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    Braves split with Bucs, welcome Phils

    By Tara Rowe

    Hot on the heels of the first place Washington Nationals, the Atlanta Braves hoped to sit alone atop the division with a win against the Pirates last night. Their hopes were halted by a 9-3 loss, splitting the series 2-2 with the Bucs. First place will have to wait another day.

    Game 1: Burnett/Hanson

    A.J. Burnett came into Atlanta fresh off his first start of the season in which he went 7 innings, gave up 3 hits and didn’t allow a run. Burnett looked nearly as sharp at times in his 6 innings Friday night, giving up 6 hits and only 2 earned runs. However, the bullpen gave up 4 earned runs in relief of Burnett.

    For the Braves, there were high and low moments in the first game of the home stand.

    Catcher Brian McCann left the game with a right intercostal muscle strain in the fifth inning. McCann said he had blocked a pitch and threw down to second base in the fourth inning, causing a tightness to set in as he went to the bench. The initial worry was that it might have injured his oblique, an oblique injury sidelined McCann for what turned out to be crucial games at the end of the Braves’ 2011 season. McCann had hoped to be back by Monday, but ended up returning Sunday for Tim Hudson’s season debut.

    The Braves took the first game of the home stand and had their best game of the series with runners in scoring position (4-for-9).

    Game 2: Bedard/Delgado

    Erik Bedard’s 0-4 record did not reflect how well he had pitched in his first four starts as a Pittsburgh Pirate. Bedard had only given up 7 runs in those 4 starts and received little run support. Prior to game 4 of the series, the Pirates had not scored more than 5 runs in any of their games so far this season. Bedard would have been quite comfortable with 5 runs in support of his first four brilliant outings.

    In another example of the struggles of young Randall Delgado, the young starter game up 8 hits, 3 walks and 4 earned runs in 4 1/3 innings. In contrast, Bedard allowed 5 hits, 2 walks and only 1 earned run.

    Braves’ offense continued to struggle with runners in scoring position going 1-for-9 on the night.

    Perhaps what the Braves took away from the loss was a renewed faith in their bullpen. Chad Durbin and Livan Hernandez have struggled mightily out of the bullpen thus far, but in game 2 they shut down Pittsburgh’s offense. Durbin and Hernandez combined for a 4 2/3 innings allowing only 1 hit and no earned runs.

    Erik Bedard walked away from game 2 with his first win of the season and a surprising 2.48 ERA. Delgado fell to 2-2 with a 6.30 ERA.

    Game 3: Hudson/Correia

    The highlight of the series with Pittsburgh was the return of veteran Tim Hudson. In his season debut, Tim Hudson pitched 5 innings and gave up 6 hits, 2 walks and only 2 earned runs.

    Hudson racked up 6 strikeouts, had a few words with home plate umpire Doug Eddings and it is safe to say that the sinker Braves fans have so missed is back. Hudson said his back felt well and that he felt better on the mound than he has in a very long time. Huddy had back surgery in the offseason to repair a bulging disc.

    Hudson will remain on 100 pitch count restriction. His side sessions and next outing will show how healthy and reliable Hudson’s back is.

    Hudson’s teammates are thrilled to have him back and supported him with runs and shutdown innings by the ‘pen. Brian McCann returned a day earlier than expected from his Friday injury to support Hudson’s return as did Chipper Jones who continues to battle knee pain and swelling.

    Game 4: Minor/McDonald

    The success of Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy has been crucial to the team’s record in April. With the struggles and demotion of Jair Jurrjens, the inconsistency of young Randall Delgado, and the absence of Tim Hudson through most of April, the Braves would likely not be where they are without Minor and Beachy.

    It’s important to remember that even though Mike Minor made his way to the big league club each of the past two years, he is only 24 and is still adjusting to big league hitters.

    Minor’s outing was marked my command issues that we had not yet seen from the rookie. Though he had 9 strikeouts, even Minor wasn’t sure how he was able to strikeout 9 Pirates. He gave up 7 hits, 3 walks and 7 earned runs in just over 6 innings pitched.

    While Chad Durbin had been sharp of late, his relief appearance was once again marred by a lack of command. Giving up a walk, 2 hits and 2 earned runs in less than an inning did not help the Braves stop the bleeding. The Braves dropped the final game of the series 9-3.

