The Braves finally fell to Earth in Pittsburgh, dropping 3 of 4 games in the series to the Bucs. With their 10-game win streak over, the Braves looked to get things rolling again against the Pirates, but the Pirates had other plans. Phenomenal Pittsburgh pitching, both from their starters and a solid bullpen, stifled the powerful Atlanta bats. The Braves were more than ready to get out of Pittsburgh after losing the 4-game series.
The Braves began the series in Pittsburgh with a somewhat uncertain bullpen. Avila remained day-to-day with a hamstring strain. Walden hadn’t made an appearance in what seemed like weeks. And there was some question of who might be called up if Avila did need to make a trip to the disabled list. In game 1, none of that appeared important as Varvaro and Kimbrel truly carried the team to the win.
Game 1 saw something that has never happened in Braves history: Justin Upton became the first player with 9 home runs in his team’s first 15 games of the season. Older brother B.J. Upton lined an 0-2 pitch into left field to give Atlanta a 1-run lead in the 1st inning. It was B.J.’s 2nd homer of the season.
W: Varvaro (1-0) L: Hughes (1-1) SV: Kimbrel (7)
Tim Hudson would really like that elusive 200th career win. The win wasn’t in the cards in game 2. Huddy only pitched 4 innings and gave up 9 hits, 6 ERs, and 2 BBs with 2 Ks. He will try again for that 200th win in the series finale in chilly Denver. However, Huddy hasn’t had the best luck or any luck in Denver. Coors Field and U.S. Cellular Field are the only two parks in MLB that Hudson is winless in (with minimum of 4 starts). Hudson doesn’t boast great numbers at Coors, either. He has an 0-2 record with a terrible 8.04 ERA in five starts there. It’s safe to say that Huddy’s sinker simply doesn’t sink at Coors.
Going into game 2, the Braves’ Justin Upton led all of Major League Baseball in homers and OPS. Chris Johnson led MLB in average (which he still does). Paul Maholm led MLB in wins (tied) and ERA. And closer Kimbrel led MLB in saves. The Braves were in great shape until the first of their 3 game slide. Evan Gattis came through for the Braves again, launching his 5th home run of the season.
W: Rodriguez (2-0) L: Hudson (2-1)
Paul Maholm began the the third game of the series with 25 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings. According to Elias, Maholm’s 25 1/3 innings of scoreless ball were the most for a starting pitcher when opening the season since Luis Tiant pitched 27 scoreless in 1966. That’s some pretty impressive company. But like the Braves in the series, Maholm was bound to fall to Earth eventually. In game 3, Dan Uggla injured his left calf. He said the injury felt similar to one he experienced in 2011. He was surprised the day after that it didn’t hurt as bad as he expected. We’ll likely see Uggla back in the lineup in the first or second game in Colorado. The Braves saw a roster move in game 3. Right-hander David Carpenter was recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett to join the bullpen while utility man Blake DeWitt was placed on the 15-day DL with a lower back strain.
W: McDonald (2-2) L: Maholm (3-1) SV: Grilli (6)
Kris Medlen will be the first to tell you that sometimes a quality outing just isn’t enough. That was the case in the season finale. Medlen’s curveball was superb, but the strike zone made using his control a tricky tightrope walk. Even a quality outing can be rendered meaningless with run support. That was the case again in game 4 when the Braves managed 8 hits, but only got 2 to cross the plate. While the bats weren’t productive in the series finale, the gloves were. Andrelton Simmons did something nobody in baseball seems to remember seeing before: In an attempt to throw out a runner at first base on a grounder hit hard up the middle, he transferred the ball behind his back from his glove to his barehand so he could throw across his body. Though he didn’t get the runner, the display of defensive prowess reminded the Braves why they so firmly believe he will win many gold gloves in his career. In addition to that spectacular flash of leather, Andrelton ran down the third base line and dove with his back to the ball for an out (with an incoming Justin Upton nearing Andrelton as he dove, I might add). Justin Upton’s defensive ability has been a pleasant surprise to the Braves who thought his former team, the Diamondbacks, had written off Upton’s potential on defense. Upton robbed a Pedro Alvarez of a home run in the 6th inning.
