• Jonny Venters

    Braves Head West with Sense of Urgency After Wednesday Meltdown

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There are certain defeats each season that feel like the proverbial kick in the, well, you know where. Then there are the couple of losses that feel like you’re flying down one of those old 10-foot metal slides we had at my elementary school, and just as you reach maximum speed and just before you reach the bottom, there’s that one little jerk in every fourth-grade class who sticks out his fist at the absolute worst possible time.

    Fifteen minutes later, when you’ve been convinced that, yes, you are medically OK and no longer a danger to land in suspension for strangling the instigator, the heartrate drops, you look around and try to figure out just what in the heck happened.

    Welcome to Wednesday for the Atlanta Braves.

    It flowed swimmingly for seven blissful innings in the matinee finale of a disappointing eight-game homestand, the NL East leaders building a 7-1 lead on a Boston squad that looks like – outside of Houston – a hands-down World Series title contender, but on this day fielding a junior-varsity squad on getaway day for the bunch with baseball’s best record.

    And then it all fell apart, in spectacular, slow-motion train-wreck fashion. The Braves endured their cruelest defeat of the season, a parade of relievers spitting the bit constantly and the infield defense cracking yet again in a six-run eighth to level the score, only to see Freddie Freeman put the Braves ahead again, only to see former friend Brandon Phillips, making his Boston debut, hit one halfway to his home in Stone Mountain with two outs in the ninth.

    Got all of that? If not, pull up a barstool. There’s plenty of Braves Country already here tonight, deep into a drowning of sorrows that resembles anything but a happy hour.

    The game came unhinged in a number of moments, but go big picture here. That portrait was splendid for the first six innings, as Mike Foltynewicz continued pitching like an ace and limited the Boston sub-varsity to two hits and one run while his teammates smashed out of a recent offensive funk. Foltynewicz threw a scant 87 pitches through six frames, and conventional wisdom dictated with the starting pitcher and his mates on cruise control, in a game which the Braves needed to win to finish the homestand at .500, in advance of a seven-game road trip to two locales in Arizona and San Francisco where the Braves typically play like crap, you keep it in fifth gear and keep on trucking.

    Then Brian Snitker fumbled the shifter, missed the clutch and pulled arguably his most bonehead move of the season.

    Yes, I love Snit and root for him. Yes, I know the players love him. Yes, I criticize his in-game management at times. Yes, he only can fire the bullets that have been loaded into the guy by Alex Anthopoulos. But this was over-management at its highest, worst-timed level. It triggered a series of dominos that eventually led to the Braves losing a game no team ever should lose, regardless if Boston rolled out maybe the best bench in baseball history in the late innings as the game morphed from a getaway-day play-it-out-and-fly-home, to a stirring victory on the Red Sox’s march to 110 victories.

    In fairness to Snitker, the very talented writer from The Athletic Atlanta and the Marietta Daily-Journal, Nubjyas Wilborn, shared with us tonight that Foltynewicz noticed his velo had dipped in the sixth inning, plus he was feeling the impact of the bone-spur issue that has impacted him at times this season.

    Still, it could not have resulted in a worse outcome. How so? If the Braves miss the playoffs, Wednesday might cost Brian Snitker his job. And that would be a shame given the job he’s done in steering this ship from the wreckage of 90 losses to surprise contention in a scant 28 months.

    But winning in October – the destination for a franchise stripped to the foundation, at a time that may not be now but darn well will be by 2019 – comes down to those tactical decisions. When you are in first place in a tightly contested playoff race, you ride your horses deeper in September than you do in April or May. That’s why this is the worst loss of the season. Miss me with the Cubs wind-and-rain-palooza at Wrigley in April. That was April.

    This is September, pennant-race baseball. It only gets hotter from here, and now the Braves fly across the continent with the unenviable task of washing away the most bitter loss of recent vintage and set their sights on two teams against which Atlanta is 1-5 this season.

    Yeah, that painful feeling just came back in the pit of your stomach, didn’t it?

