Posts Tagged ‘National League

15
May
11

Atlanta Braves’ Jair Jurrjens: The Unassuming Ace

How can you deem a pitcher touting a 5-0 record and a 1.66 ERA underrated?
If you’re Braves hurler Jair Jurrjens, you may have beef.

No pitcher in baseball is as red-hot as Jurrjens is right now. The righty from Curacao finds himself among the game’s elite in most major pitching categories and has matched or out-pitched the class of the league.

In his latest winning effort on Saturday, Jurrjens took a perfect game into the sixth inning against the division rival Phillies, enroute to a 5-3 victory—his second win of the season against the National League’s best club.

Jurrjens, or JJ, as coined by his Braves teammates, also became the first Braves pitcher since Tom Glavine in 2000 to start a season 5-0 with a sub-2.00 ERA. He also improved to 5-3 with a 2.45 ERA in 11 career starts against Philadelphia—the lowest of any active pitcher with 50-plus innings against the Phillies.

When determining excellence on the mound, Jurrjens has been the epitome of just that for Atlanta this season. He has proven to be clutch against the league’s best—out-dueling not just the Phillies’ aces but also Milwaukee’s young stud Yovani Gallardo in a splendid performance on May 2.

Yet the 6’1”, 200-pound Braves sensation remains underrated and often undetected by mass media outlets. Jurrjens has flown under the radar the season, barely receiving recognition, let alone the brilliant accolades he deserves for downright dealing throughout the early portion of the 2011 campaign.

When discussing the elite class of pitchers in the National League, the names oft mentioned are Phillies hurlers Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Marlins fireballer Josh Johnson or the Giants’ Tim Lincecum.

Yet, it is Jair Jurrjens who ranks second among all Major League pitchers in ERA (only three points behind the leader Johnson) and along with Cardinals sophomore phenom Jaime Garcia, still boasts an undefeated record in the Senior Circuit.

So why is the unassuming and baby-faced 25-year-old Jurrjens masking as silent thunder?

Chalk it up to a 2010 season marred by injury that may have placed Jurrjens on baseball’s backburner. Between a lingering hamstring injury in the early portion of 2010 and a torn meniscus in his knee down the stretch, the Braves chugged along without Jurrjens to claim the NL Wild Card.

But baseball pundits should have known better. In 2009, JJ not only put himself on the map in Atlanta but some would argue he emerged as the team’s MVP, posting a 14-10 record and sparkling 2.60 ERA—third-best in the National League. It was clear then that Jurrjens had the stuff and makeup to become one of the game’s most formidable hurlers.

Healthy again in 2011, Jurrjens has not only regained his 2009 form but according to many—he’s exceeded it. The small sample size of what we’ve seen from JJ this season is just an inkling of what could come for the very impressive albeit mild-mannered ace.

As Jair Jurrjens goes, so go the Braves.

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01
Mar
11

Can the 2011 Braves surprise in the National League East?

Can David defeat Goliath in the battle for NL East supremacy?

The 2011 Atlanta Braves will seemingly be overlooked by most experts and pundits to best the Philadelphia Phillies for division bragging rights. How could last season’s NL Wild Card winners possibly hold their own against the Phillies’ vaunted starting rotation — who many have already deemed one of the best ever assembled?

Sure, they haven’t thrown one pitch in a meaningful game as a collective unit, but on paper, how could anyone argue that Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels will not equate to a historic starting staff?

Perhaps it’s because a lot can happen over a taxing season. Players must still suit up and play the schedule — a full 162-game marathon. The injury bug so often rears its ugly head, throwing a wrench into any team’s — even the most talented’s — presumed destiny.

Big time egos don’t always mesh together — credit the manager who is able to cohesively mold a “team” together above all individual’s own personal goals and accolades. A club that puts the “I” before the “WE” can and WILL self-destruct. It’s happened before and will happen again.

