The Braves are going to have to start winning series against teams like the Brewers and Blue Jays if they’re going to make a serious run at the playoffs. A 2-4 week is not a good week, regardless of who’s hurt. Five of the eight starting position players (everyone except Teixeira, McCann, and Francoeur) are either hurt and playing through it (Kelly Johnson with the flu) or hurt and not playing (everyone else). When your team is suddenly relying on three guys to carry the offense, and they don’t all have big weeks, things turn south in a hurry.
Looking on the bright, the Phillies have been just as bad recently, and their injury problems pale in comparison to the Braves’. No one’s pulling away just yet, leaving some hope that the Braves can get healthy, win some close games, and finally make a run. For now, fourth place and a four-game deficit remain the reality. Florida is a game back and in second place, while the Mets are three back and in third.
This Week’s Stats
Five best Braves plays of the week
- Kelly Johnson hit a third inning double off Jeff Suppan and the Brewers on Wednesday, tying the game at 2 (+.215).
- Mark Teixeira hit a 2-run homer off Dustin McGowan, giving the Braves an early 2-0 lead over the Blue Jays on Friday (+.167).
- Brian McCann doubled home the tying run against John Parrish and the Jays in the fifth inning on Saturday (+.154).
- McCann singled to give the Braves a chance in the ninth against Salomon Torres and the Brewers on Tuesday (+.135).
- Teixeira pulled the Braves within shouting distance of the Blue Jays on Saturday with an eighth-inning 2-run homer off Brian Tallet (+.127).
Five best Opponent plays of the week
- Jo-Jo Reyes allowed the only run of yesterday’s game on a double by Alex Rios (-.207).
- Corky Miller lined out to short with a chance to tie Tuesday’s game in the bottom of the 9th against Salomon Torres, ending the game (-.205).
- Tim Hudson allowed a homer to Rod Barajas on Saturday before the game spiraled out of control in the later innings (-.136).
- Mike Cameron started the barrage against Jo-Jo Reyes in Monday’s game with a 2-run second-inning homer (-.134).
- Jeff Francoeur grounded out with one out in the 9th on Tuesday, moving the tying run over to third, but costing the Braves their next-to-last out (-.121).
- Mark Teixeira made his absolute best attempt to carry the team this week, going 6-for-17 with 5 extra-base hits (3 homers) and 7 walks, adding over a full win in batting WPA (+.657). That doesn’t even account for his defense, which was as good as I’ve ever seen at first base, at least when I was able to watch the games this week.
- Gregor Blanco had a nice series in Toronto, but there wasn’t much else to write home about in terms of offense. Brandon Jones, Gotay, McCann, and Francoeur were downright terrible, and I don’t know what else to say about it. Norton and Lillibridge were similarly awful in slightly more limited playing time. Norton as the Braves’ DH hit slightly better than I would have expected from a pitcher.
- Jo-Jo Reyes was the only Braves starter two pitch two games this week, and his appearances were different like night and day. Monday’s start against the Brewers looked like the 2007 version of Reyes, and he lasted just 2 1/3 innings before getting the hook (and a well-deserved loss). On Sunday, he was back to his more recent form, doing about everything you can reasonably expect from a young starter, but he also lost that game because A.J. Burnett mowed down the Braves’ patchwork lineup. In total, it was a below-average week, but Reyes is looking like he’ll remain a fixture of the rotation for a while.
- Jair Jurrjens did Reyes one better in his lone start of the week, having perhaps the team’s best start of the year. He threw 8 shutout innings on Friday, allowing three hits and a walk to the Jays and lowering his season ERA below 3 (to 2.94). His peripherals support the solid start, although he’s been a slight bit hit lucky (.286 BABIP with a 21.7% line drive rate) and homer-lucky (just 6% of fly balls have gone out). That doesn’t take anything away from his performance so far, and his composure is simply outstanding.
- Jorge Campillo and Charlie Morton also looked solid in their starts. Campillo had a fairly typical line for him, actually allowing fewer hits (4) and striking out more batters (6) than usual while lasting 7 innings. Morton allowed a few unearned runs but otherwise was good, actually throwing 72% strikes with an efficient pitch/batter ratio of 3.57. That may be a one-start anomaly, but it’s a good sign.
- Tim Hudson actually seemed to have his better stuff in a rough start on Saturday. Usually when he keeps the ball mostly on the ground, he’s in good shape, but 2 of his 3 fly balls left the park. As a result, he’s now looking up the team ERA leaderboard at Campillo and Jurrjens.
- The bullpen was outstanding this week, perhaps a result of Gonzalez’ return and the fact that they’re now getting more rest. Manny Acosta let the Blue Jays run away with Saturday’s game, but those 3 runs were the only runs allowed by the ‘pen all week, including Buddy Carlyle’s miraculous 4 1/3-shutout-inning cleanup appearance after Jo-Jo Reyes’ start on Monday. There were no “effective” relief outings this week (positive WPA in an appearance with twice the normal importance) partly because the offense couldn’t muster enough run support, and partly because the starters lasted so deep into their games.
- One last note to provide some perspective for Jeff Francoeur’s struggles. His OPS has fallen under .700 (actually .679), and his slash line is .239/.294/.385, meaning he’s had some moderate power while creating outs at an astonishing pace. If you were to replace his -2.262 WPA contribution with someone performing at exactly the league average, the Braves would be four games better in the standings, tied with the Phillies heading into this pivotal series. PrOPS suggests we can expect him to be a little bit better from this point forward (.754 OPS) based on his batted ball profile, but not a lot better.
- And a final news-related comment: Chipper is likely headed to the DL (so he’ll miss at least 9 more games), and Mark Kotsay may be activated by tomorrow.
The Road Ahead
This week’s first series is the most important the Braves have faced this season. The Phillies come to Atlanta reeling even worse than the Braves, having lost 10 of their last 12, and the Braves could move to within a game of the division lead with a series sweep (and some cooperation from the Mets and Marlins). The difference is that the Phillies are mostly healthy; they just have zero starting pitching beyond Cole Hamels. Jimmy Rollins is pretty far off of his MVP pace from last year, and Ryan Howard is still hitting just .215 (and is on pace for over 200 strikeouts). Chase Utley has slipped just a slight bit from his early pace, but that lineup is still easily the best in the NL.
The Phillies will trot out Kyle Kendrick, Adam Eaton, and Brett Myers, which isn’t exactly an intimidating bunch at this point. Kendrick has looked decent of late, but Myers has been awful. The Braves will avoid Hamels and Jamie Moyer, who have clearly been the team’s two best starters.
The Astros series will be interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I will be attending all three games. I’ll be joining my brother-in-law Chris and his (and Melissa’s) parents in Atlanta for the holiday weekend to take in that series, which should feature Hudson, Reyes, and Morton as the Braves’ starters.
The Astros’ lineup isn’t as good as the Phillies, but Carlos Lee has really been mashing over the last month or so (1.007 OPS in the last 4 weeks), and Lance Berkman is keeping up his MVP pace. Like the Braves, they’re not getting production from about 3 different positions, particularly at 2B (Kaz Matsui), CF (Michael Bourn), and whomever they trot out at catcher. Miguel Tejada and Hunter Pence have also been struggling lately. The Braves will see the best starters they have to offer, with Brian Moehler, Roy Oswalt, and Wandy Rodriguez slated for their starts.
I’ll have a full report of this weekend’s events on Monday, including pictures. Hopefully we can celebrate a winning week and be a bit closer to the Phillies when I return.