• B.J. Upton

    IT’S GAMEDAY: Embrace This Moment, Braves Country; You’ve Earned It

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The oddsmakers have weighed in, the pundits and talking heads and bloggers and the rest of the world have offered their take on the National League Division Series, how one team is loaded with playoff experience – many of it gleaned from reaching the seventh game of the World Series last season – while the other team has shocked so many by just gracing the October stage.

    But baseball has a funny way of evening even the most lopsided playing fields, especially in the most pivotal month of the marathon season that begins amid the palm trees and desert sands in February and ends around Halloween with the crowning of a champion.

    Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave who finds himself on the eve of managing his first major-league postseason game, humorously corrected a reporter’s question during a Wednesday evening press conference at Dodger Stadium after the reporter said the Braves might not have as much playoff experience as the Dodgers, Atlanta’s opponent in Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday.

    “They don’t have as much; not even might about it,” Snitker said with a humble giggle in discussing his team.

    My, how far this franchise has come.

    The Atlanta Braves are going to play a playoff game in less than 24 hours, an honest-to-goodness, real-life, hot-dang-this-really-is-October-baseball playoff game. It will unfold in the same venue where the Braves played their last postseason contest, but even if we don’t want to think about what transpired that Monday night in October 2013, it doesn’t matter at all.

    Because of what’s transpired since.

    Do you remember the Braves trading so much of their controllable talent, the pain you felt when Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis were shipped away for prospects? What about the evening before the season opener in 2015, when Atlanta found the solution to rid itself of B.J. Upton and his albatross of a contract at the expense of Craig Kimbrel being included in the deal, mere hours before the first pitch of the season?

    How about the awful final two months of 2015 (18-37 before winning three of four to end the season), a stretch in which the Braves gave up 20 runs in a game and employed the lovable Jonny Gomes for an inning of relief in an 11-run defeat that, arguably, may have been the highlight of that season? Those two things happened two days apart! Or, losing the first nine games in 2016 en route to a 9-28 start that sent Fredi Gonzalez, a dead manager walking entering that spring, into unemployment, complete with a Delta flight notification sent to him before he was given the news?

    There are about five zillion other examples that I could cite, but the bottom line is this. When your feet hit the floor Thursday morning, you begin an Atlanta Braves Playoff Gameday. How does that sound, Braves Country? It’s something we took for granted for oh, so long, as the Braves of yesteryear piled up division titles like they were Beanie Babies (remember them?), but a half-decade away wading through the vast underbelly of the National League makes one appreciative when you find the light again.

    The smart money, the experts, those in the know, are going to tell you the Braves have little chance of winning this series. Los Angeles has more talent, more experience, owns the advantage in everything from matchups to home field, and is just better. I’m not going to dispute any of that, because it’s true. The Dodgers are a better team 1-through-25. They can deploy a starting-lineup worthy bench at all times and have a lineup built to face lefties and another one geared toward righties.

    That’s all well and good. It should not diminish your enthusiasm, your hopes, your spirits one iota entering this series. And here’s why.

    Baseball’s postseason history is littered with the burned-out remains of cars destined for ticker tape and champagne, all crashed out by a lesser team that had little-to-no chance at the start of the series, only to trip up the prohibitive favorite. Baseball’s postseason, while not one-and-done after you advance past the wild-card stage, is the closest approximation we have in pro sports to March Madness. Especially in the division series, where with a five-game series the underdog merely has to win once in the opening two road games to have a chance to win the series at home in four games.

    What makes baseball’s postseason so compelling is often, the best team does not win the championship. We haven’t had a repeat world champion since 2000. As mentioned in this space this week, think of all the franchises that have won a World Series since the Dodgers last captured the title in 1988. The drama of October is a stark contrast to the six-month grind that compresses 162 games into 187 days. The finality is sudden and jarring. Success is euphoric and exhilarating. Catching lightning in a bottle isn’t just a trite saying, it’s a true strategy that more than one team has used to fuel a run deep into the year’s 10th month.

    That’s why these Braves aren’t just a nice turn-around story, one where we all should be happy just to be here. Yes, even if Atlanta loses three straight, there is no dulling the shine of what’s transpired in 2018. But don’t be fooled. The Braves are not just happy to be here, and privately there are plenty of people around baseball who will tell you they want no part of this bunch in a series, especially when three wins and not four is the ticket to advance.

    The feeling here is these Braves, with their blend of calming veteran leadership and youthful emotion, will fare just fine in their first foray into the madness of October. They might not win the series, but it won’t be easy for Los Angeles. This will not be a runaway by any stretch of the imagination. Atlanta has the talent and the tools to push the Dodgers to the very brink. If L.A. wins this series, they will have to earn it.

    And there’s no guarantee it won’t be the Braves heading to Milwaukee or Denver for the NL Championship Series. That youthful ignorance, confidence and swagger of a team that defied all the predictions of a 75-to-80 win season to capture 90 victories (20 coming in their final at-bat), win the NL East, earn the NL’s best road record and respond to every stumble or wobble, gives this correspondent every reason to believe we’re about to embark on quite a series.

    It’s a series that has been a long time coming for everybody in Braves Country. Buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

    You deserve this.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    In 11th hour trade, Braves send Kimbrel, Upton to Padres

    No, it isn’t April Fool’s Day. No, you read that headline correctly. With hours ’til Opening Day 2015, John Hart and the Braves’ front office pulled the lever sending closer Craig Kimbrel and outfielder Melvin Upton, Jr. (B.J.) to the San Diego Padres. In return, the Braves receive outfielders Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin, Padres’ 4th best prospect Matt Wisler (RHP), outfielder Jordan Paroubeck and the 41st pick in this year’s draft.

    The key piece in the trade is pitching prospect Matt Wisler (RHP) who was ranked by Baseball America as the Padres' top prospect.

    The key piece in the trade is pitching prospect Matt Wisler (RHP) who was ranked by Baseball America as the Padres’ 4th best prospect.

    Let’s start with the good news: The Braves continue to rake in prospects. In what is now clearly a complete rebuild, Atlanta has brought in some of the best talent in the league and continue that with Matt Wisler. Wisler was ranked by Baseball America as the 4th best Padres prospect and at 22-years-old is knocking on the door of the big leagues after spending half of 2014 with Triple-A El Paso.