It’s not to say that these Phillies — the projected favorites not only in the East but in the National League — won’t live up to expectations. It’s not to say that their “sexy” starting rotation won’t go down in history as the best ever. They very well could. But, the beauty of America’s favorite pastime is that baseball wins and division championships aren’t decided on paper or based on sheer talent, projection or expectation.

Any team can still beat you on any given day and the unlikely squad you didn’t see emerging out of camp — hello, 2010 San Francisco Giants — can still defeat the odds and be crowned champions of baseball. The 2010 Giants were the epitome of the “little team that could” — and they gave hope to many lower budget, up and coming clubs that they, too, could eclipse baseball’s perceived powerhouses.

One of those teams believing in such hope is the Atlanta Braves. With an acclaimed starting squad of their own — which they are returning in 2011 — the Braves’ rotation figures to once again be among the game’s elite. Anchored by Derek Lowe, who was dynamite down the stretch last season, and complimented by a resurgent Tim Hudson, emergent Tommy Hanson and a healthy Jair Jurrjens — Braves’ starters stand to give their share of fits to hitters in their quest for a second straight postseason appearance.

And while their rotation is strong in its own right, it’s Atlanta’s bullpen that could emerge as their ace in the hole. Equipped with two young fireballers who could both excel in the closer’s role — Craig Kimbrel and Jonny “Everyday” Venters — Atlanta’s relievers possess the skills to round out a dominant relief corps.

If you’ve come to expect one thing from the Braves over the years, it is a team that can and will consistently pitch well. The question marks have usually risen with the club’s offense and lack of power at its heart. But, this year’s lineup is deeper than ever — with the offseason addition of Dan Uggla as the right-handed, middle-of-the-order bat that the Braves had so desperately coveted. Uggla’s presence alongside fellow All-Stars Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Martin Prado and, if all goes according to plan, a healthy Chipper Jones — could pack a potent offensive punch.

Few would argue against this team’s legitimacy as a contender. But, to win the division and dethrone the big, bad Phillies — well, that just sounds asinine, right?

Wrong.

Despite the Phillies’ nasty rotation, the club has many other questions that make them appear to be vulnerable. ESPN‘s Buster Olney suggests the Phils never addressed their biggest offseason need — a right-handed power bat to replace slugger Jayson Werth — who departed for the Washington Nationals via free agency.

Philadelphia lacks balance and experience in their lineup, placing a heavy offensive burden on talented but unproven youngsters Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown. The defending NL East Champs are also an aging bunch who saw a significant portion of their squad — they had 170 games lost to injuries in just the infield alone in 2010 — on the disabled list last season.

Jimmy Rollins’ OPS has dropped for three consecutive seasons now, and the franchise’s golden boy Chase Utley’s own OPS has sputtered the last two. Ryan Howard’s postseason struggles were well-documented last season and could be attributed to an increase in off-speed pitches away he saw from opposing pitchers that he never was quite able to adjust to.

Even Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who was at Phillies’ camp as an instructor, called out Rollins, Shane Victorino and other offensive stars for their lackluster production last season. The Phillies are not without flaws — which the Braves or any team in the league can hope to exploit — they just expect their superior starters to carry the load and mask the holes in their bullpen and lineup.

Can they? Sure. Will they? That’s why they play the games.

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14
Apr
10

Paging the Braves offense: We still have a problem

It would be easy to look at Monday’s ugly 17-2 loss to the Padres and panic.

But, I won’t.

Every team over the course of a long 162-game season endures an embarrassing and lopsided loss.

It just happens.

There is often no rhyme or reason as to why, but on any given night a pitcher’s poor misfortune is an offense’s playground. For Jair Jurrjens and the Atlanta Braves, that night was Monday. They were such victims of the Padres shelling at Petco Park for San Diego’s home opener.

Personally, I am just happy the Braves got their whooping out of the way in April.

Amen.

But, what’s more alarming to me is Atlanta’s proclaimed “improved” offense’s collective showing since their 16-run outburst on Opening Day against the Cubs.

I realize we are only seven games into the season, and it’s a tad early to raise the red flag, but warning signs are definitely already apparent in the Braves lineup.