W: Wilson (1-0) L:Medlen (1-2) SV: Grilli (7)
BRAVES HEAD TO ROCKY WEATHER…
The Braves will, like the Mets and Diamondbacks before them on the schedule, encounter winter weather as they begin a 3-game set in Colorado. According to the current forecast, there is a chance of snow both Monday and Tuesday in Denver. Both Tuesday and Thursday’s game last week in Denver were postponed due to snow.
Freddie Freeman returns from the disabled list in the first game in Denver. Freeman was sidelined with an oblique injury, a DL trip he was less than thrilled with. He thrived at Gwinnett, going 5-for-5 with 2 doubles and 2 RBIs on Saturday, and appears to be more than ready to return to the big league lineup. The timing of his return is fantastic for Freeman who boasts a .406 average with 3 doubles, 4 homers, a triple and 11 RBIs in his 7 games played at Coors Field in his career. His return presents a predicament for manager Fredi Gonzalez. Chris Johnson, who has filled in for Freddie at first base, is the hottest hitter in baseball right now. Johnson has a .407 average with 24 hits, 4 doubles, 2 homers and 7 RBIs. He leads Major League Baseball in average (of players with 50+ plate appearances). Does Gonzalez give Chris Johnson all of the playing time at third base or does he continue with a platoon of Johnson and Juan Francisco? Whatever Gonzalez chooses to do, having Francisco or Johnson available off the bench with Freeman back in the lineup will be a boost to the Braves in the late innings.
While the Braves’ bats were not up to par in Pittsburgh, it’s important to remember just how good the Braves have been despite some glaring weaknesses. In the National League, there are just over 20 players batting .185 or lower (qualifying with 25+ plate appearances) and four of them are Braves starters Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton, Andrelton Simmons and Dan Uggla. There are signs of life, however. In the final game against the Bucs, Simmons had his third multi-hit game of the year. Upton and Heyward are working hard in the batting cage. And perhaps the rest Uggla is getting for his injured calf will reset his timing. Reed Johnson, known his career for being a great bat off the bench, hasn’t given the Braves quite as much as they’d hoped thus far, either. The good news is that the Braves have received tons of offense from unlikely spots. When you think about how much Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson have given the team, it’s pretty incredible that they both started the season as backup players and eventually platoon players. Ramiro Pena has provided pop when needed off the bench. The Braves are getting it done with a different combination of key pieces in their wins. We have yet to see this team play with all the pieces in place.
In the 4 games in Pittsburgh, the Braves were hitting a paltry .179 with 4 HRs. To be successful in Colorado, the bats are going to have to wake up. What better place to right the bats than the hitter friendly Coors Field?
One last note as we head into the Colorado series: Braves’ fans have not all been patient with young Julio Teheran. It’s important that we think about the early struggles last season of Mike Minor. In Minor’s first 3 starts of the 2012 season, the rookie posted ERAs of 10.80, 4.38 and 3.10. In Teheran’s first 3 starts of the 2013 season, he has posted a 9.00, 7.36 and 7.31. Remember that in one of those starts, the wheels appeared to come off early on and then he settled in and ate up some innings and saved the bullpen. Teheran is still only 22-years-old and has a lot to learn about himself and the game. He has made only 7 big league starts. His story may turn out to be much like Minor’s. We can’t know yet if he’ll gain confidence and settle in the way Minor did in the second-half of the 2012 season. The only way for us to find out is to be patient with the young righty and hope that he is the recipient of some luck along the way.
Monday’s pitching matchup will feature Minor (2-1, 0.95) vs. Francis (1-1, 8.25). Tuesday features Teheran (0-0, 7.31) vs. Garland (2-0, 3.32). Getaway day in Denver will be an afternoon game with Hudson (2-1, 4.50) vs. TBD.