    In addition to Wisler, the Braves acquired another prospect in Jordan Paroubeck. An outfielder, Paroubeck is a switch hitter who made his debut last season in Rookie ball.

    The draft pick the Braves receive is an interesting addition to what has been a winter full of draft selection pick ups. They will now have 4 picks in the first 54 selections of the 2015 draft.

    The two big leaguers that the Braves acquired in this trade that are ready and capable of being placed on the field tomorrow are Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin. Speculation is that Quentin will be immediately DFA’d to make room on the roster and so that he can return to an AL team where his skill set is better suited. Quentin’s addition to the trade package evened out the financial sides. Cameron Maybin will be the extra outfielder the Braves had hoped to have on their Opening Day roster but simply didn’t have enough players for. With the absence of Cuban signee Toscano due to visa issues, the Braves had planned on taking the field tomorrow with one less outfielder and one extra pitcher. They will now place Maybin on the OD roster as a right-handed counter to Eric Young, Jr. in center field. The Braves will call up Brandon Cunniff to fill the vacated spot of Kimbrel.

    WHY THIS TRADE MAKES SENSE FOR ATLANTA…

    Though it’s hard to understand why a player like Kimbrel would be part of this trade package, especially after this winter John Hart said that Kimbrel was a piece he hoped to build the team around, there are financial upsides to this trade that will help the team as the opening of the SunTrust Stadium approaches.

    As the team’s all-time saves leader, Kimbrel has a place in Atlanta that will leave a hole for some time to come. His salary, however, will give the Braves opportunities to sign other players as they build for 2017. The Braves owed Kimbrel $33 million over the next 3 seasons. Additionally, they owed Melvin Upton, Jr. $46.35 million over that period from a deal that has turned out to be one of the worst in Atlanta’s history. Losing close to $80 million has a huge upside for a club with a sub-$100 million salary each season.

    In terms of what they pick up in salary, the Braves take on $11 million plus a 2016 buyout on Quentin and $16 million for 2 years of the services of Maybin.

    Keeping in mind that Upton would be starting the season on the disabled list, the Braves would be sending Eric Young, Jr. out to center field every day. While his defense is acceptable, his bat is not built for both right-handed and left-handed pitching. Adding Maybin gives the Braves flexibility in center as well as lineup options.

    In the offseason, the signings of Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli seemed to bolster the bullpen and create questions regarding what a team would do with essentially 3 closers. Now without Kimbrel, either Grilli or Johnson could slot in at closer. Both have worked in camp with Roger McDowell to get back to the form they were in when they were best with Pittsburgh and Baltimore, respectively.

    The Opening Day roster appears to be as follows for Atlanta: Pitchers Avilan, Cahill, Grilli, Jaime, Johnson, Martin, McKirahan, Miller, Outman, Stults, Teheran, Wood; catchers Bethancourt and Pierzynski; infielders Callaspo, Freeman, Gosselin, Johnson, Peterson, Simmons; outfielders Gomes, Johnson, Markakis, Maybin, Quentin, Young, Jr.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter@framethepitch.

    Braves split series in Cincy despite flirting with no-no

    After breaking out the bats in the series opener against the Reds at Great American Ballpark, the Braves were once again the victims of their own lack of run support for quality starting pitching. Walking away from the a series split in Cincy, Atlanta missed an opportunity to improve in the wild card standings.

    The Braves leave GAB for Citi Field for a 3-game set sitting 8 games back in the division and 1 game behind the Giants for the second wild card slot.

    Andrelton Simmons has hit .429 over his career at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

    Andrelton Simmons has hit .429 over his career at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

    In the lead up to the series in Cincinnati, we broke down the slugging numbers for several players, but overlooked the hitter with the best numbers at Great American Ballpark: Andrelton Simmons. In 6 games over his young career, Simmons has hit .429 at Great American. He has slugged an ungodly .893 in that band box. He was 12 hits, 4 doubles, 3 homers and 6 RBI. In the 3 games he started over the series, Simba hit .267/.267/.600 with 2 doubles, a homer and 2 RBI.

    Keeping pace at the plate over the series, Justin Upton knocked another homer and hit .267. He also recorded his 2nd triple on the season. In August, Upton is hitting .288 with 4 doubles, a triple and 6 homers. Upton’s RBIs, 23 in August, continue to lead the Braves (nearly 20 more than the next closest hitter, Freeman). Upton is 3rd in the NL in RBIs right now behind only Giancarlo Stanton and Adrian Gonzalez. Additionally, he is 4th in homers in the league behind Stanton, Anthony Rizzo and Lucas Duda.

    Pitching in the series was mostly solid, though Aaron Harang struggled in the 4th inning of the finale costing the Braves the game. Julio Teheran got the team off to a great start with 6 shutout innings where he allowed only 4 hits and struck out 3. Behind him came Russell in relief, a shaky sight for those who have watched the Braves since the trade deadline brought the club James Russell and Emilio Bonifacio. However, Fredi Gonzalez is not longer going to use Russell for lefties only and in his 2 innings of relief work for Teheran, Russell didn’t allow a hit or run.

    Of course, the greatest pitching performance came from Mike Minor who flirted with a no hitter. Unfortunately, Minor didn’t get the no-no or the win. After 7 2/3 innings pitched allowing only 1 hit, Minor gave way to a series of relievers including Walden, Carpenter, Varvaro, Hale (who got the win) and Kimbrel. Despite giving up that 1 hit and 1 earned run, Minor got the no decision and the Braves finally got the win in extra innings thanks to a 12th inning blast by none other than Justin “Clutch” Upton.

    Since having his spot skipped in the rotation early in the month, Minor is 1-1 in 3 starts (21 1/3 IP) with a 2.53 ERA. In those 3 games he has given up only 2 homers, has held opponents to .176 batting average and has 19 strikeouts. If the Braves hope to make a run at the Nats and/or stay in the wild card hunt, they need this Mike Minor to show up every time.

    BRAVES VISIT TO CITI FIELD TO CAP ROAD TRIP…

    It’s impossible for the Braves to play the Mets at Citi Field without mentioning the ridiculous numbers Freddie Freeman has against the Mets. Picking up the mantle of Chipper Jones, Freeman has hit .317 at Citi Field with 12 doubles and 5 homers. Against the Mets overall, Freeman has hit .324 in his career. He has been nothing but a pest for the Mets. This season Freddie has hit .392 against New York with 7 doubles, a homer and 13 RBIs. On the season, Freeman has hit .310 with RISP and .364 with 2 outs and RISP. His clutch stats in addition to his career history against the Mets bodes well for a team that gets going with Freeman as the spark.