Let’s take a closer look:

Lackluster at lead off : Melky Cabrera, Atlanta’s off-season “answer” for atop the batting order, is hitting a dismal .103.

If the Braves’ table setter isn’t getting on-base and creating scoring opportunities and subsequent mayhem on the base paths, the entire order is going to suffer considerably.

And so far, it has.

Middle-of-the-order misery : Free agent signee Troy Glaus, who has hit fifth in Atlanta’s order thus far, has yet to record an extra-base hit, while only batting .231.

If you factor in Glaus’s seven strikeouts and inability to produce with runners in scoring position, the magnitude of his struggles intensify.

Still in Spring Training mode : Nate McLouth had a very poor and public Spring Training.

His .118 average in Grapefruit League games warranted extra at-bats at the Minor League level while still in camp.

The season is now underway and McLouth is hitting .118 so far in games that matter.

It seems his Spring Training hiccups have transitioned into April.

So, while Atlanta exploded for 16 runs on Opening Day, they’ve managed just 19 runs in six games since.

Ouch.

In spite of those troublesome numbers, there have been a few positives for the Braves batting corps this season.

Martin Prado, I repeat, Martin Prado leads the National League in hitting.

Yes, that is correct. No typo here.

Brian McCann is quietly going about his usual business boasting a .300 average.

And, Chipper Jones has produced when he’s been in the lineup.

The key word in that sentence is: when.

Jones has already battled a strained oblique and back in the early going this season, and his health and ability to stay in the lineup will figure prominently in the success of the Braves this season.

Following Tuesday’s off-day, the Braves are hitting just .230 as a team.

With the exception of Monday’s blowout loss, Atlanta has again enjoyed strong pitching from its starters.

It is easy to see many similarities and make comparisons between this year’s squad and last year’s group.

What the Braves have to do to prevent their lineup’s woes from snowballing over the course of the season is to make adjustments now and to regain the improved plate discipline that made headlines during Spring Training.

If the offense continues to sputter, Cox could look to juggle the batting order.

Glaus could be moved down and Escobar and Heyward could be moved up.

And, while I might disagree, I can’t imagine Cox putting his 20-year-old rookie into high pressured RBI situations so early into the season and his Major League career.

Only time will tell if the Braves are just getting off to their very typical April slow start, or if this lineup is in serious need of restructuring.

But, if the first week is any indication, it looks like Atlanta’s offense still has a problem.

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22
Dec
09

Braves deal Vazquez to Yanks for Melky Cabrera

New Brave Melky Cabrera

The Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees agreed on a deal sending SP Javier Vazquez and left-handed reliever Boone Logan to NYY for OF Melky Cabrera, rookie left-hander Mike Dunn and right-handed pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino.

The Braves, who had an abundance of starting pitching, had hoped to retain Vazquez’s services and instead tried unsuccessfully for the past month to move veteran Derek Lowe.

But, in the end, they found no teams willing to take on Lowe’s hefty contract, which still had three years and $45 million remaining on the original four-year deal he signed with Atlanta last offseason.

The Yankees will pick up all of Vazquez’s $11.5 million salary for the 2010 season.

Vazquez, who will be eligible for free agency next winter, enjoyed a career year for Atlanta last season, going 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 219 1/3 innings pitched.

While Vazquez proved to be a valuable asset to Atlanta’s rotation last year, the Braves felt comfortable enough with their depth at starting pitching to make this move in an effort to improve other areas of their club while also receiving increased financial flexibility.

The Braves rotation stood atop the National League last season with a 3.52 ERA.

Vazquez also had a no-trade clause to West Division teams which limited the pool of suitors Atlanta could engage in trade talks with about the right-hander.

Throughout his career, Vazquez has struggled in the American League, often proving to be much more effective with National League clubs.

This will be Vazquez’s second stint with the Yankees.

It comes as somewhat of a surprise that the Bronx Bombers would pursue Vazquez again.