    Having to cover nine outs with a bullpen that’s struggled at times and has a multitude of arms at or approaching career highs in innings is different from covering six outs. Snitker loosened the lid of the jar and unleased the fury, but there also is responsibility for the folks who took the ball.

    Dan Winkler had surrendered three hits in his past nine appearances before beginning the eighth inning by giving up four hits in a row.

    Jonny Venters, he of the 3 ½ Tommy John surgeries, made his fourth appearance in seven days, giving up one hit and two runs. Both Venters and Brad Brach, who had allowed two hits total in his previous seven outings, each saw a pair of inherited runners score.

    While all this chaos was breaking loose on the mound, an Atlanta defense that is playing tighter as the calendar gets deeper into September reared its ugly-of-late head at the absolute worst moment. Johan Camargo bobbled a potential inning-ending double-play ball and then sailed the throw past fill-in first baseman Ryan Flaherty – remember, the Braves were up big, and Freeman did not start for the first time this season. Turning two there ends the inning with Atlanta ahead 7-5.

    In the previous 41 games leading into the homestand, the Braves allowed 11 total unearned runs. Care to guess how many Atlanta gifted to opponents during the eight games at SunTrust Park? Yep, you guessed it: 11.

    Freeman did his part to save the day, belting a dramatic homer in the eighth that put the Braves ahead by one. But all that did was set the stage for Phillips, the Atlanta-area native who endeared himself with fans during his brief stint with his hometown squad last season, so much so that he drew a nice round of applause before his first at-bat.

    His last at-bat deflated those left in the ballpark, save the thousands of Red Sox fans who infiltrated STP and The Battery throughout the series.

    It now remains to be seen how deflated Atlanta is moving forward. One thing about these Braves is they’ve proven resilient beyond their years at every crossroads this season. That’s a big reason why, for all the gore and angst of Wednesday, Atlanta will arrive in Phoenix leading the East with 22 games to go.

    But a cautionary tale, especially with seven games remaining against the Phillies in the season’s final 11 days. These are the types of defeats that have felled many a talented team amid the glow of a pennant race. A loss like this at this point in the calendar doesn’t just highlight a missed opportunity within a singular 24-hour window, but can pull a team into a tailspin that its players and fan base spend months, if not years, lamenting.

    Was Wednesday’s loss that bad? We’re about to find out.

    —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.

    Braves Bring Pennant Fever Back Home to Atlanta

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It would’ve been folly back in spring to pinpoint the final Sunday of August in Miami and consider it a seminal moment, but in this 2018 Atlanta Braves season that toggles between fanciful and frightening, it makes perfect sense.

    Game No. 130 on the 162-game schedule found the Braves wrapping up a seven-game road trip against the National League East cellar-dwellers, having won 12-of-21 during a hellish 22-game-in-20-day stretch that some feared would exhaust the pixie dust that seemingly has been sprinkled on this team.

    And yet, there was plenty of dread entering the series finale after Atlanta scored exactly one run in its previous 22 innings, losing 1-0 and 3-1 contests to Miami as Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis – the veteran linchpins in the middle of the lineup – both fighting significant slumps at the same time. Not an optimal situation at this time of the year, especially considering the dynamic Ozzie Albies has been awful against right-handed pitching this month.

    But as the case has been with this team, it’s never nearly as bleak as it seems despite the constant roar on social media, a volume that surely will build as September dawns and the sprint to the finish begins.

    The Braves scored four times in the final four innings Sunday, earning a 4-0 victory that sends Atlanta into its first off day since Aug. 6 with a three-game lead over Philadelphia in the NL East. When the gauntlet of games every day (including two doubleheaders) commenced Aug. 7, the Braves sat 1 ½ games in arrears of the Phillies.

    Sunday concluded with the Braves owning a three-game advantage for the fifth consecutive day. No ground gained – Saturday marked an ample opportunity after the Phillies choked a five-run lead, but Atlanta only could scratch a Dansby Swanson solo homer – but overall it’s still a win for the Braves, considering five days have elapsed from the calendar and the Phillies remain at arm’s length.

