• Exclusives

    Armed with speed, the Atlanta Braves are running wild

    By Kent Covington

    On August 1, I wrote the following:

    On April 21, 1993 at (then) Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Atlanta Braves Manager, Bobby Cox handed a lineup card to home plate umpire, Harry Wendelstedt, with the names Deion Sanders and Otis Nixon scribbled atop the batting order. Sanders would go 1-for-5 that day with 2 stolen bases. Nixon went 0-for-4 with an RBI.

    That would be the last time fans would ever see two men that fast in the Braves lineup at the same time.

    Eighteen years later, however, you might just see it again.

    We did indeed see it again.  In fact, we’ve seen it almost every night since I wrote those words on the 1st of August.

    OF, Michael Bourn and 1B Coach, Terry Pendleton

    Jose Constanza, who was named “Class AAA’s fastest baserunner” by Baseball America last year, was called up to Atlanta from Gwinnett on July 29th.  Then the Braves acquired Michael Bourn, Major League Baseball’s stolen base leader, from the Houston Astros on July 31st.  Together, they have formed what is arguably baseball’s fastest tandem.

    In recent years, the Braves offense has been defined by its flaccid station-to-station, clog the basepaths, bunt the runner over or hope for the 3-run homer scheme. No more.

    Now, this Atlanta offense is capable of tormenting opposing pitchers with swarming speed.  The Braves lineup card still features a few hitters who can clog the bases–I’m pretty sure Michael Bourn will literally trip over Brian McCann at some point in route to home plate–but a sudden and considerable infusion of speed has transformed this lineup.

    Braves starting pitcher, Tim Hudson, recently commented that he would rather face a Barry Bonds type of hitter than someone like Bourn or Constanza. And I don’t think he’s alone. There is just something about a premier speedster that can drive you nuts when he’s wearing the other guys’ uniform.

    Constanza demonstrated his peskiness Wednesday night in Miami, when he legged out not one, not two, but THREE infield singles. Michael Bourn, who leads the league in infield hits, is no less pesky. Bourn and Constanza are also rifling their share of line drive hits and, of course, stealing bases.

    Constanza’s presence not only strengthens the bottom of the Atlanta lineup; it also makes the top of the order much more productive. When Constanza reaches base hitting 8th or 9th, he sets up RBI opportunities for Bourn, who is not merely a table-setter, but also a .319 hitter with runners in scoring position… and Martin Prado, who is a capable run producer in the 2-hole.

    It goes without saying that Constanza, who is currently hitting .413 in Atlanta, will cool off, and his batting average will settle in at a more earthbound level.  Once that happens, his playing time could be reduced. Recently, Braves’ Manager, Fredi Gonzalez, has been redistributing a good bit of a slumping Jason Heyward’s playing time to the white hot Constanza (to the chagrin of some fans and bloggers).  Gonzalez has explained his decision by pointing out that in the dog days of a post-season race; you have to go with the hot hand. However, when that hand is no longer all that hot, Constanza could settle into a part-time role.

    In addition to his speed, Constanza is known for odd quirks

    It seems clear that, barring injury, the division of playing time will be dictated by the performance of Constanza and Heyward, respectively.  The 2011 season has been a tremendously disappointing one for Heyward, who took Atlanta by storm last year in his all-star rookie season. The Braves would love to see “JHey” push Constanza to the bench by returning to his early ’10 form, but it remains to be seen if that will happen this year.  As for Constanza, we know he won’t hit .400 for very long, but who’s to say he couldn’t be a .300 hitter at the Major League level for years to come?  He hit a combined .316 in 2010/2011 at the AAA level. Can he sustain it in the big leagues? Only time will tell.

    But for now, the Braves are reaping the benefits of adding TWO .300+ hitters with blazing speed to a lineup that used to perpetually look as though it was running in sand.  And that speed could be a critical asset if the Wild Card leading Braves match up with pitching-dominant teams like the Giants or Phillies in October. That kind of series could result in a lot of 2-1 or 3-2 ballgames, in which the ability to manufacture a run with speed could make all the difference.

    The massive infusion of speed has the formerly flat-footed Braves running wild on opposing pitchers. Make no mistake, it has made them a much more complete and dangerous ballclub… and a helluva lot more fun to watch.

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