He spent the 2004 season in pinstripes but posted an unimpressive 4.91 ERA in 32 starts with the club and was dropped from the postseason rotation.

In Cabrera, the Braves added a bat to their line-up but not the power hitter many had expected them to acquire.

In 2009, the 25-year-old switch-hitter posted a .274 average with 13 HR and 68 RBI in 154 games for the Yankees.

Cabrera, who primarily played center field for New York last season, has the versatility to play all three outfield spots and possesses a strong arm and provides solid defense.

With Nate McLouth expected to start in center for Atlanta next year, Cabrera is likely to begin spring training in right field for the Braves, barring another move.

The highlight of the deal for Atlanta comes in prospect Arodys Vizcaino.

Vizcaino, 19, was recently rated by Baseball America as the #3 prospect in the Yankees organization.

Last season, Vizcaino went 2-4 with a 2.13 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 10 starts at short-season Class A Staten Island.

The third player coming over to Atlanta in the deal for Vazquez is left-handed rookie reliever Mike Dunn.

In four appearances with the Yankees last season, Dunn posted an inflated 6.75 ERA.

However, the 24-year-old lefty went 4-3 with a 3.31 ERA while racking up 99 strikeouts in 73 1-3 innings in the minor leagues in 2009.

He also had two saves in 38 appearances in AA and AAA last season.

This move appears to be a pre-cursor for other moves for Atlanta.

ESPN.com reports that the Braves have freed up approximately $9 million dollars with this trade after subtracting Vazquez’s $11.5 million and adding on the estimated $3 million Cabrera will receive in arbitration this year plus figuring in the $500,000 the Braves will receive from the Yankees once this transaction is complete.

With the money saved in this deal, the Braves look to continue their pursuit of a power-hitting outfielder, first baseman or perhaps both.

Johnny Damon and Jason Bay were linked to Atlanta recently but both still figure to cost more than Atlanta is willing to spend.

The Braves may still opt to pursue free agent Xavier Nady, who could play the outfield or first base, and should come cheaply as he is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery.

Atlanta could also decide to make a trade involving an outfielder, maybe even the newly acquired Cabrera, for a better upgrade.

Dan Uggla remains a possibility for the Braves, who could shift him to first base, if needed.

27
Sep
09

Living on a prayer… Surging Braves cling to slim Wild Card hopes.

Braves pitcher Javier Vazquez

Braves pitcher Javier Vazquez

The Atlanta Braves have sure picked an opportune time to get hot; problem is, it just might be too late.

No longer in control of their own fate, the Braves are surging, completing a three-game sweep of the Washington Nationals this weekend to stay two-and-a-half games behind NL Wild Card-leading Colorado with seven games left to play.

Atlanta’s latest sweep caps a 6-0 road trip for the club, which also extended their road winning streak to 10 games, their first stretch of as many games since 1994 and just fifth in franchise history.

The Braves play division rival Florida for three before finishing up with four more games against Washington at Turner Field to end the season.

The Rockies will play the Brewers for three at home before finishing the season on the road in LA with three games against the playoff-bound Dodgers.

Atlanta, which has the National League’s best record since June 28 (51-30), is baseball’s hottest team right now.

They rebounded from a 1-6 stretch to start the month of September, which put them eight-and-a-half games behind Colorado, and at the time seemingly ended the team’s postseason aspirations.

Since then, the Braves have reeled off 14 wins in their past 16 games to stay hot on the heels of the Rockies in a last ditch effort to make the playoffs.

But, they may have waited too long to put together their best streak of baseball of the season.

While the odds are still stacked against them, Atlanta’s awe-inspiring final push for the playoffs has made for a compelling Wild Card race.

The Braves’ latest stretch of play has players and fans excited about the future of the club heading into the 2010 season.

Atlanta’s never say die attitude is a stark contrast from the team’s often stoic mentality that was present during their run of 14 consecutive division titles.

During their last four playoff appearances spanning from 2002-2005, the Braves coasted into postseason play, only to get bounced by a streaking Wild Card team in the first round of the playoffs to end their season.

This time around, if Atlanta finds a way to sneak in, roles would be reversed and the Braves may be able to wreak the kind of misfortune on a division winner that was bestowed upon them for so many years.

However, their ultimate destiny is out of their hands.

The Braves know one or two more losses likely end their season.

And, without some help from the Brewers and Dodgers, it will be a moot point anyway.

All they can do is keep winning–and hope.

01
Sep
09

Braves hope Hudson holds key to Wild Card berth…

Braves right-hander Tim Hudson

Braves right-hander Tim Hudson

One day after his 2009 season debut was delayed, Tim Hudson is finally ready to re-join the Atlanta Braves rotation.

Originally slated to take the mound in the opening game of the series for Atlanta, Hudson’s start was pushed back to Tuesday, September 1, the day when Major League rosters expand. The Braves’ decision to wait on activating Hudson was due largely to the fact that the team has been struggling with injuries to their outfield, and now won’t have to make a move to clear a spot for their hurler.

Hudson, who has missed over a year of action due to Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, is set to make his first start of the season in ironically the same ballpark (Land Shark Stadium) against the same opponent (the Florida Marlins) where he made his last ill-fated start on July 23, 2008, when elbow discomfort forced him to exit the game.

Less than a week later, Hudson saw his season end, as he went under the knife to repair the extensive damage in his elbow.

But, don’t expect Hudson to get caught up in any feelings of deja vu.

Too much is at stake for Hudson’s Braves, who find themselves just three games behind the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants in the hotly contested National League Wild Card race.

And, making this four-game series with the Marlins even more critical for the Braves is the fact that Florida is right on Atlanta’s heels, only four games back in Wild Card hunt.

Atlanta won the opener 5-2 last night in impressive fashion, rallying for three runs in the 7th inning against Marlins ace Josh Johnson, who had held the Braves hitless for the previous 5 2/3 innings.

Omar Infante’s clutch two-run triple aided Braves starter Kenshin Kawakami’s six strong innings of one run baseball en route to what could be touted as the biggest victory of the season for Atlanta thus far.

Hudson has enjoyed great success against Florida in his career.

The Braves right-hander is 7-2 with a 2.63 ERA in 13 career starts against the Marlins, including a 5-1 record and 2.59 ERA in eight career starts at Land Shark Stadium.

And, before being forced to exit his last start against them over a year ago, he had allowed only three hits over six scoreless innings.

Tonight, Hudson will oppose Marlins right-hander Anibal Sanchez, in hopes of making it two in a row for the Braves against the Fish in this make-or-break series.

The 34-year-old Hudson’s future with Atlanta beyond this year remains uncertain. His contract includes a $12 million dollar team option with a $1 million dollar buyout for 2010.

Beyond his desire of helping to contribute to the Braves’ hopes of playing October baseball, Hudson is also pitching to show the club that he can still be a valuable member of their rotation plans going forward.

His long journey back to the Majors is finally here.

The Braves and their fans can only wait with baited breath to see if the old Tim Hudson has returned for good.

17
Jul
09

A tribute to an icon… Greg Maddux to be inducted into Braves Hall of Fame.

Greg Maddux

Greg Maddux

Many people have asked me what was the inspiration or driving force behind my choice to pursue a degree and profession in sports journalism?

It began with my love of writing. Journalism was my craft.

My career path’s journey veered toward sports with my passion for Braves baseball, which was due largely to one man… one man so superhuman, so awe-inspiring, so talented and gifted, that I knew his kind did not come around often.

That man was Greg Maddux. Pitching was his craft.

And tonight, before the Braves take on the division rival New York Mets at Turner Field, Maddux is being so rightfully and deservingly inducted into the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame. The team will also retire his jersey number 31.

I’m only 25 years old but today I feel my age.

This is because I remember so vividly the day, December 9, 1992, the Braves shocked the baseball world and announced that they had won the heated pursuit of the free agent reigning National League Cy Young Award Winner.