    It’s a short arm, though, and seven of the final 10 games of the season loom against the lone challenger to the Braves (yes, you can administer last rites to the ghost of the Washington Nationals, who trail Atlanta by 8 ½ games and who dealt Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams in waiver-wire deals this week that signified everybody’s favorite paper champion raising the white flag). It’s not the time for the offense to turn south, and the Braves averaged 2.5 runs per game on the road trip while hitting .226 as a team with nearly as many strikeouts (44) as hits (45) entering Sunday.

    But recall the old saying that pitching and defense wins championships. It applies here, as the Braves have been outstanding on the mound in recent days. Atlanta allowed six runs total in seven games on the swing, pitching to a 0.89 ERA as a staff with only nine extra-base hits allowed. Kevin Gausman, the Plan B after Pittsburgh overpaid grossly for Chris Archer at the trade deadline, owns a 1.69 ERA in five Atlanta starts after throwing five scoreless, one-hit innings Sunday to win his fourth consecutive decision.

    Gausman’s short outing Sunday can be attributed to being pinch-hit for in the sixth inning, when the Braves were trying to break through offensively nursing a 1-0 lead. It came one night after Brian Snitker left Anibal Sanchez hit for himself with runners on and two outs in a scoreless game, a decision that bit the manager when Sanchez – who is hitless on the season – struck out, then allowed the eventual game-winning run before leaving with a hamstring injury.

    The Braves have been outstanding offensively for large stretches of the season, but in the past month the pitching staff – bolstered by the acquisition of Gausman and relievers Brad Brach and Jonny Venters, the steadying of Sean Newcomb and the sudden consistently good Julio Teheran – has given Atlanta a needed shot in the arm. That says nothing of the contribution by Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson, who excelled in winning their major-league debuts during the 22-in-20 stretch. Coupled with stellar defense – Ronald Acuna made another web-gem worthy catch Sunday, one night after Swanson made an acrobatic field-and-throw from short left field – the Braves are in a great position entering the final 32 games.

    Now, it gets serious. A getaway day in Miami resulted in the perfect outcome for a team that desperately needs a day off, that only has two more the rest of the way. A surging Tampa Bay team, fresh off a sweep of Boston, arrives at SunTrust Park for two games starting Tuesday. The Cubs pop in for a makeup game, followed by three at home with the Pirates and then those aforementioned Red Sox for three games.

    That precedes a seven-game road trip to Arizona and San Francisco, two locales where the Braves historically do not play well. That carries us into the next off day Sept. 13. Sixteen games in 16 days, pretty close to the grind Atlanta just concluded.

    It would be nuts to suggest the Braves will gain 4 ½ games in the standings in that span, as they did during the stretch just ended. It is a brutal schedule, as the heat of the pennant race ratchets up to a temperature Braves Country has not experienced in half a decade. And once through that stretch, the final maddening sprint features series with the hottest team on the planet (St. Louis), the wounded but still dangerous corpse of the Nationals, and those seven head-to-head meetings with Philly (four in Atlanta; the final three games of the regular season on the road).

    Suffice to say, if the Braves pop champagne and don celebratory T-shirts, they will have earned it. On the final Sunday of August, they found a way to grind out a much-needed victory.

    They will need more of that in the final five weeks.

    —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.

    Braves at the Deadline: Anthopoulos boosts October odds, Protects Future

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – This is the day made for Alex Anthopoulos, and certainly it has been circled on his calendar since he took over as Atlanta Braves general manager in November. The aggressive gunslinger who never has shied away from a major deal spent the next eight months evaluating his new organization, all with an eye toward Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline.

    But when the asking price for Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer – owner of the power strikeout arm and friendly, controllable contract – bubbled beyond the point of comfort, Anthopoulos made the smart move.

    He pushed away from the table.

    Contrary to what he told the assembled media early Tuesday evening at SunTrust Park, the Braves were in on Archer throughout the day. But Pittsburgh offered the duo of Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow, a price that would have been akin to Atlanta offering two top-six prospects. That was too much for Anthopoulos, who resisted the emotion of the Braves stunningly sitting ½ game out of first place in the National League East and the pleas of a starving fanbase to overpay for one piece.

    And while there was an initial tinge of disappointment Archer headed toward western Pennsylvania and not north Georgia, at the same time the Braves new head man accomplished what he set out to do. In the five days leading up to the deadline, Anthopoulos improved the bullpen by adding two groundball machines (Jonny Venters and Brad Brach), a right-handed power bat (Adam Duvall), an intriguing starting pitcher (Kevin Gausman) and a veteran reliever who will be available next spring (Darren O’Day).

    The most important part of the past 120 hours or so is the Braves improved the major-league team without so much as tearing the plastic wrap from a minor-league system that is the envy of baseball. Atlanta did not touch 28 of its top 30 prospects. Venters and Brach were acquired for international signing pool money, funds of otherwise little value to Atlanta given MLB’s sanctions against the team. Duvall came at the price of fourth outfielder Preston Tucker and a pair of pitchers (Matt Wisler and Lucas Sims) whose production waned with every failed attempt at big-league success. Tuesday’s deadline deal – announced shortly after the clock expired – sent No. 14 Jean Carlos Encarnacion and No. 30 Brett Cumberland and two unranked prospects (Bruce Zimmermann and Evan Phillips) to the Orioles.

    Trade deadlines are hard to judge. I like to take a timeframe approach when grading the deadline:

    The Immediate (B+): Had Anthopoulos added Archer, Braves fans would have built a statue to their GM outside SunTrust Park tomorrow. It would have been a seismic move, but it would have come at quite the cost. At least two top-10 prospects, plus a prospect ranked somewhere in the 15-to-25 range. It wasn’t from a lack of trying, but Anthopoulos didn’t let the emotion of the day cause a detour from the appointed plan.

    That plan is contingent on ensuring the Braves use their minor-league depth at the right time. There will be a time, perhaps this offseason, where long-loved prospects are shipped away in return for valuable major-league assets. At the deadline, Anthopoulos filled several needs of his team without ripping up four years of careful cultivation of young talent.

    The Short Term (A): The Braves, as currently constituted, have a better chance to reach the playoffs than a week ago. Even without acquiring a top-end starter or a closer, Anthopoulos immediately fixed two glaring needs. First, he shored up a bullpen that’s threatened to sabotage this fantastic season. Venters and Brach are ground-ball machines, good fits with a very good infield defense playing behind them. Swapping Venters and Brach for a pair of recent (wink, wink) additions to the disabled list – Sam Freeman and Peter Moylan – automatically makes the Braves much better in the late innings.

    The second need has become all the more apparent in the past two months. Center fielder Ender Inciarte banged out 201 hits a season ago in hitting .304, but has been awful against left-handed hitters (hitting .207). Duvall – who has struggled to a .205 average in 2018 but does have 15 homers – gives the Braves the opportunity to slide Ronald Acuna into center when a left-hander starts, and Duvall’s presence in the lineup provides a right-handed power source who belted 64 homers in 2016-17. And regardless of whether Duvall or Inciarte are in the starting lineup, the bench automatically is better than a week before.

    Gausman is the wild card. A budding star out of LSU and the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, he sports a 4.22 ERA in 150 career games and struggled at times to find his way in Baltimore (not necessarily a strange thing given how some Orioles hurlers have excelled after leaving town). The Braves view him as an innings-eating dependable arm, one who has worked into the seventh inning seven times in 21 starts – that will thrive away from the AL East and the murderous lineups residing in Boston and New York. Time will tell, but the Braves certainly have a desperate need for more length from their starting rotation, especially given only two off days between now and Sept. 13.

    The Long Term (B-): The hardest grade to give on deadline day. What is the end result of the season? What about the next year? How did the assets you gave up turn out? I’m going B-minus for now mainly because the prospects remain virtually intact, and Atlanta did get players with control. While Venters and Brach are pending free agents, Gausman is under contract through 2020 and Duvall is on a deal through 2021. O’Day is on the shelf with a hamstring injury and won’t contribute in 2018, but is under contract through next season and taking on his $9 million salary for 2019 helped minimize the prospect cost of today’s deal.

    The Braves, through their play through the season’s first 103 games, earned the right for their general manager to make the team better. Anthopoulos delivered, maybe not with star power or  big names, but enough quality to give the Braves a better shot at extending its season beyond game 162.

    —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.

    Phillies arrive to break up monotony of Marlins

    As schedules go, the Braves won’t have it easy facing the Nationals for 6 games in September and the Pirates for 4. However, the Braves get to face bottom-of-the pack Mets (3 games), Rangers (3 games) and Phillies (6 games) in the final month as well. The pesky Marlins don’t quite seem to be in either category, though with the last 3 games against them and the coming weekend series in Miami, the Braves have to beat the Fish to hang on to their division hopes and/or the wild card. Taking 2-of-3 from Miami at Turner Field is exactly what Atlanta needed to do over the weekend.

    If making a statement that Atlanta’s starting rotation is every bit as deep as the much-hyped Washington rotation, then Alex Wood did exactly that with his double digit shutout performance of Miami. His 12 strikeouts in his 8 inning outing Sunday matched a career high. Let’s talk about Wood’s last 7 starts: Over 48 1/3 innings, he has given up 34 hits, a mere 10 earned runs and has 48 K’s to his 14 walks. That’s a 1.86 ERA over 7 games. For those keeping track, Wood now has enough innings on the season to qualify among the league leaders in ERA (2.96).

    While Harang struggled in Saturday’s outing, it’s important to remember that the veteran has a respectable ERA at 3.64. His record of 10-9 reflects the offense’s inability to overcome Harang giving up 4 runs in an outing. True to that fact, the Braves were unable to score against the Marlins in the second game of the series.

    No discussion of pitching would be complete without mentioning that Craig Kimbrel notching his 40th save on the season against Miami. Kimbrel joins an elite group of closers including only Trevor Hoffman and Francisco Rodriguez as pitchers with 40 saves in 4 consecutive seasons. Last year Kimbrel became the first closer in MLB history to record 40 or more saves in 3 consecutive seasons to begin their career. Kimbrel now adds to that incredible record with his 4th consecutive season of 40 or more saves to begin a big league career. Including Sunday night’s save in relief of Wood’s gem, Kimbrel has 179 saves in his young career.

    Let’s stick to pitching this week and give the offense a breather to reassess. Boy, they’ve struggled to score runs consistently. It should come as no surprise that they struggled against the Marlins this series. Freeman improved to 6-for-61 against the Marlins on the season in the final game of the series, if that’s any indication of just how tough the offense is scuffling.

    BRAVES WELCOME PHILLIES TO BREAK UP VISITS WITH THE FISH…

    The Braves were dealt tough news this week about reliever Jonny Venters. Venters, who was having numerous setbacks while rehabbing following last year’s Tommy John surgery, has another torn UCL and will require his 3rd Tommy John surgery. The likelihood of Venters every pitching again are unknown and the likelihood of him ever pitching for the Braves again is slim. Venters was once a third of the group dubbed The Untouchables. With ex-Brave Eric O’Flaherty and closer Craig Kimbrel, he was a big part of how the Braves were known for the best bullpen in baseball. Unfortunately, there will always be questions about whether overuse contributed to Venters’ elbow issues.

    Going into September, the Braves continue to be without the services of reliever Shae Simmons. With ongoing shoulder problems, the Braves have decided to give Simmons extra time to rest rather than chance that he’ll go into the offseason with lingering issues. Due to the extra couple weeks of rest, Simmons may not rejoin the club down the stretch. Simmons shoulder has been bothering him since July when he had a stretch of relief appearances where he pitched with a 15.00 ERA. This after starting the season, his first 20 big league appearances, with a ridiculous 0.96 ERA. He has not pitched with the club since going on the DL on July 24th.

    Philly arrives in Atlanta for a 3-game set before the Braves have a rare Thursday off day as they travel to Miami. Monday’s series opener will feature veteran Hamels (7-6, 2.59) vs. Teheran (13-9, 2.90). Tuesday will pit Kendrick (7-11, 4.97) vs. resurgent Minor (6-8, 4.70). The series finale will feature Buchanan (6-7, 4.03) vs. Santana (13-7, 3.53).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Braves wrap-up spring training, head north

    Atlanta wrapped up exhibition play in the Grapefruit League Thursday with another pitching gem. Their 20-15 record is only the third time since the Braves moved to Atlanta that they have won 20 games in Spring Training, having done so previously in 1994 and 2009.

    The Braves had a successful spring due in part to the crushing offense of winter acquisition Justin Upton, rookie Evan Gattis, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons. Braves pitching continued to display the kind of dominance they are known for with the phenomenal spring performance of Julio Teheran, multiple scoreless innings pitched by Paul Maholm, continued consistency of Eric O’Flaherty and convincing big league relief work by Cory Gearrin. And if Grapefruit League action is any indication, the Braves will put impressive defense on display with each outing of the 2013 season, led by the dynamic shortstop Andrelton Simmons and rounded out by the speedy outfield of Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward.

    Before a recap of the big story lines of the week, here are the final exhibition game scores from the Grapefruit League (3/24-3/28):

    Opponent Score
    Nationals 9-3 (L)
    Mets 7-4 (L)
    Tigers 6-5 (W)
    Nationals (SS) 11-2 (L)
    Astros (SS) 2-0 (W)

    The biggest story of the week is that Evan Gattis has made the Opening Day roster as Atlanta’s second catcher alongside Gerald Laird. The 26-year-old hit .368 with 21 hits, 5 doubles, 6 homers and 16 RBI this spring. His defense was better than advertised, putting him way ahead of catching prospect Christian Bethancourt and defensive specialist Matt Pagnozzi. While he was thought to be competing for the temporary backup catcher job in Brian McCann’s absence, Manager Fredi Gonzalez has indicated that Gattis and Laird could wind up splitting time behind the plate for the time being.

    The Braves could get 20+ homeruns from 7 positions this season. The leadoff spot is supposed to be the one place in this Atlanta lineup where opposing pitchers can turn for shelter from all the thunder. But they might be safe there either.  Braves’ leadoff man, Andrelton Simmons, has shown pop this spring with 5 home runs in just 59 at-bats between his Grapefruit League and World Baseball Classic play. He finished the spring with a .288 average including 5 doubles to match his homers. Simmons thrived this spring on the world stage, returning to the Braves with an important experience under his belt and a hot bat.

    In pitching news, Jonny Venters left Tuesday’s game with what the Braves were categorizing as an elbow sprain. Venters said he didn’t hear a pop in his pitching elbow as he did prior to his “Tommy John” surgery in 2006, but the team is taking no chances with the very elbow that flared up often last season. Following the Easter holiday, Venters will see Dr. James Andrews. Venters will likely start the season on the DL, leaving open only 2 roster spots for relievers. Those spots should be given to Cristhian Martinez and Anthony Varvaro, both relievers out of options. Since the 2011 season, Venters has not been as consistent and durable. His 8.10 ERA in 6 2/3 innings this spring was worrisome before the elbow sprain. As others have noted, it would be more problematic for the Braves going into Opening Day if Eric O’Flaherty were injured.

    While Venters’ injury may have been the pitching story of the week, the pitching story of Spring Training was hands down the performance of Julio Teheran. In 6 games (26 innings pitched), the rookie Teheran recorded a ridiculous 1.04 ERA with 35 strikeouts. He has thrived this spring in the atmosphere of no competition for the fifth spot in the rotation. This is the Julio Teheran the Braves expected going into Spring Training in 2012, but this spring they weren’t confronted with disappointment. Without Randall Delgado in the queue before him, now is Teheran’s time to shine and if this spring is the model, he will be a potent back-of-the-rotation starter.

    Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson may have struggled early on in the Grapefruit League, but they ended exhibition play straightened out and ready for the regular season. Maholm’s last two starts were absolute gems. Maholm finished Spring Training with a 4-1 record and an impressive 1.53 ERA. His 20 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings pitched were much better than the Braves expected. Maholm’s zero home runs allowed this spring is one of the more amazing pitching stats of the entire team. Given how he struggled with the home run at times after joining the Braves last summer, this is a great sign going into the season. Maholm more than earned his number 2 spot in the rotation this spring.

