Posts Tagged ‘Ryan Howard

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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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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