• Ervin Santana

    Skidding Braves welcome Cardinals

    It now appears that the hiccup in Miami was not a fluke. What was a 3-game sweep by the Marlins turned into a 6-game skid with a follow-up sweep by the San Francisco Giants of the Braves at Turner Field. Sunday’s 4-1 loss marked just the 1st time the Braves had been swept by the Giants in a 3-game set at home since June of 1988. The 6-game skid is the longest for Atlanta since an 8-game losing streak in the 2012 season. The Braves have now lost 6 games, a series on the road and a series at home, while struggling mightily with runners in scoring position.

    While there have certainly been mistakes made by Atlanta’s pitching, the few mistakes the Giants were able to capitalize on, the offense was to blame in the latest sweep. Unlike the series in Miami, Braves’ pitching was solid and offered the offense every opportunity to overcome the Giants. However, with a team .183 batting average and a total of 10 runs scored over 6 games, the best pitching can’t overcome a lack of offense. Over the last 7 games, the team has scored a total of 11 runs and more than 1 run in only 2 of those games.

    B.J. Upton is sporting new glasses and an improved on-base percentage in recent games.

    B.J. Upton is sporting new glasses and an improved on-base percentage in recent games.

    Before breaking down the offensive struggles of the Braves in the 6-game skid, first some good news. B.J. Upton is much improved on the bases, stealing his 7th bag Sunday after a double. B.J. is not only sporting new sports glasses, he’s sporting a much improved .350 OBP in the past 14 games.

    Breaking down the offense, or lack thereof, in the past 6 games:

    • Hitters in the 1 & 2 hole are hitting .282; Hitters 3-6 are hitting a paltry .119; 7-9 hitters are hitting .207.
    • Jason Heyward has improved to .292 (.327 OBP) since the 21st of April while teammate Freeman is in a massive slump hitting just .146 in that time.
    • Batters other than Freddie Freeman have now combined to go 8-for-94 (.085) with runners in scoring position and 2 outs.
    • Justin Upton, a notoriously good hitter in the month of April, has realized it is now May. Over his last 7 games he is hitting .158 with only 1 homer and 2 RBIs.
    • Uggla’s numbers have really put his starting job in question, but there is simply no better replacement for either him or Pena/Pastornicky’s spot on the bench. Tommy LaStella at Triple-A remains weeks away.

    Despite the recent skid of the Braves, Buster Olney of ESPN reports that Atlanta still sits 2nd in the power rankings. Like many of the players have noted over this brutal few games, everyone that follows baseball seems convinced that this could be the most potent offense in baseball when firing on all cylinders. The truth of that is clouded, of course, by the fact that we’ve only seen the team truly have a strong offensive game on a couple of occasions so far this season.

    While there were questions surrounding the bullpen in the last few days, Sunday’s game gave the Braves something positive to build on when Alex Wood left the game early, more out of concern for his innings pace than anything, David Hale came in to relieve him and eat up innings, and then the embattled Luis Avilan entered in a high pressure situation with the bases loaded to induce a quick double-play grounder. (A note on Wood’s pitch count and innings count: Wood had thrown 104 pitches through 5 innings Sunday. In his 2 8-inning appearances this season, he threw 103 and 101 pitches. In addition to the concern for his pitch count, the Braves are keeping a close eye on his innings pitched. He currently has 45 IP on the season.)

    One concern apparent during the Giants’ series was the 3 straight games where the Braves tied the game only to give the lead right back on homer the following inning. Luckily for the Braves, all but one of the homers in the series by the Giants were solo shots. The damage could have been much worse.

    Closer Craig Kimbrel, vying to pass John Smoltz for most saves in the franchise, has not had a save since the 26th of April. He has He has pitched only once (May 2nd) in the 9 days since his last save.

    BRAVES LOOK TO SNAP SKID AGAINST ST. LOUIS…

    The Braves have activated Gavin Floyd, sending Ian Thomas to Triple-A Gwinnett. Floyd will start in the place of Santana on Tuesday. Santana will miss his start due to a swollen thumb. Apparently against the Reds, Santana bruised his right thumb when he got jammed on pitch by Homer Bailey. During his next start in Miami, his thumb continued to swell to the point where he could no longer grip the baseball. The swelling forced him out of the game early. The thumb is healing and should only force him to miss one start.

    Gavin Floyd is returning from Tommy John surgery after injuring the elbow ligament pitching with the White Sox. Floyd has a career 4.48 ERA in 10 years in the big leagues. He has an even .500 record (70-70).

    It appears that the role for Floyd with the team with be spot starts and a place in the bullpen as both the long man and a versatile reliever.