    Over the weekend, the Braves acknowledged that during their talks with the Cubs prior to the trade deadline they did attempt to trade B.J. Upton. The Cubs instead sent over Emilio Bonifacio and James Russell and the Braves kept B.J. This news isn’t too surprising given the struggles of the elder Upton since joining the Braves. However, the Braves willingness to trade him and presumably eat a huge amount of his contract might also signal that the Braves are willing to sit B.J. the way they previously had Dan Uggla. With Emilio Bonifacio’s versatility, the Braves can continue to use him in center field. In August for the Braves, Bonifacio has hit .255 with a .296 on-base percentage. He has stolen 3 bases as a Brave. By comparison, in August B.J. Upton is hitting .119 with a .257 on-base percentage. Their defense appears comparable. How the Braves proceed will likely have an impact on their overall success. It may simply come down to money.

    The Braves will send Wood (9-9, 3.05) to the mound vs. Gee (4-6, 3.84) tomorrow. Wednesday will pit Teheran (12-9, 2.96) vs. Wheeler (9-8, 3.48). The series will wrap with Minor (5-8, 4.90) vs. Niese (7-9, 3.47). The Braves will then travel back to Turner Field for a homestand beginning with the Miami Marlins.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves end skid, Uptons set mark

    Beginning the weekend against the rival Washington Nationals, the Braves knew that they needed wins to keep pace in the NL East. A sweep could put the division out of reach going into the late days of August. However, the Braves stepped up and took 2 out of 3 from the Nats, placing themselves 3 1/2 games back in the division.

    After an 0-8 road trip, coming home to Turner Field is exactly what the struggling Braves needed. Getting to face Stephen Strasburg at the Ted helped their cause greatly, ending the losing streak and removing the monkey from their back.

    Stephen Strasburg had not given up 3 home runs in a game before Friday night’s home run derby off him when he didn’t give up just 3 dingers, he gave up 4. He has now given up a career high 18 homers on the season. Brothers Justin and B.J. Upton both hit 2-run blasts to dead center field. Then Freddie Freeman broke out of his slump to go yard off Strasburg. Then Tommy La Stella hit his very first big league home run. It wasn’t Strasburg’s night. Though it’s beginning to look like it is never Strasburg’s night when visiting the Ted. Against the Braves this year he has allowed 17 runs on 24 hits (5 of them homers). In his career at Turner Field, Strasburg has given up 7 homers and has allowed the Braves a .295 batting average against him. Strasburg left Friday’s game after 5 innings after giving up 7 runs on 7 hits and somehow striking out 9 batters.

    When the Braves signed B.J. and Justin Upton they certainly thought that there would be many a game when the two brothers went deep in the same game. It may have taken much longer to do it, but the Uptons have surpassed the record for the most times where two brothers went deep in the same game. With 5 such games, the Uptons now hold the record. There is now the possibility they put that record out of reach for any set of brothers to come.

    Justin Upton made some personal history of his own over the weekend. On his 21st homerun of the season, the younger Upton recorded his 1,000th hit and 500th RBI.

    For whatever reason, Major League Baseball had no qualms with the Braves beginning game 2 of the series after a 4 hour delay to the start due to rain. Despite the marathon delay, Aaron Harang pitched superb baseball but wasn’t helped out by his teammates who only managed 1 run in the 10 inning game that didn’t end until the wee hours of Sunday morning.

    The rubber match was a pitcher’s duel in every sense. Alex Wood stepped up and pitched as he had before being sent to the ‘pen earlier in the season and then down to Triple-A Gwinnett. Wood went 7 1/3 innings, gave up 1 run on 5 hits and struck out a personal best 12 hitters. After securing 2 additional runs in support of Wood, Kimbrel recorded his 34th save of the season.

    MIKE MINOR REJOINS ROTATION…

    As the Dodgers arrive in Atlanta, they have called up Kevin Correia to give their rotation an extra day rest. This means the Braves will luck out and miss both Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke this series.

    Due to 2 days off this past week, the Braves were able to give Mike Minor some extra rest, missing his spot in the rotation. He will rejoin the rotation this series and will face Dan Haren in game 2. Minor has struggled mightily this season, in no way looking like the pitcher he was last season. In 2013, Minor had a 13-9 record with a 3.21 ERA. This season he is 4-7 with a 5.42 ERA, including a stint on the DL with shoulder soreness.

    After turning his ankle in a weird event covering third base, Andrelton Simmons has been out of the lineup and off of his ankle hoping to avoid the disabled list. The Braves reported that Simba got treatment on the ankle most of Saturday and Fredi Gonzalez has said he would like to pencil Simmons into the lineup for Tuesday. Simmons will potentially test the ankle running Monday and barring any problems, will be in the lineup as Fredi wants. In the meantime, Emilio Bonifacio and Ramiro Pena have filled in for Simmons. Bonifacio has hit leadoff 4 of the past 6 games.

    The Dodgers send Correia (-,-) to the mound vs. Teheran (10-8, 2.92) tonight. Tuesday will feature Haren (9-9, 4.57) vs. Minor (4-7, 5.42). Wednesday’s game will pit Ryu (13-5, 3.21) vs. Santana (11-6, 3.69). And the finale of the series will send Hernandez (0-0, 3.00) to the mound vs. Harang (9-6, 3.31).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Bats cold in Big Apple, set for final series of half

    For the Braves, there are few things that sting quite like a series loss to the Mets. Unfortunately for Atlanta, losses within the division have come regularly in the first half of the season. If the Braves want to make a strong run for a division championship in the second half, there is no question that consistency and wins within the division will be paramount.

    Aaron Harang leads the Braves and all of the National League with an 0.85 ERA. He leads teammate Ervin Santana by .01.

    Aaron Harang leads the Braves and all of the National League with an 0.85 ERA. He leads teammate Ervin Santana by .01.

