Where the Braves struggled in strike outs and scoring runs last season, an immense frustration for followers of the team and the players themselves, they’ve upped that struggle this season and have added to it inconsistencies on defense as well as out of the bullpen. Despite their frustrations, the Braves took 2 of 3 from the visiting Angels.
Friday night the Braves once again saw great pitching from the unlikely Aaron Harang who has been nothing but solid for the Braves since they signed him late. Harang’s outing Friday led the team to finally snapping a 6-game losing streak in interleague play. Additionally, the team improved to 24-6 when scoring 4 or more runs. Harang finished his outing with 6 innings of 1-run ball. He allowed 4 hits, 3 walks and struck out 2.
Aaron Harang was relieved by David Hale who saw plenty of time over the series with the Angels, particularly in the 13-inning marathon Saturday night. Over Friday and Saturday, Hale pitched 3 1/3 innings. He allowed 5 runs on 3 hits, walking 2 and striking out 1. Hale was out of sorts in the final inning of work Saturday night, but Fredi Gonzalez had only Shae Simmons and possibly Mike Minor to turn to. Fredi had said before the game that he didn’t want to use Simmons.
Sunday afternoon Fredi Gonzalez said that Minor was in the ‘pen and ready to enter if the game had gone to the 14th or 15th inning. Minor, of course, was the scheduled starter Monday. Fredi also said that Wren was told that if Minor did enter the game then the Braves would need a reliever called up from Triple-A. The Braves didn’t end up making a roster move Sunday, despite the ‘pen logging 6 2/3 innings Saturday night. Aaron Harang was available in the ‘pen Sunday night–his scheduled ‘pen day–and would still have been available to pitch Wednesday against the Phillies. Fortunately, Harang wasn’t needed.
One more note on Minor: Minor was, in a word, a mess at Coors Field. He contends that Coors doesn’t get to him, but it doesn’t seem that is the case. When he entered Sunday night’s game, he recorded strikes with each of the 6 breaking balls he threw. His breaking stuff was the big problem for him in Colorado and rebounded nicely at home against the Angels. Minor’s outing saw him give up his 70th career homer. 46 of those home runs, including the homers given up to Aybar and Trout in the finale, have been solo shots.
Two bats that the Braves would love to see get hot or those of Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman. Since June 1st, Justin Upton has hit only .179 with 1 homer and 3 RBIs. He has recorded 14 strikeouts in that time. Justin could have put an end to the marathon game Saturday night in the 11th inning with a hit to right field, but yet another dramatic play in game of dramatic plays cost the Braves the win. Kole Calhoun went full extension facing the plate to rob Justin Upton of the potentially game-winning hit.
Freddie’s bat has been slumping mightily recently. Prior to a clutch double in the 9th inning of the 13-inning game, Freeman had an 0-for-14 slump. That double may have propelled the struggling hitter back to more successful at-bats. Freeman hit a double in his first plate appearance of the series finale and through the 6th inning accounted for 2 of the 3 Atlanta hits. He has now doubled in 2 of his past 6 at-bats. Before Saturday night’s 9th inning, he had 2 extra-base hits in his previous 47 at-bats. Like Justin, Freddie has been sliding since June 1st. He has hit .163 in June with only 2 homers. His batting average dropped from .297 to .272.
A bat that is anything but slumping is that of catcher Evan Gattis. Gattis took a 14-game hitting streak into the series finale with the Angels, a streak that has seen him hit .411. He extended his hitting streak to 15 games with an RBI-single in the 6th inning. The catcher was part of one of the more perplexing moves by Fredi Gonzalez in the series when he was pulled in the late innings of the marathon Saturday night game for pinch runner Dan Uggla. Not only is Gattis the most consistent hitter for Atlanta right now, Hale had pitched only 1 inning at that point and the bench was all but empty. Hale would go on to crumble in the top of the 13th inning, the team was without Gattis’ bat going forward and Dan Uggla’s base running skills were questionable when he was doubled off second base to end the inning (and rally). Despite the managerial snafu, Gattis remains the best hitting player on the team and the catcher with the most homers in either league. A few things worth noting about Gattis: He has 7 homers in his last 15 games and of the last 7 times Atlanta has hit back-to-back homers in a game, El Oso Blanco has been part of 6 of them.