    There truly is only one goal going into the series against the Cardinals: Break the 6-game losing streak. The Cardinals come into the series having narrowly avoided a sweep at the hands of the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Cardinals, much like the Braves, aren’t one of the better teams at scoring runs. The Cardinals were the best team in the National League last season at scoring runs. This season they are in the bottom of the pack. They’ve yet to see notable offense from Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter or Peter Bourjos. In fact, they sent Kolton Wong down to Triple-A because of a lack of offense and have plugged in rehabbed Mark Ellis in his spot.

    The Cardinals send Shelby Miller (3-2, 3.15) to the mound against Aaron Harang (3-2, 2.97) tonight. Tyler Lyons (0-2, 4.20) will face Gavin Floyd in his Braves’ debut. And the series finale will feature Adam Wainwright (5-2, 2.16) against Mike Minor (0-1, 3.00).

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

     

    Pitching continues to be story of Braves’ April

    If it is possible to quantify what starting pitching has meant to the Atlanta Braves in April, you won’t find it in a simple series of

    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 ERA points.

    numbers. Sure, the Braves have a rotation with a combined 1.50 ERA in a total of 138 innings pitched. Sure, the late spring signees Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana have unexpectedly brilliant ERAs of 0.85 and 0.86, respectively. Sure, the young guns aren’t too bad, either. Alex Wood has a 1.54 ERA, Julio Teheran 1.80 and David Hale a still quite respectable 2.93. But there’s more to it than the numbers.

    Remember when Kris Medlen went down during spring training? Remember how everyone thought the Braves were in serious trouble? Remember when Mike Minor wasn’t going to be on schedule because of shoulder soreness and the league wrote off Atlanta? Remember how devastating it felt when Brandon Beachy followed with his Tommy John news and then Cory Gearrin? Take those feelings, those fears and then consider just what has been accomplished without Medlen, Beachy, Minor and Gearrin, not to mention the continued absence of Venters:

    • Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana have the first and second lowest ERA by starters in the National League.
    • 4 of the 5 current members of the starting rotation are in the top 10 in ERA in the National League (Harang, Santana, Wood, Teheran)
    • 2 starting pitchers are in the top 10 in the NL in strikeouts (Wood T-5th with 35; Harang 9th with 33).
    • Braves pitching is 1st in the league in team ERA (2.16).
    • Relievers Anthony Varvaro and Ian Thomas both have a 1.69 ERA in 5 1/3 innings each.
    • With slightly more work out of the ‘pen, Jordan Walden (8 1/3 innings) and David Carpenter (9 1/3 innings) have sub-3.00 ERAs, 2.16 and 2.89.
    • Though Craig Kimbrel missed a week, he has a respectable 3.24 ERA with 6 saves in 8 1/3 innings pitched. His 18 strikeouts are the most by any reliever.

    There has been a bit of history made in April, too. In his Wednesday start, Aaron Harang became the first pitcher to start a season with at least 6 innings pitched and 1 earned run allowed or fewer in 5 appearances since Pedro Martinez did it in 1997. Also on Wednesday, the Braves recorded 16 strikeouts, the most by pitching in a single game this season and the most they’ve had in a game since August 16, 2013. In his previous start when Harang left his no-hitter, he became only the 3rd pitcher since 1900 to exit multiple no hitters after 6+ innings pitched. On April 16th, Julio Teheran became the first visiting pitcher to ever throw a shutout at Citizens Bank Park. And Craig Kimbrel hit 900 batters faced in his young career with a unheard of 44% strike out rate (392).

    With a week to go in the month, the Braves are approaching big decisions in their staff with pitchers Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd returning from rehab stints. Instead of hoping to bridge to Minor and Floyd’s return, the Braves now look at which of the solid starters could potentially move to the bullpen and what they do with Gavin Floyd altogether. The likeliest option is for David Hale to join the ‘pen, but that, too, leaves out an arm in the ‘pen that has been useful. The Braves now face a problem they couldn’t have anticipated coming out of camp: too many arms. But as these things often go, they tend to work themselves out before a decision has to be made. It certainly is a better position to be in for Atlanta then the one they faced at the start of the season.

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

    With series win, Braves head home to honor Hank

    As Bobby Cox likes to say, it’s the series wins that matter. That was the case over the weekend in the nation’s capital when the Braves took 2 of 3 against the rival Nationals.

    Wood was dominant in his 2nd start, dropping the game despite 7 innings of 2-run ball.

    Wood was dominant in his 2nd start, dropping the game despite 7 innings of 2-run ball.