For the Braves, and former General Manager John Schuerholz, to give a free agent a five-year contract, the significance and magnitude of this signing would resonate for years to come.

Greg Maddux went on to win three more consecutive National League Cy Young Awards with the Braves, becoming the first of only two pitchers, Randy Johnson being the second, in history to ever win the coveted award four years in a row.

I knew I was witnessing history every time Mad Dog stepped on the mound.

One year in the particular is really engrained in my memory.

I was in Philadelphia during the 1995 season, watching Maddux’s pre-game bullpen session, as I always had every time I had seen him pitch live before.

But this time was different.

Maddux had an ungodly ERA and was trying to become one of the select pitchers in history to accomplish the feat of finishing a season with an ERA under the 2.00 mark. (He did, of course, finishing the ’05 season with a 1.63 ERA.)

This moment was significant to me because it was then that it officially clicked in my mind… I was in the presence of greatness.

A greatness that sports fans can only read about in the history books and wish they could have been able to personally witness.

Not only did I get to live in an era that produced arguably the greatest pitcher of our generation in Greg Maddux, but I was afforded the great honor and privilege to see him pitch first-hand every five days for the 11 years he donned an Atlanta Braves uniform.

That’s quite an embarrassment of riches. And, I knew it.

But, I never once took it for granted, which is not something I can say is true of my time as a Braves fan.

During the Braves unprecedented run of fourteen consecutive division titles, I honestly believed it would never end. As sure as the sun would be shining every morning, I was convinced there wouldn’t be an October that didn’t include the Atlanta Braves.

Call it wishful thinking; call it a confident swagger, but playoff baseball and the Braves, to me, were one in the same. Obviously, my thought process was absurd. Everything comes to an end in sports, even the most remarkable of streaks.

But the one thing I knew for certainty that would end was the Greg Maddux Era. That is why I tried to make it a point to never miss one start, one interview, or one chance to see him live and in person.

And, I didn’t.

It is because of Greg Maddux that I will always prefer a good pitcher’s duel to a slugfest.

It is because of Greg Maddux that I will forever respect finesse pitchers and have a deep appreciation for the art of control. He wasn’t flashy. His stuff wasn’t overpowering. But, he was as accurate as any pitcher to ever play the game.

It is because of Greg Maddux that I’ve become thirsty for an even greater knowledge of the game. They called him “The Professor” at times. Not just because of the glasses he would sport off the field but for the great intellect and insight he would provide on the game of baseball. He was more then a teacher and mentor, he was a true strategist, just a fountain of knowledge that one could only hope to begin to tap. Some called him the smartest pitcher they’ve ever seen. I’d have to agree.

It is because of Greg Maddux that my faith in iconic baseball figures is not completely shattered. Growing up in the “Steroid Era” and watching so many big names fall victim to the juice, I take even greater pride knowing that Maddux played the game the right way—cleanly, and with integrity and class. His numbers always spoke for themselves but with the likes of Roger Clemens, whose records are now tarnished with the all too familiar asterisk next to them, it elevates Maddux to an even greater level.

His legacy is now cemented in the history books.

While it was sad for me personally to watch Maddux leave the Braves and go on to win his 300th game in a Chicago Cubs uniform, before then finishing his career out west, I do feel his benchmark years were those spent in Atlanta.

Today’s induction in the Braves Hall of Fame is only the beginning.

The greatest culmination of his career comes later… when he is inducted into Cooperstown.

Greg Maddux, the 4-time Cy Young winner.

Greg Maddux, the 8-time All-Star.

Greg Maddux, the record 18-time Gold Glover.

Greg Maddux, the 300-game winner.

All of those accomplishments are remarkable but can’t compare to the ultimate: Greg Maddux, the World Champion.

That last feat, which came when he was a member of the Braves in 1995, is why I know Greg Maddux will go into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame as an Atlanta Brave.

That would be the final and only fitting ending to an illustrious career.

Greg Maddux was a master of his craft and if I can be half the journalist that he was pitcher, then my career path was indeed the chosen one.




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