• Exclusives

    Braves drop key series, look to rebound vs Cubs

    Rookie SS Andrelton Simmons was 5-for-12 w/ a HR in weekend series vs Nats

    The Braves went into the 3-game series this weekend against the Nationals 3 games out of first place in the National League East. They hoped to whittle away at the Nationals’ lead, starting the final week before the All Star break in good position to move atop the division. However, their hopes were dashed by ineffective pitching that the Nats took advantage of. The Braves ended the weekend series 4 1/2 games behind the Nationals and in third place behind the Mets.

    While the Braves have struggled with runners in scoring position throughout the first half of the season, the real struggle has been with pitching. What was believed to be one of the most solid starting rotations in baseball at the start of the season has been anything but. What was believed to be an untouchable bullpen has not lived up to its billing, either. Both the rotation and the ‘pen put those struggles on display this weekend against Washington.

    Of the three starters to pitch this weekend, veteran Tim Hudson went the deepest, pitching 6 innings. Rookie Mike Minor gave the Braves 5 innings. And the least of the three came from young Randall Delgado who was pulled after 4 innings. The quality and length of all three outings was certainly impacted by triple digit temperatures in Atlanta. However, the rotation has not been going as deep as they should be and the young arms are putting in fewer and fewer innings as the season wears on. As a team, Atlanta’s starters are 14th (of 16) in the National League in innings pitched.  For the bullpen to get back to the dominance they showed last season, they can’t be called upon to eat up so many innings for starters who have the ability to give the team more innings.

    Randall Delgado has been the least consistent of the starters, something he showed in his 4 innings Friday night to start the series. Delgado has had moments of absolute brilliance and, like Friday, has struggled mightily in other starts. Though Delgado had to overcome a few snafus on the part of the defense behind him, he was unable to shut down the Nats’ offense, allowing 8 hits and 4 runs (2 of them earned). Making up for defensive blunders of his own, rookie Andrelton Simmons came through in a big way launching a game-tying 2-run homer in the 7th inning. That wouldn’t prove to be enough for the Braves after Michael Morse launched a homer of his own off Chad Durbin in the 8th–a homer that would prove the decisive moment for the Nats.

    Tim Hudson struggled in triple-digit heat Sunday (6 inn, 5 ER)

    Let’s talk about Hudson’s start and then return to Minor. In the final game of the series we were reminded of just how potent this offense could be if each of the individual pieces were working at the same time. Freddie Freeman showed off his power with a 3-run homer in the 6th inning. As Andrew Hirsh wrote for BravesWire, Martin Prado and Jason Heyward have been leading the resurgence of the offense. Michael Bourn has been the most consistent piece of the offensive puzzle this season. Andrelton Simmons has been showing that he is not only a defensive weapon for the Braves and Dan Uggla can contribute greatly when he’s hot. The pieces just haven’t come together all at once. Just one or two additional bats on top of Freeman’s blast could have given Hudson the win. Instead, the Braves finished 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position.

    The biggest question for the Atlanta Braves remains Mike Minor. While his opponent, fellow 2009 draft pick Stephen Strasburg, left the game early due to the heat in Atlanta, Mike Minor pitched 5 mostly uneventful innings. While he’s had stretches that have seemed unbearable, racking up a 8.84 ERA in 7 consecutive starts, he has also stepped up in key moments. Like his team, Minor has been streaky. Saturday’s win was his first since June 7th. This start was bolstered by the 9 hits and 7 runs contributed in support of Minor. A lot about Minor’s future will be determined at the trade deadline.

    Atlanta will likely be a buyer at the trade deadline, especially with the question marks in the starting rotation. Sunday the Braves signed a minor league contract with pitcher Ben Sheets. Frank Wren has said that Sheets could join the rotation in a few weeks. At this point, the trade is one of low risk and potentially high reward. Sheets will be assigned to Double-A Mississippi and will make his first start for them on Wednesday.

    CUBS COME INTO TOWN…

    Monday: Samardzija (5-7, 5.05) vs. Hanson (9-4, 3.59)

    Tuesday: Volstad (0-6, 7.46 ERA) vs. Jurrjens (1-2, 6.07)

    Wednesday: Maholm (5-6, 4.84) vs. Delgado (4-8, 4.52)

    Thursday: (4-6, 4.01) vs. Minor (4-6, 4.20)

    Despite their matching number of selections to the All Star Game (Kimbrel and Uggla for the Braves, Castro and LaHair for the Cubs), the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves are going in opposite directions this season.

    Having a lengthy home stand would usually be welcome by any team, but with the weather in Hot-lanta sweltering, the road warriors might rather be at Wrigley Field this week.

    With the exception of Craig Kimbrel, the bullpen has been giving away far too many hits and runs in recent weeks. Jonny Venters continues to struggle, O’Flaherty has been inconsistent and the is he or isn’t he going to the rotation question with Kris Medlen may need to be settled before he can be completely dominant. Chad Durbin’s recent outings have reminded Braves fans of his early days with Atlanta and how frustrating it was to see him trot out of the ‘pen.

    The Cubs are fresh off a rare sweep and are 4-4 in their last 8 games. Among NL teams, the Cubs are 11th in batting average, 15th in ERA, and 12th in fielding percentage. Chicago is 29-49 on the season and 14 games back in the NL Central (14 games behind the 1st place Reds). For a team that really needs to put a few games under their belt before the All Star break, the Braves could rebound from the lost Nats’ series by taking at least two games from the Cubs.

    Atlanta welcomes the Cubs for the 4-game series beginning at 7:10 (EST) Monday night.

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch" href="https://twitter.com/#!/framethepitch">@framethepitch.