    NOW FOR THE PHILLIES…

    Tuesday: Beachy (2-1, 1.05) vs. Hamels (3-1, 2.73)

    Wednesday: Hanson (3-2, 3.00) vs. Halladay (3-2, 1.95)

    Thursday: Delgado (2-2, 6.30) vs. Blanton (2-3, 3.81)

    The Phillies come into town at an opportune time for the Braves. As the Braves continue to make their way to the top of the NL East standings, the Phillies are fourth in the division ahead of  a Miami Marlins team that has had a horrendous start. April has presented the Phillies with a number of  obstacles due to injuries to Cliff Lee, Michael Stutes, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Justin De Fratus, Michael Martinez, Hunter Pence and Jim Thome. Cliff Lee is expected to return from an oblique injury in the days immediately following the Phillies departure from Atlanta. Jim Thome’s low back woes have made his availability an issue for Charlie Manuel who had used Thome at first base and to pinch hit. Every game the Braves can put between themselves and the Phillies right now helps Atlanta’s chances at making a run for the division title. Yes, even in early May these games matter.

    The most interesting match-up of the series may turn out to be young Brandon Beachy pitching against soon-to-be free agent ace, Cole Hamels. Beachy is proving in the early part of this season how valuable he is to the Braves and how effective he can be on the mound, but he has so far been held winless in his young career against the Phils (0-3 in 6 starts). Can he turn around this trend with the new confidence he’s showcased on the mound? Beachy enters today with the 2nd lowest ERA in the National League.

    Roy Halladay has a career 1.78 ERA against Atlanta and has kept Atlanta hitters to a .209 batting average. At Turner Field Halladay has a career 1.13 ERA and has held the Braves to a .207 batting average. Figuring out Roy Halladay is a tall order for Braves hitters. Getting to Halladay early may be their only shot at giving Tommy Hanson some run support to work with as Halladay is notorious for settling in early and shutting down offense.

    Perhaps the biggest concern for the Braves after the Pittsburgh series is their continued struggles with runners in scoring position. The Braves went 7-for-39 with runners in scoring position in their four-game set with the Pirates. Lead-off man Michael Bourn is 5th in the National League in batting average (.337), but continues to be left on base. While the Braves are much improved in some areas, namely the ability to execute a sacrifice fly this season, there is room for improvement with how they score runs. Consistency is something the Braves have shown in spurts in April.

    The Braves host the Phillies beginning tonight at 7:10 (EST).

     

    And the runaway choice for the NL Rookie of the Year award is…

    By Kent Covington

    Braves first baseman, Freddie Freeman

    There are a handful of deserving candidates for the National League Rookie of the Year award.

    Rookie first-baseman, Freddie Freeman, has developed into a middle-of-order hitter for an Atlanta Braves ballclub that boasts the NL’s second-best record.  Freeman is on pace to top 20 homers and 80 RBI this season, while hitting .294 with a commendable .362 on-base percentage. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s smooth with the leather. As it stands, Freeman is the clear runner-up for the ROY award, but he’s not the winner.

    Philadelphia’s Vance Worley is a recent addition to the Rookie of the Year discussion. In 13 starts, Worley is 8-1 with a 2.35 ERA. Impressive to say the least. The problem with his candidacy is that he was a mid-season insertion into the Phillies’ rotation, who will make fewer than 25 starts this year.

    Phillies RHP, Vance Worley

    Braves’ fifth starter, Brandon Beachy, has turned heads with 105 strikeouts in 97 innings, while posting a solid 3.43 ERA through 16 starts. But like Worley, Beachy will fall well short of a full season’s workload, after an oblique injury sidelined him for him for more than month.

    Danny Espinoza, Washington’s young second baseman, was considered by many to be an early ROY favorite. Espinoza is a skilled defensive middle-infielder, and he is on track to hit 20 or more homeruns in his rookie season. However, after a recent slump, Espinoza’s batting average has fallen to .226, and his on-base percentage has been reduced to a meager .311.

    All of these candidates deserve at least some measure or ROY consideration, but none of them deserve to win the award. Not this year. Not when there is another rookie lifting and separating from the pack at a breakneck pace.  Ladies and gents, the runaway choice for the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year Award is…

    Craig Kimbrel
    .

    Kimbrel, the only all-star among this group of top rookie performers, has shown no signs of intimidation after assuming the Braves’ closer role in his first full big league season.  That’s saying something, given that he’s filling the shoes of future-Hall-of-Famer, Billy Wagner, who retired over the winter, and closing high-pressure ballgames for a top postseason contender.

