• Exclusives

    Braves facing Pirates to start mild June schedule

    The Atlanta Braves spent the first two months of the season largely on the road. Their home numbers hardly reflected the early going because Turner Field began to feel like the visitor’s park due to them being there so rarely. For instance, Tim Hudson’s numbers during April and May at home hardly looked like they belonged with his overall ERA because he’d had far too many horrific starts on the road. Of course, in baseball all things balance out, every batting average comes down to earth and no ERA stays at zero forever.

    Numbers may fluctuate, but the Braves have to be looking forward to the success that could lay before them in the month of June. Of the 26 remaining games in June after finishing the series against Washington, just 9 of them will be played against teams that at the time of this post have a record of over .500. Those teams include the Pirates, the Giants and the Diamondbacks.

    With the amateur draft approaching this weekend and just over a month left of all star voting, it is relevant to ask where the Braves currently sit. The obvious questions are will the offense live up to its potential and will the bullpen be able to survive the losses it has sustained.

    In terms of offense, there remain questions about the Upton brothers. Whether Justin’s production will drop off as we’ve seen in recent weeks and whether B.J.’s swing is repairable are the major questions for the offseason acquisitions. The Braves are not getting the kind of offense from Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward that they are both capable of. Heyward has shown signs of life lately, homering against the Pirates in the first game of the series. Dan Uggla has always been a streaky hitter, but he has not lived up to the promise he held when the Braves traded Omar Infante to the Marlins for him. Andrelton Simmons can be an offensive force for the Braves. However, his aggressiveness on the base paths will always put him in the position of being prone to injury. Taking the extra base on an out-of-the-box single isn’t always necessary and especially not when it puts his body in danger of injury on the slide. Andrelton will grow into his skills and until then, what the Braves get from him on offense will be worth it because his defense is so spectacular.

    The Braves bullpen has had its share of tribulation this season given the major losses it has suffered. Taking into account that at one point the Braves were without O’Flaherty, Venters, Walden, Martinez and Ayala (Walden has since returned), it is remarkable that the remaining members of the ‘pen have been able to keep the ship afloat. As Atlanta put away the Nationals Sunday, taking 2-of-3 for the rival Nats to bring their lead in the NL East to 6.5 games, the bullpen had an active streak of 20 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. As a group, they pitched 3 perfect innings in Sunday’s finale. It isn’t all bad news, though. With Brandon Beachy returning from Tommy John rehab in June, one arm–an arm that hasn’t been determined–will join the ‘pen.

    Evan Gattis won the National League Rookie of the Month award for the 2nd consecutive month in May.

    Evan Gattis won the National League Rookie of the Month award for the 2nd consecutive month in May.

    Atlanta has had its share of surprises this season, not all of them bad. Ramiro Pena has been one of the best pick ups for the bench in recent years. With the trade of Martin Prado, the Braves were desperate for a do-it-all utility man and they were more than rewarded for picking him up. Evan Gattis continues to impress everyone in baseball. Gattis won Rookie of the Month in the National League for the second straight month. He is the first Braves rookie to win in back-to-back months since Jason Heyward did so in 2010. Heyward came in 2nd in 2010 behind Buster Posey who was awarded NL Rookie of the Year. The Braves starting rotation has been pleasantly surprised to be carried by the young guns at the tail end, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran. And in the ‘pen, Luis Avilan has been impressive. Had the ‘pen not been decimated by injuries in the first 2 months, Avilan would have been a perfect candidate to join the rotation for spot starts.

    The Braves face Pittsburgh not only after beating Nationals, but knocking down the injured Nats one more peg. The day the Nats finally got away from Turner Field, their on-base percentage actually dropped lower than that of the barely out of the minors Miami Marlins. While they certainly have dealt with injuries, the Nationals have not seen the Gio Gonzalez of last season, their bullpen is shaky at times and they aren’t getting the offensive production that was such a surprise to baseball last season.

    Pittsburgh is, in many ways, what the Nationals were last season at this point–the surprise story of baseball. They have starting pitching that has dominated. They have perhaps the best bullpen in baseball right now. The offense is firing on all cylinders with all star Andrew McCutchen leading Garrett Jones, Starling Marte and Jose Tabata. They are in a market that is small enough to not get the kind of attention the bigger clubs in the game get. And the managerial competence of Clint Hurdle cannot be overlooked. If a team like the Nationals could be the Cinderella story of 2013, the Pirates have that potential this season.

    Once the Braves wrap with the Pirates, they head to Los Angeles to face the highly disappointed and disappointing Dodgers. Barring a rain out or change in the pitching schedule, Atlanta will luck out once again and miss the most dominant pitcher in the National League, Clayton Kershaw. The southern California swing will go from Chavez Ravine to Petco Park and then the Braves will return home to face the Giants. Putting additional distance between themselves and the rest of the NL East will be a top priority for the Braves as they make their way through a mild June.

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