    The one person standing between the Braves and a sweep at the hands of the Mets was Aaron Harang. Harang has become some sort of escape artist in his last month of starts. In his last 5 starts, Harang gave up 43 hits in 33 innings, 16 earned runs, 12 walks to 16 strikeouts and 4 homers. Despite an overwhelming amount of hitting against him, Harang has a 4-1 record in that span while recording a 4.36 ERA. This week was no different when he went 7 innings, giving 4 hitters a free pass. Somehow he managed to get out of the start with only one earned run. Harang improved to a 9-6 record with a 3.53 ERA on the season.

    While the bats were cold and didn’t do much to help the cause of the starters, Freddie Freeman continued to own the Mets. Over the 4-game series, Freeman hit .417 in 17 at-bats. He had 7 hits, 2 of them doubles and drove 3 men in. In 13 games again the NL East rival this season, Freddie has a .392 average with 7 doubles, a homer and 13 RBIs. In his career, Freeman now has a .324/.394/.571 line against the Mets. By comparison, notorious Mets’ killer Chipper Jones hit .309 in his career against New York.

    Other than Freeman, there certainly weren’t too many hitting performances to highlight against the Mets. However, an under reported story is that of B.J. Upton in the lead off spot. In 16 games at the top of the lineup, B.J. has hit .279 with 19 hits, 2 doubles, 2 triples, a homer, 5 RBIs and 3 stolen bases. Batting second he was hitting .207 and a mere .171 when in the 6-hole. Of course, the problem with this is that it knocks Heyward out of the lead off spot where he has hit .254 on the season. In the 5-hole, Jason drops to .227 at the plate. The situation isn’t easily remedied for Fredi Gonzalez.

    In the series finale against the Mets, Craig Kimbrel was called on to get a 4-out save. These situations have been few and far between for the dominant closer and have bit the Braves in the playoffs. However, Fredi says that the more comfortable Kimbrel gets with those situations, the more likely Fredi would be to use him in a similar playoff situation. In his second 4-out save opportunity this season, Kimbrel didn’t allow a hit and had 1 strikeout.

    Julio Teheran had one of his worst and shortest outings of the season against the Mets. In 3 1/3 innings, newly selected all-star Teheran gave up 11 hits, 5 earned runs and struck out only 2 batters. His command was terrible and the poised starter we’ve seen really develop in 2014 was much less composed on the mound. Teheran will not pitch in the All Star Game, as the Braves announced, due to his Sunday start in Chicago.

    BRAVES WRAP FIRST HALF AGAINST CUBS…

    The Braves arrive at Wrigley Field after the best pitcher they had left via trade to Oakland. Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel were traded to the Cubs last week for a slew of prospects. Samardzija made the All-Star roster, selected in the National League and will represent in Minnesota wearing the NL jersey while sitting in the AL dugout. Joining Samardzija at the ASG are current Cubs Starlin Castro and Final Vote winner Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo edged out Atlanta’s Justin Upton in the NL Final Vote. Look for Justin to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder in Chicago.

    Games in Chicago will be a bit off the usual schedule due to the ASG festivities beginning over the weekend as well as the perfect atmosphere for day baseball at the Friendly Confines. Friday’s game will take place at 4:05 p.m. (ET), Saturday’s at 4:05 and the finale Sunday will start at 2:20.

    The opening game of the final series before the break will feature Wood (6-7, 3.14) vs. Arrieta (5-1, 1.78). Saturday’s game will pit Minor (2-5, 4.54) vs. Jackson (5-9, 5.05). And the series will wrap with Teheran (8-6, 2.57) vs. Wood (7-7, 4.64).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves snap interleague losing streak, welcome Phillies

    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.

    As the long man, David Hale got plenty of work this series.

    As the long man, David Hale got plenty of work this series. Hale entered the first 2 games of the series, pitching 3 1/3 innings.

    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

    Braves swept by Boston in split series, looking for consistency

    Despite quality outings from many of the Braves’ starters and a shakeup at second base, the Braves continue to lack consistency among the offense and shutdown innings from their bullpen. The Red Sox arrived at Turner Field with a 10-game losing streak and after 2 games at the Ted and 2 games back home at Fenway, they walked away from the 4-game series with a sweep. In 3 of the 4 games, the Braves handed a lead to their bullpen and watched it disappear including the walk-off in the finale. It was a tough series for Braves fan who not only watched the sweep, but also watched more Red Sox fans than ever before flood into the Ted to outnumber Braves Country.

    Tommy La Stella was called up during the series with the continued shakeup at 2B. He went 2-for-3 in his debut.

    Tommy La Stella was called up during the series with the continued shakeup at 2B. He went 2-for-3 in his debut.

    In another attempt to shake things up with the offense, Fredi Gonzalez and GM Frank Wren called up Tommy La Stella from Triple-A Gwinnett to man second base. Sending Tyler Pastornicky back down and leaving Dan Uggla on the bench (where he will likely stay until his time with Atlanta has closed), the Braves hoped the hot bat La Stella was swinging in Triple-A would carry over to the big leagues. La Stella brings his minor league .322/.407/.474 slash line to the club, numbers that more than replace those of Uggla (.177/.254/.257), Pena (.164/.243/.299) or Pastornicky (.200/.300/.257). Fredi hopes La Stella’s numbers will transfer as an everyday second baseman in the bigs. He also hopes that Pena and Uggla will offer flexibility off the bench and occasional match-up numbers that warrant a start.

    Heading into the finale with the Red Sox, In the last 11 innings for the Braves bullpen, they’ve given up 11 runs (10 earned) and walked 11 batters. The Braves seem to be hurting with Walden on the disabled list and have still not established a definitive timetable for the return of Jonny Venters. Avilan has not been the Avilan of 2013 when he was all but perfect. Varvaro has been the most consistent, aside from Kimbrel. However, the Braves really need Thomas to not be costly in high pressure situations. They also need to decide what they are going to with David Hale. They have said he would be their long man, but in situations of high pressure it would seem that he would be a better option than Thomas. That doesn’t seem to be the thinking of Fredi, however. Whatever the Braves do, they can’t rely on arms from Triple-A to fix the problem. The recent minor league signing of Kameron Loe is thankfully not for a big league spot. Whatever fix the Braves are going to do to the ‘pen will be done with the arms they have.

    While Braves fans are largely happy with the demotion of Dan Uggla from everyday second baseman, many continue to call for less playing time for B.J. Upton. This is problematic for the Braves because of his contract and fans should understand that. Also, B.J. Upton has been much improved in recent weeks. Hitting .222 at home may not seem like a great stat, but for B.J. that is a huge improvement and one that is showing up in the box score. His average on the season has improved to .208 (.284 on-base). In his last 8 games, B.J. is hitting .258 with 8 hits (4 of them extra-base hits) and only 6 strikeouts. Every little improvement from hitting with runners in scoring position to strikeouts is a step closer to the player the Braves they thought they were getting when they signed him to his $75 million contract.

    BRAVES RETURN TO MIAMI, SIGHT OF SIGN-STEALING SWEEP…

    The Braves will send three of their best to the mound in Miami against a rotation that is now without ace Jose Fernandez. Teheran (4-3, 1.77) takes his 15 inning scoreless streak into the opener vs. Koehler (4-4, 3.10). Santana (4-2, 4.06) hopes to get back on track in the pitcher-friendly lime green confines against Turner (1-2, 5.35). And veteran Harang (4-4, 3.29) will close out the series against Eovaldi (4-2, 3.36).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves wrap outstanding home stand, face rotation questions

    With the Braves facing the upcoming decision of what to do with the best starting rotation in the National League when Mike Minor returns from the DL, the offense went into the home stand looking to remind the league that the Braves are not just a team of stellar pitchers.

    Freddie Freeman was the hero of the hour with his walk-off single in the series finale against the Reds.

    Freddie Freeman was the hero of the hour with his walk-off single in the series finale against the Reds.

    In 13 plate appearances against Cincinnati, Freddie Freeman notched 5 hits (.384), including a homer, 3 RBIs and a game-winning hit in the series finale. The eye dryness Freeman battled during the Miami series seems to have cleared up (as you’ll remember, Freeman has dealt with eye dryness over the last two seasons–switching to glasses for some time). Freeman is now hitting .344 on the season with a .421 on-base percentage, .613 slugging and 1.033 OPS. His 18 strikeouts on the season are balanced nicely with 11 walks. He leads the club in both average and RBIs.

    Freddie’s numbers are not an outlier for Atlanta. Justin Upton has reminded Braves Country how much he likes the month of April. Over his last 15 games, Justin Upton is hitting .404 with 11 extra base hits.  Upton is currently 18-for-32 (.563) with 3 doubles, 6 HRs, 12 RBIs and only 8 strikeouts in the past 10 games at Turner Field. He is now hitting .330 on the season (.406 on-base & .625 slugging) with 3 doubles, a triple, 7 homers and 16 RBIs. Justin already has 3 stolen bases. In all of 2013, he stole only 8 bags.

    Not to be overlooked is the impressive production of Evan Gattis and Andrelton Simmons. Gattis got off to a slow start in the first week of the game, hitting .208 in the first 7 games. But since April 11th, El Oso Blanco is hitting .386 with a .395 OBP and is slugging .780. He has 2 doubles, 5 homers and 11 RBI in that period including a 10th inning walk-off homer, his first, against the Marlins in the first game of the home stand. Simmon, for his part, has been the hardest out of the entire Braves’ lineup. He has only 3 strikeouts this season, the first not coming until the 17th of April. Simmons is hitting .300 with an on-base percentage of .310 and is slugging .488. In the Cincinnati series we saw Andrelton steal a bag, only his 2nd of the young season. The Braves certainly have players that can steal–Andrelton, B.J. Upton, Heyward and even Justin Upton. However, the running game has not been a factor as of yet. Simmons might still be hesitant on the base paths due to the broken pinkie injury in the 2012 season that landed him on the DL.

    Also on the offense side, B.J. Upton has shown great improvement in recent games. He is now sporting a pair of black-frame glasses that appear to help his vision at the plate. In the second game of the series against the Reds, B.J. notched his 1,000th hit in the big leagues. While his batting average remains just above the Mendoza Line, it is his on-base percentage that is showing signs of life. Over the past 8 games he is hitting .214 (6-for-28) with a double and an RBI. His on-base percentage over that span is .333 (5 walks to his 9 strikeouts).

    Despite the strengths of the offense, there are weaknesses. Chris Johnson is slumping. Dan Uggla shows signs of life from time to time, but his power is one of the few things he has to offer. The real problem for the Braves isn’t the individual stats of the guys that are still trying to find a rhythm. The real problem for the Braves’ offense is consistency. Too often in the young season the starting rotation has put together a gem of a start and hasn’t been rewarded with run support. Not unlike the 2013 season, the Braves rely on the long ball and they strike out at an alarming rate. Though they got away with a win in the series finale against the Reds, it’s unfortunate that Julio Teheran’s beautiful outing was not rewarded with the win. In fact, in 3 of the last 6 games, the win went to a reliever due to this run support issue.

    That said, the Braves did secure 5 wins in their 6-game home stand including a clean sweep of the Reds. The Braves now stand at 17-7 with 3 1/2 game lead in the National League East. They take a 4 game win streak on the road to Miami.

    BRAVES FACE ROTATION QUESTIONS ON ROAD…

    For a team that was forced to regroup right before the season started with news that starters Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen would both undergo their second Tommy John surgeries, the Braves now face a very welcome problem of having too many starting pitchers.

    Mike Minor was shutdown in spring training with shoulder soreness and has yet to make his 2014 debut. After several rehab starts, Minor appears ready to rejoin the Braves. His latest rehab start was brutal on the scoreboard–he allowed 5 runs on 10 hits including 4 homers in 7 innings–but, Minor has proven healthy and up to the task of pitching in what amounts to a regular-length game. Minor’s return presents the question of who then is either sent down or joins the bullpen.

    A look at what Atlanta’s rotation has done thus far:

    • Aaron Harang: 3-1, 0.85 ERA, 31.2 IP, 33 Ks
    • Julio Teheran: 2-1, 1.47 ERA, 43 IP, 26 Ks
    • Alex Wood: 2-3, 1.54 ERA, 35 IP, 35 Ks
    • Ervin Santana, 3-0, 1.95 ERA, 27.2 IP, 31 Ks
    • David Hale, 1-0, 2.31 ERA, 23.1 IP, 15 Ks

    When the starter with the highest ERA is a mere 2.31, you really can’t send him down to Triple-A Gwinnett or into the bullpen, can you? That is the question facing Frank Wren and Fredi Gonzalez.

    Another question that comes up is if the pace that either Wood or Teheran are off to is worrisome in terms of innings pitched. Teheran is proving himself an ace and the chances of him being the odd man out seem slim to none.

    Given the recent injury to Minor, could he be headed to the bullpen for a few games? That, too, is a possibility, but seems unlikely given Minor’s success last season. Minor had a 13-9 record in 2013 with a respectable 3.21 ERA in 204 2/3 innings pitched with 181 strikeouts. Given injuries to the elbows of Medlen, Beachy and former Braves Hanson and Jurrjens, should there be concern around the workload of Minor? Certainly it is a question that should be asked.

    One possibility is that David Hale go to the bullpen as either the long man or a dominant righty. The Braves have a solid righty who is now tested in the ‘pen in Ian Thomas. And it isn’t David Hale’s fault that his ERA reflects some of the worst defensive games the Braves have had. The odd man out if Hale does join the ‘pen will inevitably be Gus Schlosser who recently notched his first big league hit against the Mets. Schlosser has a 5.59 ERA with 1 loss in 9 2/3 innings.

    A decision will have to be made about Minor by Thursday when the Braves return to the Ted to face Tim Lincecum and the Giants.

    The Marlins’ tilt sets up this way: After an off day on Monday, Tuesday’s game will send Wood (2-3, 1.54) to the hill against Fernandez (3-1, 1.99) for a rematch of last week’s incredible pitching duel. Wednesday’s game will feature Harang (3-1, 0.85) vs. Eovaldi (1-1, 2.87). And the series finale in Miami will have Santana (3-0, 1.95) on the hill against Alvarez (1-2, 2.73).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves’ offense sweeps Nats, takes to road

    Nationals’ pitching brought with them to Turner Field 105 strikeouts in their first 9 games of the season. That kind of stat would generally foretell a tough series for Atlanta’s strikeout-prone lineup. That wasn’t the case. Braves’ offense lit up against the Nats, leading the team to a 3-game sweep against the rival ball club. The Braves outscored the Nats 23-11 in the series. The Braves has now won 22 of their last 29 meetings with the Nationals.

    JUpton (back of jersey) 320px

    Justin Upton has sizzled at the plate. Over the previous 4 games he has hit .786.

    Washington nor any team in baseball stood a chance of getting Justin Upton over a 3-game series. On the home stand, the younger Upton hit .591 with a 1.227 slugging percentage. He went 13-for-22 with 2 doubles, 4 homers and 8 RBIs. In addition to a stunning display of power with a game-tying homer in the late innings of Friday’s game, Justin Upton’s single scored the runner from 1st and won the game. He now has 7 game-ending hits since start of 2011 season. That is the most in the MLB for that span (his teammate Freddie Freeman has 6 game-ending hits). According to Elias, the last time the Braves won a game with a similar RBI single scoring a baserunner from 1st was in 1983.

    Upton is now hitting .386 with 17 hits, 2 doubles, 4 homers and 8 RBI in the first 12 games of the season. He is as locked in this April as he was last April. The hope is that he has simplified his pregame preparation to a point that will allow for this hot streak to cool, but not go completely cold like it did last season.

    Freedie Freeman came into the series against the Nats with a .419 average, on-base percentage of .514 and .677 slugging percentage in the first 9 games. He had gone 13-for-31 with 5 runs scored, 2 doubles, 2 homers, 5 RBIs, 6 walks and only 4 strikeouts. He added to that torrid offense against the Nats going 6-for-12 (.500) with 2 doubles, 2 homers and 5 RBIs. He is now 19-for-43 with a .442 average in the first 12 games of the season (4 doubles, 4 homers and 10 RBIs).

    The Braves saw production from nearly every hitter in the lineup, including the struggling Evan Gattis, Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. Saturday’s game saw an unusual sight: B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla had run-producing hits in the same inning.

    In Saturday’s game, B.J. Upton produced hits in his first 2 plate appearances for just the 5th time since the start of last year. The series wrapped with B.J. putting together back-to-back multi-hit games. Dating back to last year, this marks the 3rd time B.J. has had multi-hit performances in consecutive games. He has now achieved the feat twice against the Washington Nationals.

    A few more notes on the series:

    • Two of the three HRs Alex Wood has allowed this year have been to the leadoff hitter. He only allowed 3 HRs in the 2013 season (77 2/3 innings pitched). Each of the 3 dingers in 2014 have come at the top of an inning, 2 of them on the first pitch. He then manages to settle in and has kept his ERA at 1.89.
    • In a scary moment at the plate, Gio Gonzalez plunked Freddie Freeman on the hand in the 4th inning. Freeman said that his choking up on the bat kept his hand from a serious injury. Freeman had homered in his previous at-bat against Gio. Strangely, it was the 1st time Gonzalez had hit a batter since he hit Freeman last August.
    • Atlanta pounced early this series with 14 runs during the first 2 innings of the 3 games played.
    • Aaron Harang had yet another brilliant start. It was his third straight game of going at least 6 innings and allowing 1 or no runs. Harang is now 2-1 with a 0.96 ERA.
    • Jason Heyward stole his third base of the season in Sunday’s finale. This is a great sign for the base-running game for the Braves because Heyward, with above-average speed, stole only 2 bases all of last season.
    • Andrelton Simmons had missed 2 games with a jammed wrist. Inserted as the 5-hole hitter, Simba hit a 3-run blast to dead center. It was the 1st homer on the season for Simmons, though earlier in the game he missed another homer by mere inches.

    BRAVES BEGIN 7-GAME ROAD TRIP…

    Saturday’s save for Craig Kimbrel, his 5th on the season, marked yet another perfect inning by the Braves’ closer. Kimbrel struck out the side in that outing. He has now faced 900 batters in his career and struck out 392 of them (an incredible 44% strikeout rate). All of this is important as we look ahead to the next several series because Kimbrel is now 10 saves away from tying John Smoltz’s franchise record of 154.

    The Braves are the eve of two pitchers returning from injury. Gavin Floyd, who hasn’t pitched in over a year due to Tommy John surgery, had another rehab outing this weekend at Gwinnett. Floyd threw 3 2/3 innings, giving up 2 hits, 2 runs (1 unearned), with 3 walks and 3 strikeouts. Mike Minor, returning from shoulder inflammation, pitched 5 innings at Rome giving up 1 hit,  1 walk and no runs while striking out 4. The question will become who in the rotation loses their spot with the return of Floyd and Minor. At the moment, it appears the odd man out may be David Hale.

