Fresh off a sweep of the rival Phillies, the Braves went into the All-Star break knowing that they would continue to contend in the National League East. The questions about starting pitching and the injury to shortstop Andrelton Simmons were partially answered over the weekend as the Braves swept the New York Mets.
Beginning Friday night, the Braves plugged Jack Wilson in at shortstop in the place of Andrelton Simmons. However, Wilson left the game with a dislocated finger and the Braves were forced to utilize super utility man Martin Prado at short. Going forward, Prado would be needed in left field, the impossibility of platooning Eric Hinske and Matt Diaz there evident, and Frank Wren began looking for available shortstops who could fill in until Simmons comes off the disabled list. Wren found the answer in Paul Janish of the Cincinnati Reds organization. Janish was traded for Triple-A pitcher Todd Redmond on Saturday.
Friday night’s game showcased a team that has been streaky when key players are missing from the lineup. This time the Braves were without catcher Brian McCann who was paternity leave for the birth of his son. David Ross, the best backup catcher in the league, stepped into McCann’s place and belted a 3-run home run in the 3rd inning off Chris Young. Jason Heyward came through with an RBI and stolen base, continuing the hot streak he began began in the two weeks leading up to the All-Star break. And Craig Kimbrel, the best and most consistent closer in the game, notched his 26th save as the Braves beat the Mets 7-5.
Saturday, the Braves once again sent Martin Prado out to shortstop, proving again the value of his versatility. Tommy Hanson, who had previously been a force for the Braves and the most consistent starter, struggled early and often. Josh Thole and Ike Davis helped the Mets secure 9 hits and 6 earned runs off Tommy. Throughout the second game of the series, the Braves battled every step of the way as a group. Hits from Freddie Freeman and Eric Hinske fueled the offense, but it was Jason Heyward coming through in the clutch with a 2-out single that hammered the Mets’ bullpen in the 3-run 8th inning. Chipper was not one of the Braves to get a hit, snapping his 14-game hitting streak. The Braves ‘pen held that lead with the untouchable performance of closer Kimbrel, giving him his 27th save on the season and the team an 8-7 victory.
While neither of the starters Friday nor Saturday night took a win, Sunday’s starter was a complete unknown. Unknown in the sense that when Ben Sheets was signed by the Braves just before the All-Star break, the Braves had absolutely no idea what they would be getting from him. He was a low-risk, potentially high-reward signing and if Sunday’s outing is any indication, the Braves may have just struck gold.
Prior to Sunday’s game, the Braves made numerous moves including brining in Paul Janish from Cincinnati, a trade made on Saturday; Jack Wilson was sent to the 15-day DL and Randall Delgado was sent back to Gwinnett; and, the Braves purchased the contract of RHP Ben Sheets prior to his first start since July 19, 2010 for the Oakland Athletics.
For having missed all of the 2011 season to Tommy John surgery, Ben Sheets looked sharp out of the gate Sunday. In his first start in nearly two years, the big right hander threw 6 scoreless innings and allowed only 2 hits. It was a remarkable feat for a guy who didn’t know if he would ever pitch again and for a Braves’ GM who took on the right hander without any guarantee that Sheets would in fact bring something to the team. With 88 pitches, Sheets notched 5 strikeouts and gave up only 1 walk.
The Braves roughed up Johan Santana in the 5th inning and the Mets were never able to come back from the 6 runs the Braves tagged on the board then. Quietly, amid the hot bat of Jason Heyward and the consistency of Martin Prado and Michael Bourn, Freddie Freeman is producing in big ways. His 3-run home run with 2 outs off Santana was just another example of how important Freeman is to the lineup. When healthy, Freeman can easily carry this offense.
The bullpen shut down the Mets after Sheets’ departure, securing a 6-1 win over the Mets and the 3-game sweep.
FIRST PLACE GIANTS ARRIVE AT THE TED…
Tuesday: Zito (7-6, 4.01) vs. Jurrjens (3-2, 4.97)
Wednesday: Vogelsong (7-4, 2.36) vs. Minor (5-6, 5.97)
Thursday: Bumgarner (11-5, 3.15) vs. Hudson (7-4, 3.80)
Beginning the series against the Giants, the Braves are 2 1/2 games behind the first place Washington Nationals in the NL East. Scraping out a couple of wins against the dominant Giants would put the Braves in great shape to overtake the Nationals in the NL East this weekend when the Braves head to D.C.
Braves’ pitching will be essential to wins this series with the pitching-dominant Giants in town. Jurrjens will take the mound with a 3-0 record and 2.13 ERA in 4 starts since he was recalled from Gwinnett. This is the Jair Jurrjens the Braves need and whatever happened at Gwinnett seems to have turned Jurrjens around. Returning to form and continuing to remind the Braves why he has been successful for them in the past is important to the second-half for Atlanta. While Zito has been better than expected for the Giants, Atlanta’s offense getting to him early could open the door for another win for JJ.
One more note on Braves pitching during the S.F. series: Mike Minor has won the rotation spot for the time being with Delgado being sent to Triple-A. Minor must continue to pitch effectively, giving the Braves quality starts, if he hopes to stay in the rotation for the duration. While the Giants are known for their pitching, the pop of Buster Posey and Melky Cabrera is something that Minor and his battery mate McCann will have to be ever cognizant of. Minor cannot let the long ball get him. Avoiding walks and home runs will spell success for Minor and will ensure his confidence does not take a drumming.
The Atlanta Braves are riding a 7-game winning streak as the Giants roll into town, proving once again that the most consistent thing about the Braves this season is, well, their inconsistency. Atlanta has been one of the most, if not the most, streaky teams in baseball in 2012.
The Braves welcome the Giants tonight at 7:10 (EST).