    Lead by dominant pitching, the Braves once again proved that injuries to Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and now Cory Gearrin will not be the end of their season. Despite the loss handed to Alex Wood in the series finale, a tough one given his strong 7 innings pitched with only 4 hits and 2 earned runs allowed, Wood, Teheran and Hale were on top of their game. They continued a trend of not allowing more than 2 runs–a trend that started for the Braves on Opening Day in Milwaukee.

    Braves’ pitching as an entire staff is 4-2 with a 1.56 ERA in 52 innings pitched. Atlanta’s starters are 1st in the National League with a 3-2 record and 1.63 ERA over 38 2/3 innings. The bullpen holds a 1.35 ERA with 19 strikeouts, 7 holds and 3 saves over 13 1/3 innings pitched. David Hale and Aaron Harang share the lead among the rotation both with a 0.00 ERA. Hale pitched 5 innings of 5-hit ball in the Nats’ home opener. Alex Wood leads the club in strikeouts (9), on his heels is Julio Teheran (8) and closer Craig Kimbrel has made the most of his 3 innings pitched catching up to Atlanta’s starters in strikeouts (6).

    Atlanta’s bullpen may have lost Eric O’Flaherty to free agency and Cory Gearrin to Tommy John surgery as well as continues to wait for Jonny Venters to return from last year’s Tommy John surgery, but that hasn’t stopped them from supporting the efforts of the rotation. Luis Avilan, Craig Kimbrel, Ian Thomas and Jordan Walden have yet to give up a run and have 12 strikeouts between them in 7 innings pitched. In the 1st game of the Washington series, David Carpenter put together one of the best innings of relief we’ve seen so far, striking out 3 after allowing a hit and walk in an inning of work. Carpenter is settling into his role in the ‘pen with the returning relief core (Avilan, Kimbrel and Walden) and the rookies (Schlosser and Thomas). In addition to whatever moves take place with Santana, Minor and Floyd joining the club soon, the Braves went out and snagged Pedro Beato off the waiver wire from the Cincinnati Reds. Beato has a career 4.26 ERA. The 2014 season is his 4th in the big leagues, spending a year with the Orioles, 2 years with the Mets and 1 with the Red Sox, though he has only 25 1/3 innings under his belt. What his role will be is still unclear.

    The biggest concern coming into the season may have been pitching, but that concern has mostly been answered. With strong outing from each of the 4-man rotation and with Santana and Minor joining the rotation soon, the only question is who will be dropped from the rotation or if the Braves will go with a 6-man rotation for any length of time. With pitching mostly settled, the focus turns to offense. With far too many low-scoring games to start the season for a team with the bats of Chris Johnson, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton, the Braves have to wonder when this team will click. In the 2nd game of the series in D.C., the Braves looked most like the team they are on paper. Freeman, both Uptons, Johnson and Teheran each put 2 hits on the board in that game with Doumit (1), Uggla (2), Simmons (1) and Teheran (1) contributing RBIs.

    Not surprisingly, Freddie Freeman leads Atlanta’s offense with a .400 batting average with 8 hits, 2 homers and 2 RBIs. Freeman also has walked 6 times, his on-base percentage now .560. Behind Freeman is Chris Johnson at .304 with 3 doubles. a homer and 2 RBIs. Andrelton Simmons is hitting .300 with 6 hits, 1 double and 2 RBIs.

    The parts of the offense that everyone seems to be watching closely are the very parts that failed last season. The Braves’ strikeout rate is already of concern. B.J. Upton has 11 strikeouts in 25 at-bats, Justin Upton has 10 in 22 at-bats and Jason Heyward has 8 in 23 at-bats. B.J. is 3-for-25 with 1 double and 1 stolen base, hitting .120. At this point of the season, we can hope that Upton is simply off to a slow start. Dan Uggla is 5-for-23  with a .217 average thus far with 2 doubles and 3 RBIs. Uggla has only 5 strikeouts, but has yet to have a walk. Of course after last season there will be extra scrutiny on B.J. and Uggla. However, the early take on the two hitters is that Uggla is hitting the ball hard, but suffering from bad luck with the placement of the fielders. B.J., on the other hand, seems lost at the plate. Evan Gattis also appears to be off to a slow start with a .167 average. Gattis is 2-for-12 with 1 homer, 1 RBI and 6 strikeouts.