What many thought would eventually come appears to have with B.J. Upton–his struggles at the plate have now started dogging him in the field. B.J. committed costly errors in games 1 and 2 of the series, the error in game 2 potentially costing them the game and dragging the game into extra innings. He seems to have no sense of the strike zone, arguing with umpires about pitches that were clearly in the middle of the plate. His contract gives the Braves no leverage with the struggling center fielder. Going forward, fans can only hope that Upton is moved out of the 2-hole, possibly for La Stella.
BRAVES OPEN SERIES AGAINST PHILLY AT HOME…
Arriving in Atlanta Monday is the last-place team in the National League East. Jimmy Rollins surpassed the franchise record-holding Mike Schmidt for most career hits this week and now says he is open to being traded. It would appear that the Phillies are out of contention entirely.
Look for the hot-hitting Evan Gattis to see plenty of playing time against the Phillies. Gattis has punished Philly pitching in his short career. He has a career .319 BA against Philly and has slugged .787 with 7 homers in 12 games. Evan Gattis has good numbers in limited appearances against veteran Cole Hamels. He is 2-for-3 (.667) with 2 homers in those
One of the ongoing struggles for the Braves is consistency out of the bullpen. While the bullpen continues to struggle in high-pressure situations, they have relied heavily on closer Kimbrel for consistency in those spots. However, Kimbrel gave up a Pujols lead-off double and an RBI single to Hamilton, allowing the Angels to reclaim the lead in 10th inning Saturday night. Coming into the game, 13 of the 17 fastballs Kimbrel had thrown in his past 2 appearances registered 98 or 99 mph. The other 4 fastballs? 97 mph.
David Carpenter continues to be the tough-luck man on the staff and with Alex Wood back in Triple-A, David Hale seems to be committed to the role of long man. Where the ‘pen had been the biggest strength of the Braves in recent years, it seems to be a liability right now. Having rejoined the team in Colorado, Jordan Walden’s presence hopefully will stabilize the ‘pen. Walden as set-up man for Kimbrel gives the Braves 2 innings they can count on. And Shae Simmons turns out to be a cool customer who doesn’t get rattled in tight spots. Hopefully Carpenter will return to the shutdown guy he came up as and Luis Avilan will continue improving against lefties.
The Braves face growing specialty in bullpens in their division. By developing specialty arms, National League teams are averaging 8.72 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched per reliever. This was something the Braves were competitive with, sending Walden, Avilan and Kimbrel out there as well as Venters, O’Flaherty and Kimbrel the year before. They have the talent to keep up with the league, it’s simply a matter of Carpenter recovering his confidence, Walden staying healthy, Simmons introducing himself to the league and Avilan returning to the Avilan of old.
A few notes on injuries: Heyward was hit in the hand at the plate in the first game of the series with L.A. The ball got him on his last 3 knuckles of the right hand. After treatment on the hand, Heyward was able to play Saturday. Also, Gerald Laird, who missed time following a Tulowitzki back swing in Colorado that hit Laird in the jaw and side of the head while knocking his mask off, entered the Saturday game in the late innings. Laird passed concussion tests in Colorado and was cleared by Rockies’ doctors to fly back with the team to Atlanta.
The 3-game series against the Phillies will kick off Monday with Hamels (2-3, 3.07) vs. Teheran (6-4, 2.41). Kendrick (2-6, 4.09) is pitted against Santana (5-3, 4.09) Tuesday. And the series finale will feature Hernandez (2-5, 4.26) vs. Harang (5-5, 3.20). The Braves will then go on the road to face the Nationals.
Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch