• Exclusives

    Braves get more bad news in ‘pen, but glad to be home

    The common wisdom about the Atlanta Braves is that they will strike out in 2013 at a torrid rate, they will hit home runs at a pace not seen in the franchise for decades and they will bring dominant defense to each game. Common wisdom didn’t hold up while the Braves were on their recent road trip. Sure there were strikeouts, home runs and defensive gems, but there were also blunders and dry spells that made the road trip almost unbearable. Losing 6 of the 10 games on the trip, it’s no wonder the Braves are thrilled to be back at Turner Field to face the Dodgers and Twins.

    But should the team be happy to return home? Here are some curious numbers about the Braves’ performance at Turner Field this year:

    - Braves are last in the league in hits at home.

    - They are second-to-last in the league, behind only Miami, in runs and RBIs at home. 

    - And they’re 12th in the NL in stolen bases at home.

    These numbers might seem alarming until you consider one important fact. As of Sunday morning, the Braves had played just 16 games at home all season. No other National League team has played fewer than 21 home games to this point. For instance, the team Atlanta defeated on Saturday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers, have played 24 games in front of their fans.

    Every other team in the league has played at about 1/3 more home games in 2013 then have the Braves. So… there’s no need to be alarmed by the modest offensive totals at home.

    In fact, the Braves have the 6th best team OPS at home, .764, in the NL. And despite so few home games, relatively speaking, Atlanta is 6th in the NL in homeruns at home.

    On the pitching front, it will obviously be good for the pitching staff’s stats to spend some time at the Ted. Braves’ pitching is 2nd in the NL behind the Pirates in ERA at home. They are 7th in ERA on the road. Keep in mind, though, that the Braves are 1st in innings pitched on the road and 15th (last) in innings pitched at home–a difference of 226 innings on the road to 136 at home.

    When you put it all together, the Braves are 11-5 at Turner Field. Home sweet home.

    As the Braves kicked off the 3-game set with the Dodgers Friday, there was a familiar face in the lineup that they haven’t had for nearly a month. Jason Heyward has rejoined the club after completing a rehab assignment following an emergency appendectomy during the frigid series in Denver. While at Triple-A Gwinnett for his 6-game assignment, Heyward hit .300 with 6 hits, a double and 6 RBIs.

    Having Heyward back in the lineup means less potential playing time for Evan Gattis given that Gattis had picked up some playing time in the outfield when perennial All-Star catcher Brian McCann came off the disabled list. However, Gattis is still a huge bat off the bench and on McCann’s off days, as he proved with his go-ahead 2-run shot in Saturday evening’s contest.

    With Heyward’s return the only real question in the Braves’ outfield is what to do with B.J. Upton while he is in a tremendous slump. You clearly can’t bench the guy with the highest free agent contract in the history of the Atlanta Braves. But how do you reset his timing so he no longer looks so lost at the plate? Having Jason Heyward’s bat back in the lineup makes this less pressing. Reed Johnson, Jordan Schafer and Evan Gattis did a fantastic job filling in while Heyward was out, but there is no denying the dynamic talent of Jason Heyward. Having his speed, defensive prowess and offense is big for the Braves right now. Add his talent to that of the incredible Justin Upton, who smashed a grand slam last night and set the Braves up for the win against the Dodgers, and the Braves have something special that will win them many games.

    Something the Braves experienced on the road trip that is very unfamiliar to them was inconsistency in the bullpen. The Braves have been lucky the past few seasons to have Craig Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters to shutdown the game for them. Last season with injuries here and there, the Braves were able to lean on Chad Durbin out of the ‘pen. This season they haven’t had the kind of consistency from Avilan and Walden (who is now on the DL) that they would like. That has put additional pressure on Kimbrel and O’Flaherty and they haven’t always been able to pitch under that pressure. They haven’t had Jonny Venters as part of their 1-2-3 punch this season and that has taken a toll. And after resuming throwing once shut down for a month with elbow soreness, Venters felt soreness return. His visit with Dr. James Andrews resulted in immediate Tommy John surgery, his second. The Braves will not see Venters pitch again for 12 months and chances are when they do see him again, it won’t be in a Braves uniform given that 2013 was his first year of arbitration eligibility.

    Then came another bombshell for the Atlanta bullpen when news broke on Saturday that O’Flaherty has a torn UCL in his pitching elbow, which almost certainly means season-ending surgery for him as well.

    Relievers Luis Ayala, Christhian Martinez and Jordan Walden are also on the disabled list. There is no timetable for Martinez or Ayala to return to the club. This has left a large hole in the ‘pen with Avilan and Gearrin now splitting the setup duties. Prospects J.R. Graham and Alex Wood are not currently considered options for call-up, Graham was recently shut down with pitching soreness. In the meantime, Cory Rasmus has been called up from Triple-A Gwinnett to help in the ‘pen. In his 19 appearances in Gwinnett, he has an 0.93 ERA with a 1-1 record.

    Safe to say, injuries have taken a sledgehammer to Atlanta’ vaunted bullpen.

    All the same, the Braves are quite happy to be home. Why the Braves have spent 26 of their first 40 games on the road is just another of those scheduling issues that never seems to be resolved. There will be teams that spend a big chunk of their early schedule away from their home ballparks. However, it would make sense that the teams in warmer climates would naturally be at home more frequently in the early going. Colorado, Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit would be the obvious choices for more road games in the first month of the season, but that would just make too much sense. Instead, the boys from Hotlanta are on the road, battling rain and snow. At least this last terrible road trip was not impeded by weather. Though, maybe weather would have helped their cause. It certainly couldn’t have hurt.

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