    Another injury update involves reliever Cory Gearrin. Gearrin has elected to have Tommy John surgery to repair the torn UCL in his pitching elbow. His surgery will take place Wednesday. He saw 3 different doctors for their opinion on his elbow and the advice was unanimous. The righty was pulled from a spring training game against the Detroit Tigers and had hoped to avoid surgery. Gearrin has put up 69 1/3 innings for the Braves over the last 3 seasons. Gearrin joins an unusually high number of pitchers undergoing Tommy John surgery in the 2014 season including his teammates Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. Gearrin will be out for a year, if not more.

    The 4-game series against the Phillies will kick off Monday night with Ervin Santana (1-0, 0.00) vs. Roberto Hernandez (1-0, 4.35). Tuesday will feature David Hale (0-0, 2.89) vs. Cliff Lee (2-1, 5.50). Wednesday the Braves will send Julio Teheran (1-1, 2.84) to the mound against a pitcher to be named later. The series finale will pit Alex Wood (1-1, 1.89) against Jonathan Pettibone (0-0, 1.80).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves wrap up the season, prepare for October

    While the Braves were unable to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Braves 96-66 record secured the NL East and second seed going into the postseason. The Braves will have home field advantage against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, the first game of which begins Thursday in Atlanta.

    Before the posteason gets underway, let’s look back at the 2013 season and just how the Braves were able to take back the NL East.

    The Surprises (Good and Bad)

    The brothers Upton were quite often a disappointment in their first full season in uniform for the Atlanta Braves.

    While Justin Upton largely lived up to expectations, it was a nightmarish 2013 campaign for big brother BJ.

    • The brothers Upton were two of the most hyped players this past off season. The $75 million contract given to B.J. Upton was the biggest free agent signing in Atlanta Braves history and the trade for Justin Upton sent the beloved Martin Prado and key prospect Randall Delgado to the Diamondbacks. As it turned out, B.J. brought very little offense to the Braves, finishing the season with a horrible .184 average with 151 strikeouts in 391 at-bats. His average, RBIs (26), hits (72), stolen bases (12), homers (9) and walks (44) were all career lows for B.J.

      Justin fared considerably better, finishing the season with a .263 average with 27 homers, 70 RBIs and 8 SBs. His average was the lowest since his 2008 season and dropped from the .280 of the 2012 season. There wasn’t just room for improvement in Upton’s offense, either. He had some strange lapses defensively that made fans cringe. However, there is a high ceiling for this young man and nobody believes he has hit it yet.

    • Freddy Garcia was one of the more surprising trades made by Frank Wren this season. In many ways, it was an important and timely in the 2013 season as the Ben Sheets pickup was in the 2012 season. Both brought to a young rotation veteran leadership and to the team key wins during times of injury to others on the staff. In 3 starts, Garcia had a 2-1 record with a stunning 1.83 ERA. In those 19 2/3 innings, he allowed only 18 hits, 4 earned runs, 1 homer, 4 walks and struck out 16. Prior to joining the rotation, Garcia also provided relief out of the ‘pen, notching an 0-1 record in 7 2/3 innings with an 1.17 ERA. Garcia became a great long man out of the ‘pen in his first games with the club. Garcia will likely be a key component of the 4-man rotation going into the playoffs.
    • The cost was high to acquire Justin Upton, however, the Braves had no idea what they were receiving in Chris Johnson. Coming out of spring training in a platoon pairing with Juan Francisco, Johnson won the position at third base in his own right and has worked hard to prove that he was as important as Upton and a more than adequate replacement at the hot corner in the wake of the retirement of Chipper Jones. Until the last 4-5 days of the season, Johnson lead the NL batting title race. Johnson finished the regular season with a .321 average (3rd best in the NL), .358 on-base percentage and .457 slugging. He had 165 hits, 34 doubles and 12 homers with 29 walks. Additionally, his fielding was better than expected at 3B. He finished the season with 14 errors at the hot corner for a .951 fielding average.
    • Dan Uggla had been a disappointment to Braves’ fans since his signing in 2011, but never as much as he was this season. Uggla finished the season with a .179 average, only 80 hits, 55 RBIs and 22 homers. The sticking point seems to be his strikeout rate, though. In 446 at-bats, Uggla recorded 170 strikeouts. His Lasik surgery several weeks ago in preparation for the postseason doesn’t seem to have had an effect on his ability to hit consistently. Uggla won’t be eligible for free agency until 2016.

    The Rookies

    • Rookie pitchers David Hale and Alex Wood were a great surprise for a pitching staff that suffered injuries in the second half. Like Freddy Garcia, Hale and Wood stepped in when injuries to Paul Maholm, Tim Hudson and the ongoing struggles of Brandon Beachy became an issue for Atlanta. In 2 starts, Hale posted a 1-0 record over 11 innings with a 0.82 ERA. He allowed 11 hits, 1 walk and struck out 14. Alex Wood deserves credit for getting the Braves through a terrible stretch when the future of their rotation was in doubt. Wood was called on to start at the end of July and over 10 starts, he posted a 6-4 record with a 3.57 ERA over 53 innings. He allowed 57 hits, 21 ER, 19 walks and struck out 49 batters.
    • When it was announced that Evan Gattis would be on the 25-man roster right out of spring training, there was a question of whether he would stay on the roster when Brian McCann returned. Evan Gattis never questioned it. He burst onto the scene with his power and showed better than expected defense behind the plate. He also stepped into the outfield when asked and helped fill the void when the walking wounded could best describe Atlanta’s outfield. El Oso Blanco finished the regular season with a .243 average, .281 OBP, .480 slugging, 21 homers and 65 RBIs. Perhaps the biggest impact Gattis had for the Braves came in the clutch. 9 of Evan Gattis’ 21 home runs gave Atlanta the lead and 4 of his homers were of the game-tying variety. He finished the season 1st in RBI (65), 2nd in HR (21), 3rd in slugging (.477) and 4th in extra-base hits (42) among National League rookies.
    • Julio Teheran may be the most impressive rookie pitcher to come along since Craig Kimbrel. The way Teheran pitched this season must be the way the front office expected him to pitch all along when they agreed to send Randall Delgado to Arizona for Justin Upton. Teheran showed moments of absolute brilliance this season, but overall was one of the most consistent pitchers in the rotation. Teheran finished the regular season with a 14-8 record and an impressive 3.20 ERA. Prior to the final weeks of the season, the rookie led the rotation with the lowest ERA, but was surpassed by Medlen. In his 185 2/3 innings pitched this season, Teheran notched 182 strikeouts while allowing 45 walks. In addition to the traditional stats that are cited for pitchers, Teheran helped the Braves tie with the Tigers and Blue Jays for the most pickoffs in MLB this season with 18.