    BRAVES RETURN FOR HOME OPENER & TRIBUTE TO HAMMERIN’ HANK…

    New acquisition Aaron Harang will make his home debut in the Braves’ home opener at Turner Field, but the man of the hour will not be any current Atlanta Brave. It will, of course, be Henry Louis Aaron, the Braves home run leader and the man for whom the Braves are wearing a 715 patch on their uniforms this season. Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of Aaron’s 715th home run, surpassing then home run leader Babe Ruth. The Braves are pleased to put the spotlight on Aaron in their first game at home of the 2014 season.

    The Mets are off to a 2-4 start. Their pitching is 13th in the National League with a 4.75 ERA. The Mets’ bullpen is dead last in the league with a 6.75 ERA. New York’s offense is also dead last in the NL in batting average at .178. However, they have scored 6 runs more (21) than the Braves (15).

    Some offensive stats to keep in mind as the Braves host the Mets: Dan Uggla is 2-for-5 against Zack Wheeler with a .400 batting average, a double, a homer and 2 RBIs. Freddie Freeman is 4-for-6 with a .667 with a homer and RBI. B.J. Upton is 1-for-3 (.333) against Wheeler and is one of the few Braves with any experience with Bartolo Colon. Upton is 7-for-23 against Colon with a double, a triple, a homer and 5 RBIs.

    The Mets will send Bartolo Colon (0-1, 4.50) to the mound against Aaron Harang (1-0, 0.00) Tuesday. Zach Wheeler (0-1, 4.50) will toe the rubber against Ervin Santana (0-0, -.–) in his 2014 debut Wednesday. Jennry Mejia (1-0. 1.50) will face off against David Hale (0-0, 0.00) in the series finale Thursday.

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

    Braves sign Santana, Medlen a likely Tommy John candidate

    Braves, GM, Frank Wren

    Braves GM, Frank Wren

    When starting pitcher Kris Medlen left the mound Sunday, the Frank Wren knew they the Braves were in trouble. With the departure of veteran Tim Hudson to free agency, growing concerns about the health of Brandon Beachy, and a rotation rounded out with the inexperience of youth (Teheran, Wood, Hale), it was clear the Braves would need to make a move if they hoped to contend in the National League East.

    Not taking much time at all, general manager Frank Wren moved quickly to get free agent Ervin Santana in for a physical. Santana, who had been rumored to be in talks with various teams including the Blue Jays and Mariners, was intrigued by the idea of pitching in the National League. It didn’t take long at all for the Braves to reach a deal. He flew from Arizona to Florida Tuesday, took his physical last night and signed with the club this morning.

    The 1-year deal for Santana is worth $14.1 million. The Braves will lose the 26th slot in the MLB draft, which was worth $1,839,400 in 2013. If the Braves don’t re-sign Santana after the season, they’ll have the opportunity to gain a draft pick

    Santana, 31, had a rebound season with the Kansas City Royals in 2013 after a tough go in 2012 with his long-time club the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Santana posted a 9-10 record with a 3.24 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 32 starts (211 innings pitched). Over a 9-year career, he has a career 4.19 ERA, a winning 105-90 record, has had 5 seasons of 200+ innings and has pitched 14 complete games. His experience on the mound will be important to a young staff that features only 1 other veteran–Freddy Garcia (until, presumably Gavin Floyd returns from Tommy John surgery and joins the club).

    The flip side of the Santana signing is the terrible news about clubhouse and fan favorite Kris Medlen. In this morning’s press conference, the Braves announced both the signing of Ervin Santana and the unfortunate news that Kris Medlen’s MRI revealed “involvement” of the elbow ligament that had previously been repaired. It seems a forgone conclusion at this point that Medlen is headed for his 2nd Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow. It will be his 2nd elbow surgery in 4 years.

    On top of the Medlen news, the Braves have been watching Brandon Beachy closely. He left his last spring training game early with soreness in his throwing arm. It was announced that he would miss his next spring start to rest that arm. Like Medlen, Beachy has a replaced ligament in his pitching elbow and returned for a short time last season from that surgery before needing an arthroscopic clean-out of his elbow shortly after. Beachy arrived at camp supposedly healthy, but his velocity has been way down (averaging 86-87 mph).

    Also worth noting is that Mike Minor has been dealing with shoulder soreness recently. Camp for him got off to a slow start as he was unable to workout due to pain from a procedure on his urethra over the winter. A rotation that was likely to feature some combination of Medlen, Beachy, Minor, Teheran, Wood/Hale and possibly veteran Garcia will now feature Santana and Teheran for certain and hopefully some combination of Beachy, Minor, Wood/Hale and Garcia to round it out.

    Frank Wren has had his work cut out for him this winter and never more than in the past 4 days. The old adage ‘when you think you have enough pitching, get more’ is once again confirmed.

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