    3-2, with an imposing 1.87 ERA, Kimbrel has converted 36 of his 41 save opportunities this season, striking out 89 hitters in 57 innings. Toss in a nifty 0.99 WHIP.

    His recent performance is even more remarkable.  In his last 24.2 innings pitched: 0 runs, 6 walks, 40 strikeouts, .089 opposing average. 18 of 18 in save opportunities. Take a moment to think about those numbers.

    Braves closer, Craig Kimbrel

    If you’re still not convinced, here are three reasons why Craig Kimbrel is the runaway choice for the NL Rookie of the Year:

    1.  As the closer for one of the top-4 teams in baseball, Kimbrel performs in a more pressure packed and pivotal role than any of the other finalists.

    2.  A realistic argument can be made that Kimbrel is the best closer in Major League Baseball at this moment.  As gifted as the other candidates may be, could a similar case be made on their behalf?  Are we ready to say Worley might be baseball’s top starting pitcher?  Is Freeman the best all around first-baseman in MLB?

    3.  Kimbrel is poised to blow past MLB’s all-time rookie saves record (40), set by the Rangers’ Netfali Feliz, who won the AL Rookie of the Year award last season.  In fact, Craig Kimbrel is on pace to finish his rookie campaign with the following numbers:

    1.87 ERA, 50 saves, and 123 strikeouts in 79 innings pitched.

    There is still approximately 1/4 of the 2011 season still ahead of us. So, of course, everything is subject to change. But as it stands right now, the case is closed and the choice is clear. It’s Craig Kimbrel.

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    SOUTHERN FRIED BASEBALL RADIO: 8-8-11… Can the Braves Match the Phillies?

     

    Braves stil boast the NL's second-best record

    The Braves are winning. BUT… they still aren’t firing on all cylinders.  The NL East pennant race is likely a lost cause. However, the NL Wild Card leading Braves could still be on a collision course with the Phillies come October.  So how ’bout it…  Can the Braves match the Phillies? Kent Covington breaks it all down in this week’s edition of Southern Fried Baseball radio.

    (NOTE: Please notice “play in popup” link under flash player. This is often a more convenient way to listen.)

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    Are the Braves still in the NL East hunt?

    by Kent Covington

    After another frustrating loss to the Nationals, coupled with an extra-innings win by the NL East-leading Phillies in Colorado, the Braves now find themselves 7 games out of first place. Eight games in the loss column.  This begs the question…

    Are the Braves still in the hunt for the NL East pennant?

    With 1/3 of the season still remaining, the answer is yes, they are still in the race in the East. Needless to say, however, it’s going to be tougher than a frozen bag of Jack Links.

    Here are a couple of scenarios that would force a 1-game playoff to determine the division champ:

    1)  The Braves play white hot .750 baseball the rest of the way (39-13), and the Phillies play out the season at a .611 clip (33-21).

    2)  The Braves play .692 ball from here out (36-16). Meanwhile, the Phillies scuffle just a bit and play .555 baseball (30-24).

    These scenarios are obviously unlikely. Then again, standings can shift in the blink of an eye in baseball.  If Atlanta could reel off an 8 or 9 game winning streak in the very near future, they might just trim a few games off Philly’s lead and turn that 7-game deficit into something much more manageable.  Overtaking the Phillies at this point will be very difficult, but not impossible.

    The good news, of course, is that Braves currently rest atop the Wild Card standings, 2.5 games in front of the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks. While the odds of knocking the Phillies off their NL East perch are increasingly slim, they have an excellent opportunity to repeat as the NL Wild Card winners.

    But winning the NL East pennant is worth more than just bragging rights. If the Braves hold on to win a Wild Card postseason berth, their road to the World Series would most likely wind through BOTH San Francisco and Philadelphia, without home field advantage for either series. Meanwhile, the Phillies would open against the NL Central champs, who will likely be a weaker opponent than the defending World Series Champion Giants. And the Phillies would have home field throughout the postseason.

    Nevertheless, 3 of the last 10 World Series Champions earned their postseason berth via the Wild Card. So while that “2011 NL East Champions” banner would look pretty alongside the other 14 currently hanging at “The Ted”, and the division pennant is the preferable path to the postseason, the important thing is to get there. One way or the other.
     

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