    The Consistent Core

    • Freddie Freeman pulled even with Chris Johnson at a .321 average briefly during game 162. However, the average is only part of the reason Freddie Freeman is a candidate for NL MVP this season. As a final vote all-star, Freddie provided the Braves offense with pop, consistency and leadership. His famous hugs kept the clubhouse light and the boys on the bench smiling. His numbers are worthy of MVP consideration. Freddie finished the season with a .319 average, .396 OBP, and .501 slugging. He finished the season with 176 hits, 27 doubles, 23 homers and a team-leading 109 RBIs. Also, Freddie hit .443 (58-for-131) with 84 RBI with runners in scoring position this season. If there is justice in baseball, Freeman will win the Gold Glove for first basemen this season as well.
    • There is no getting around the fact that Craig Kimbrel is one the most dominant and consistent closers in the game. Since the all-star break, hitters are 15-for-107 (.140) against the closer. Kimbrel finished the season with an NL-best 50 saves, 1.23 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and a whopping 98 K’s in 66 innings. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Kimbrel snag away a few votes for NL Cy Young this season. As the anchor of a bullpen that lost two key pieces–Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to Tommy John surgeries–Kimbrel never missed a beat.
    • The most consistent member of the rotation this season was without a doubt Mike Minor. In his sophomore season, Minor stepped up in a big way for a rotation that faced its share of adversity. Without Beachy, with injuries to Maholm and Hudson late in the season, the terrible first half of Medlen and the inexperience of Teheran, Minor’s season was needed. Minor finished the season with a 13-9 record and a 3.21 ERA in 204 2/3 innings pitched (10th most innings in the league). He recorded 181 strikeouts, allowed 73 runs and surrendered 22 home runs.

     

    BRAVES OPEN NLDS AGAINST L.A. AT HOME…

    Despite a decisive win in the NL East and a successful season, the Braves are not without problems that must be addressed or worked with going into the NLDS. The biggest problem for the Braves over the past 7 games, not unlike the rest of their season, is that they’ve had 3 or fewer hits 3 times in that span and 10 or more hits 4 times. The discrepancy in hits has certainly led to far too many shutouts and close games. How the Braves can assure scored runs can be addressed on a player-by-player basis.

    First, the biggest question facing manager Fredi Gonzalez about his offense is whether or not he start B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla in the NLDS. Though Fredi has said that he’s had more fun the past few days than the last few months, the issue of his two struggling fielders has got to be on his mind. The two highest paid players on the roster are also the team’s two biggest liabilities. Uggla has gone 4-for-28 with 15 strikeouts in his past 10 games, nothing to be excited about. Upton, who hasn’t started back-to-back games since the 15th of September, has gone 0-for-16 with 9 strikeouts in his past 10 games. Both players have suitable replacements at their positions in Elliot Johnson and Jason Heyward (with an assist from Evan Gattis in left field). It would seem that starting either of them in the NLDS would be risky and starting them both in the same lineup would be catastrophic.

    It would seem that the questions in the bullpen can be helped by Alex Wood and Paul Maholm joining the ‘pen for the playoffs. After breaking his finger, Scott Downs has been terrible in relief, leaving the need for reinforcements. Jordan Walden, mired throughout the season by various injuries, is not a lock for the playoff roster. The Braves plan to have Walden throw an inning or more in the instructional league or a simulation game before deciding if he will be on the postseason roster. It would seem that we’ve seen the last of both Kameron Loe and David Hale for the season. How Fredi will juggle the arms that are available remains to be seen, however this has been the story of the season for the ‘pen and they have weathered much more adversity than this.

    A few injuries to keep an eye on, both for fans and Fredi: Chris Johnson has been dealing with a jammed right shoulder since a diving play Thursday. He missed the final game of the season with this issue, but has said he will be fine for the first game of the NLDS on Thursday. Also, Brian McCann left Thursday’s game with a right adductor strain, a slight hip injury, and was listed as day-to-day. He was available to pinch hit–the injury simply makes squatting problematic. He has been resting since the initial injury and will hopefully we able to play in the NLDS.

    Kris Medlen is slated to start game 1 of the NLDS. Medlen has a record of 5-0 with an 1.05 ERA in his past 5 home starts. In those 5 starts, he has 29 K’s, 4 BB and 1 HR allowed (34 1/3 innings). Over his past 9 starts, Medlen is 6-2 with a 1.37 ERA. In addition to turning his season around entirely in the second half of the season and catching fire the last 9 starts, Kris Medlen is now in uncharted territory in terms of innings pitched at 197. His previous season high was 138 last season after his return from Tommy John surgery. Medlen finished the season with a 15-12 record and a 3.11 ERA. The rest of the rotation should line up behind Medlen with Minor, Teheran and Garcia.

    A key player to watch is Jason Heyward. On Thursday, Heyward went 4-for-4 with a homer and 3 doubles. Those 4 hits matched a career high (5th time) and his 4 extra-base hits were also a career high. His 10 total bases matched the team season high recorded by Justin Upton in April. Since returning from the jaw injury suffered in New York, Heyward has hit .308 going 8-for-26 with 3 double, 1 homer, 3 walks and an RBI. When playing center, Heyward has hit .290 with 4 doubles, 3 homers and 10 RBI (versus .250 as a right fielder). In the lead off spot this season, Heyward has hit .333, going 38-for-114 with 9 doubles, 6 homers and 16 RBIs. It wouldn’t be surprising to see J-Hey in the lead off spot every game of the NLDS and in center field to start with B.J. Upton as a defensive replacement possibly.

    As it is currently scheduled, the Braves will begin NLDS play on TBS on Thursday in Atlanta with game 2 Friday night before the teams travel to L.A. for a Sunday game. Currently no times have been posted for these games.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.