fell victim to an inconsistent and anemic offense, are finally being rewarded for their efforts, thanks to the offensive turnaround the team has enjoyed as of late.

The prognosis for the Braves looks good, as the past few weeks have gradually shown that Atlanta’s offensive turnaround is not an aberration.

Even Kelly Johnson, who has struggled mightily all season long and was even demoted to the minor leagues, has contributed as of late.

Johnson came up with timely heroics against the Dodgers in not one but two of the crucial games in the series.

In Friday’s game, Johnson helped aid a three-run Braves deficit, smashing a two-run home run to assist in the comeback.

Then, fast forward to Saturday night’s contest, where Johnson came into a scoreless game in the 8th inning and ended up being the difference maker, hitting a two-run, 10th inning blast, leading Atlanta to a 2-1 victory.

Johnson’s always been known to be a streaky hitter, often frustrating the Braves brass and fans, who have seen glimpses of the great potential their young second baseman possesses.

When K.J. is swinging the bat well, he’s often unstoppable. Johnson went on a tear in the last 24 games of the 2008 season, hitting a whopping .404.

But, when he’s cold, he can’t buy himself a hit, as witnessed when he hit an abysmal .191 before his demotion early this season.

As evidenced, if Johnson’s back, the Braves offense is in for quite the boost.

But, as last week proved, it can take only a few games for a team to rise or fall.

And, with the dog days of summer rapidly approaching, the Braves realize that this week could indeed make or break their season.

Although, the same thing applied last weekend against the Dodgers and the Braves silenced their critics and embraced the challenge.

This next test proves to be harder, and only the strong survive.

Next week at this time, we should all have a clearer picture about the character and make-up of this Braves team and if they indeed have what it takes to play in October.

But, from the looks of it, these Braves are for real.

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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