Posts Tagged ‘NL Wild Card

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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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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02
Oct
09

Braves fall short in bid for playoffs…..

Tommy Hanson helped lead the Braves back into contentionThe Braves knew the odds were stacked against them in their quest to win the NL Wild Card … but, that didn’t stop them from making a valiant effort to overtake the Colorado Rockies and sneak into the playoffs.

Unfortunately, three straight losses (and four consecutive Colorado wins) with no margin for error ended their dramatic bid for the postseason.

Atlanta will now look towards 2010, but with a newfound sense of anticipation — and, hope.

Entering Tuesday night’s game against the Marlins, the Braves had won 15 of their previous 17 games and were trailing the Rockies by just two games in the Wild Card race.

The confidence the club gained in their attempt to chase down Colorado has team brass, players, and fans encouraged by the swift transformation from just a year ago when the Braves suffered a 90-loss season.

Credit the team’s quick turnaround in large part to their rebuilt and resurgent starting rotation.

The Braves are stocked with a young staff and two potential aces in Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson and with Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami, and the option to bring back Tim Hudson at a reduced rate, the team has the luxury of entertaining offers for Javier Vazquez.

Vazquez, who is coming off a career year, is also under contract for next season but may be the team’s most attractive bargaining chip.

What the Braves choose to do with Vazquez will be the most hotly contested topic of the winter, as the club looks to acquire a power hitter to solve their offensive woes.

With an underwhelming free agent class of hitters available, the club may feel their best chance to land a power bat may come via the trade market.

However, while it can be argued that it may be in the Braves’ best interest to trade Vazquez when his stock is at its highest, the team may be better off by keeping their streaking right-hander, who has arguably been the club’s ace down the stretch this season.

Regardless of what Atlanta opts to do about their crowded but overtly talented rotation, one thing is certain — The forecast for the 2010 Braves remains bright.

In what will be manager Bobby Cox’s last season at the helm, the Braves feel they have the pieces in place to be a playoff team next year with the hope of sending their skipper off into the sunset on a high note.

As I watched the 2009 Braves scratch and claw their way back into the playoff hunt when they were a sub-.500 team back in June and a lofty 8 1/2 games back of the Wild Card lead just a few weeks ago, I find myself surprisingly content with the season’s end result.

For so many years, I was spoiled, as so many Braves fans were by watching a team that was consistently playoff bound.

But yet, I always felt in my gut that something was missing.

Still, it was hard to not get excited about another playoff appearance, but it was also hard not to admit (at least to one’s self) that precipitating feeling of doom.

It got to the point that I just knew the team was going to fall short.

It didn’t matter on the surface how promising the picture looked… the talent was there, every single year, but the heart wasn’t.

It’s not like the Braves didn’t want to win, it is just they had come to expect it.

But, no longer.

Three years removed from the playoffs, the 2009 Braves played loose with a chip on their shoulder and nothing to lose.

Sure, they fell short… but, their never-say-die attitude, the fire in their bellies, and the gumption that they showed in the face of adversity, were all things this team had lacked for so many years.

It’s those characteristics that breed a champion.

And, it is those very traits that made watching Braves baseball fun again.

Disappointment can be measured in many different ways.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping against all logic and reason that this team would pull off the impossible and win the Wild Card, but am I disappointed that they didn’t?

No, not in the least.

That is because this team showed to me and to the baseball world that they are relevant again.

They showed that they are a threat — hungry, talented, and fearless.

The Braves are back… and, it is seemingly only a matter of time before they re-claim their spot back on top.

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.

14
Aug
09

A “Philly” big series…

Five games back of the division lead.

Three games against the first place Phils.

Atlanta’s aspirations for an NL East crown are at stake and anything short of a series win against Philadelphia will all but end those hopes.

So, to say this is a big series, is an understatement.

The Braves, while publicly claiming they weren’t overlooking their two-game set against the Washington Nationals, have understandably had their sights on this upcoming series against the Phillies all week long.

But, to their credit, the Bravos have set themselves up quite nicely for Philadelphia, sweeping the pesky Nats.

However, to Philly’s credit, they are coming into tonight’s series against Atlanta riding high after sweeping the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

A series that was looming large figures to live up to the billing.

The Braves are hot, having won five games in a row, heading into Friday night’s opener.

The Phils seem to have caught fire again thanks to their sweep of the Cubs, after previously dropping eight of eleven before heading to Chicago.

If there is one thing that can be said about the Phillies, it is that they are one streaky club.

They have gone on runs where they are absolutely unbeatable and then without any warning, will go cold at the drop of a hat.

The Braves are hoping the Phillies are due for another cold spurt.

Atlanta is slated to send Jair Jurrjens, Kenshin Kawakami, and Javier Vazquez to the hill in this series.

Philadelphia will counter with Joe Blanton, Cole Hamels, and J.A. Happ.

The Braves have to be pleased that they will not be facing Cliff Lee this weekend. Lee hasn’t lost since joining the Phillies in a trade from the Cleveland Indians in late July.

Another thing that weighs heavily in the Braves’ favor is their head-to-head success against the Phillies this season.

Atlanta has won seven of nine from Philadelphia and has shown they can outpitch their division rival.

If the Braves are going to take this series from the Phils, they again will need big performances out of their starting staff.

The Bravos know the tall task before them. They need to win two of three, and stay four games back to remain in the hunt for the East.

If not, Atlanta will have to focus its attention on the NL Wild, if they hope to play October baseball.

Still, for a Braves club that lost 90 games last season, to be factoring so heavily into the division race is quite remarkable.

The Phillies, like most other teams in the league, underestimated the Braves.

The Mets figured to be chasing down the Phils, again, not the Braves.

But, for a team that has thrived all season long by flying under the radar, they are about to get a dose of big time publicity if they can take this series from Philly.

My prediction?

I think the Braves are up to the challenge.

Why?

It is because, for once, they are playing the role of the underdog.

During their run of divisional dominance that saw them assume the title of, “Beasts of the NL East,” the Braves were labeled the favorites, year in and year out.

With the fourteen consecutive division titles came the constant question of, “When would the run end?”

That pressure and the resulting media scrutiny that followed, became larger than life and often crippling.

The Braves aren’t use to being in this situation.

All eyes are on the Phillies… not them.

They have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.

And, it’s for that reason, that I think the Braves will take care of business this weekend.

Forging ahead… IF this Braves team does infact make the playoffs, I think they are a force to be reckoned with.

I believe the main reason why the Braves struggled to find postseason success stems from the fact that they were rarely challenged by their division rivals during the season.

If you look at Atlanta’s past four playoff losses from 2002-2005, where they were eliminated in the first round, you’ll notice their opponents –the Giants, Cubs, Astros and Astros again, were all Wild Card winners.

The Braves, by contrast, were runaway division champs, often 100-plus game winners.

While there opponents were scratching and clawing their way into the playoffs, the Braves were resting their regulars a month before the playoffs were set to begin, not participating in a meaningful game.

As a result, the Braves found it difficult to just flip the switch and recapture the intensity that had alluded them for the past month.

I’ve always said since then that a good, heated division or wild card race would be good for the Braves.

Series’ like this upcoming one against the Phillies builds character.

It is a precursor to the types of series’ and the level of intensity that would await them in October.

If this Braves team gets into the playoffs, their fate could be much different than those teams of the past.

The Braves, and their fans, just hope they get that chance.




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