    The schedule for Opening Week is as follows:

    Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
    March 30th
    @ Mississippi Braves
    3:05 p.m.
    Opening Day
    vs. Phillies
    7:10 p.m.
    April 3rd
    vs. Phillies
    7:10 p.m.
    April 4th
    vs. Phillies
    7:10 p.m.
    April 5th
    vs. Cubs
    7:30 p.m.
    April 6th
    vs. Cubs
    7:10 p.m.

    The biggest worries the Braves face as Opening Day approaches have less to do with injuries than the simple question of how players will perform. Will Justin Upton live up to the hype and his potential? Can Julio Teheran replicate what he has done this spring in the regular season? Can Mike Minor maintain the confidence he has displayed this spring? Will Craig Kimbrel and Kris Medlen be different pitchers once the regular season begins or will their spring struggles carry with them? What can the Braves expect from Dan Uggla? And who will be the Braves third baseman in the post-Chipper era?

    Surely the question surrounding Craig Kimbrel will be washed away as he finds himself amid the familiar pressure of closing a regular season game. However, you can’t blame Braves fans for worrying a bit when in his final Grapefruit League appearance against the Astros Thursday he walked 2 and hit another in the first 3 batters he saw in the 6th inning. In limited appearances due to his World Baseball Classic play, Kimbrel racked up a 5.63 ERA in 8 innings. With 7 strikeouts in those outings, there is likely far less to worry about than his outing against the Astros would have you believe. The most consistent closer in baseball since his Rookie of the Year season will be just fine.

    Like Kimbrel, Medlen will settle in as the season gets underway. Will Medlen repeat the torrid pace he set last season when he moved into the rotation? Highly unlikely, but no pitcher, no matter how good, can maintain that kind of pace. Medlen’s 7.23 ERA this spring will be wiped clean come Monday. That is, after all, the beauty of spring stats.

    The final two questions the Braves have are a bit more complicated. Who will replace Chipper at third base? Nobody can ever replace Chipper. His heir-apparent, Martin Prado, now gone to Arizona in the Justin Upton trade wouldn’t have even been able to truly replace Chipper. Going into the season, it is now apparent that Fredi Gonzalez will go with a platoon of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson with Francisco having a slight edge over Johnson for the majority of the playing time. Francisco’s dominance against left-handed pitching will determine how the platoon balances out. However, there is no arguing against Chris Johnson’s skill set with his superior defense and .381 batting average this spring. While nobody can replace Chipper, the Braves are not leaving the base in incompetent hands.

    What the Braves can expect from Dan Uggla is anyone’s guess. The second baseman barely hit the Mendoza line, ending Spring Training with a .200 average. His 25 strikeouts in 75 at-bats are more than worrisome, even for the strikeout-prone Uggla. It is especially concerning that he had only 3 walks. His frequent walks often attempted to balance out his strikeouts and that just wasn’t the case this spring. After his career best .287 with the Marlins, the Braves took a huge chance on Uggla and he has underperformed since joining the team. The Braves really need him to improve on his .233 and .220 in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

    The story of the 2013 season, as it was throughout Spring Training, will be how the key trades and pieces of the roster puzzle perform. There is no doubting that the Braves put together a quality club. The only question remaining is will they live up to all the potential.

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

    Braves spring training report: Week- 3

    The Braves wrapped up week 3 of exhibition play at spring training this week, going 4-3 with a convincing win with a split squad against the Yankees Saturday.

    This week’s scores (3/10-3/16)

    Opponent Score
    Marlins 10-2 (L)
    Nationals 7-2 (W)
    Cardinals 12-3 (W)
    Marlins 2-1 (W)
    Cardinals 5-3 (L)
    Mets 5-2 (L)
    Yankees (SS) 4-0 (W)

    This week, as the roster was pared down, the final roster decisions were aligning. With his opposite field hitting and improved defense, Juan Francisco looks to be the Opening Day recipient of a slight majority of playing time at third base. Francisco is continuing the strong offseason he began playing in the Dominican Winter League where he hit .307 with 9 homers and 29 RBIs in 34 games. This Spring, Francisco is hitting .311 with 14 hits in 16 games. He does, however, have 14 strikeouts to match those 14 hits, a stat that was addressed here at BravesWire by Darren Schienbein early in the week. For as often as Roadrunner strikes out, he gets his walks and will get his hits. The tradeoff is certainly worth it.

    Evan Gattis continued to impress with his bat this week, proving that he could very well be the backup catcher to Gerald Laird in Brian McCann’s absence. Freddie Freeman hit a monster of a home run at Champion Stadium against the Mets, reminding Braves fans that Freeman has 30 HR power. A healthy Freeman, vision in tact, will only add to the impressive lineup the Braves have built for 2013. This lineup can and will hit for power, but they will also hit for average–something each player has been working toward in their young careers. The Spring Training lineup has yet to see the return of Andrelton Simmons who remains with the Netherlands World Baseball Classic team as it advances to the semifinals in San Francisco. Simmons has flourished in the WBC, an experience just as important to his growth and preparation for the season as Spring Training would have been. The Braves are likely to have him back for at least the final week of exhibition play in Florida, if not a bit more.

    The biggest story lines this week involve pitching.

    Kris Medlen was solid in his start against the Marlins on Wednesday, but was forced to leave the game after 4 2/3 innings because he was hit not once, but twice with comebackers on the mound. Medlen said he was fine after leaving the game, his removal was only precautionary. Medlen has only improved this Spring with locating his pitches and has expanded his pitch selection. His confidence with his curve ball is improving and while his velocity will top out at about 93 mph since returning from Tommy John surgery, his command is perhaps the best of the team’s rotation.

    Paul Maholm was lights out against the Yankees yesterday, throwing 6 scoreless innings. Perhaps the Braves should play the Yankees every Sunday. Mike Minor threw a gem against the Bronx Bombers last Sunday. Maholm has slowly returned to the form we saw when he joined the Braves at the trade deadline last season. His is truly the story of two Springs. Early on he had little command and now he is in perfect control of his game. Maholm has improved his ERA to 2.33 in 19 1/3 innings. Additionally, Maholm has not given up a home run this Spring.

    Tim Hudson came back from a horrendous start to throw a quality outing Friday. Huddy bounced back from that awful Sunday start when he gave up 9 hits and 5 runs in 6 innings against the Marlins. On Friday, Hudson threw an equal number of innings–6–this time only giving up 2 runs on 5 hits. This Spring has shown Hudson’s velocity to be down from previous years. The 37-year-old continues to say that his pitches are not the quality he expects of himself, leaving some wondering if this could be Tim’s final year pitching. Hudson has always said he wants to finish out his career with the Braves.

    The once steady bullpen is more in question this Spring than manager Fredi Gonzalez and GM Frank Wren would like. Jonny Venters has had absolutely no command of his fastball. In the same game that saw Medlen hit twice, Venters entered and walked four straight batters. In addition to those four walks, Venters had a wild pitch that handed the Marlins a run. This was Venters’ second outing in a row where he allowed a run in a mere inning of work.

    Reliever Eric O’Flaherty made a strong debut, returning to the Braves ‘pen for the first time this Spring to throw a scoreless inning against the Cardinals. O’Flaherty’s return to form will be important for a ‘pen that is questioning the command of Venters and the health of Jordan Walden. Walden, acquired in the Tommy Hanson trade, has been out for nearly a month with a bulging disc in his back. Walden threw batting practice on Saturday after two solid bullpen sessions. His return to Atlanta’s bullpen may happen as soon as this week. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Braves call up J.R. Graham at some point this season. Graham has been dominant this Spring, allowing no runs and only 6 hits in his 9 innings of work. His dominance is good news for the Braves as they’ve watched other members of the ‘pen, like long-man Cristhian Martinez really struggle. Martinez has racked up a 6.48 ERA in 8 1/3 innings.

    The Braves continue exhibition play today against the Mets. Atlanta is currently 4th in the Grapefruit League standings behind the Rockies, Padres and Cardinals (no National League East teams) with 12 wins and 11 losses.

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