The post-All-Star revival continued for another week, as the Braves knocked down two of their fellow Wild Card contenders for series wins. They finished the week 5-2 and are now three games over .500 for the season. The Phillies, unfortunately, haven’t slowed down from their hot streak, and they remain 6.5 games up (8 in the loss column) on both the Braves and Marlins for second place in the NL East.
Last Week’s Stats
Despite the team’s sustained offensive outburst, there’s no one hitter carrying the team at this point. Five of the nine regular hitters (6 regular starters plus the Anderson/Diaz/Church semi-platoon) had very good weeks, two were fairly average, and the other two were below-average, but there was no one at either extreme. Even though it would be nice to see Chipper, in particular, breaking out a little bit, such consistently strong performance would seem to bode well for the future.
Brian McCann probably had the best week, with 9 hits, including 7 for extra bases. He and Yunel Escobar, who also had 9 hits, were the only regulars above 1.000 in OPS. Nate McLouth started to recover from his recent slump with 7 hits and 7 walks, and he also had two doubles, a homer, and four steals in four tries. Escobar was not as successful on the basepaths, being caught in both of his tries.
Chipper had a double and two homers in 6 games, giving way to Prado at third in yesterday’s series finale in Milwaukee. He was also successful in one steal attempt. Garret Anderson was the last of the “very good” performers, knocking seven singles and a homer in six starts of his own.
Several other Braves joined the home run barrage but failed to put up spectacular overall numbers. Ryan Church was one of our middling performers of the week, with a homer among his three hits. He also had 3 walks in his 16 total plate appearances. His platoon partner, Matt Diaz, was the other, with six hits (one triple) and no walks in 19 tries. Diaz was also caught in his only stolen base attempt.
Kotchman and Prado were the below-average regulars this week, although they homered once each. Casey started every game, so his six hits and two walks suffer a bit from the large 27 PA context. Prado fared similarly with 7 hits, 4 walks, and one time caught stealing.
Among the less-used players was Kelly Johnson, who returned from the DL and booted Brooks Conrad back to Gwinnett. He picked up where Brooks left off with the bat, and then some: in six PAs, he walked, singled, homered, and doubled twice, striking out in his only other appearance. He also stole a base. If I had to guess, I’d say that Chipper and Casey Kotchman will sit more often for the rest of the season (Casey against some lefties) in favor of Prado, and that Johnson will get his share of starts. If the outfield were more right-handed, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him get some playing time out there.
There were a lot of hitting performances to talk about, but the pitching was equally strong last week. The Braves allowed just 21 runs (17 “earned”), and only 14 of them were from the starting rotation in 45 2/3 innings. When you’re getting 6 1/2 innings from the rotation and only two runs allowed on average, you’re going to win a fair number of games.
Jair Jurrjens had the week’s best performance on the mound, giving up only one run on 3 hits and a walk over 7 2/3 innings, not to mention that he beat Tim Lincecum, the reigning NL Cy Young winner.
Derek Lowe scattered some hits, but he only allowed 3 runs in his two starts, both of which lasted six innings. He seems to be back on track again, which is an encouraging sign. Tommy Hanson’s performance was also encouraging, given that he was reportedly ill in his second start, having lost 12 pounds over the course of the week. He struck out 11 Giants with electric stuff on Monday against the Giants, but his more impressive outing came on Saturday while he was sick. His command was sharp, and he lasted 7 innings, even though he had less action on his fastball and recorded only one strikeout. Hanson was handed his first major-league loss by Yovani Gallardo for that performance, providing yet another reason for discerning fans to despise win-loss records for pitchers.
Kenshin Kawakami had spotty command in Thursday’s start against the Giants, needing 97 pitches to get through 5 innings, but he only allowed four hits and a run, keeping the Braves in the game until the bullpen and defense blew it later on. Javier Vazquez also struggled through his only start at Milwaukee but was bailed out by the Braves’ offense.
The bullpen was collectively quite impressive for the week. Rafael Soriano and Eric O’Flaherty allowed the only earned runs, although Gonzalez, Moylan, and Boone Logan were all tagged for unearned runs. Kris Medlen and Manny Acosta were the only relievers to truly emerge unscathed, and deservedly so.
Jason Heyward Watch
Is it too early to be peeking at Heyward’s line for Mississippi on a daily basis? He’s hitting .422/.506/.734 in 18 games at AA with better plate discipline than he’s shown at any previous level. It probably is too early, but he’s getting some much-deserved high praise for his work, and he’s now Baseball America’s #1 prospect.
During yesterday’s TV broadcast, Joe Simpson relayed something he’d overheard (I believe from some scouts), that if the Braves were looking to add a bat down the stretch, their best option may be the 19-year-old Heyward (who will actually be 20 in 2 weeks). He went on to compare him to Miguel Cabrera, which is probably too lofty a standard of performance for any young player to attain.
This may not be a regular section, but at the very least, you would think that Heyward’s hot hitting has advanced his timeline enough get him some starting consideration as early as next year.
Tim Hudson Watch
Tim Hudson’s rehab moves up to AAA Gwinnett this week, and the Braves will have another decision to make soon regarding his role for the rest of the season.
Pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery still face about an 18-month recovery period these days, even though most of them get back on the mound sooner than that. What I mean is that he’s not likely to be as effective for the remainder of 2009 as he typically was before the surgery. With that in mind, he’s probably not one of the Braves’ five best starting pitchers for the last two months of 2009.
If it were up to me, I would stick him in the bullpen and have him fill the Kris Medlen role, sending Medlen back down to AAA to start the rest of the year. That would let Hudson get his feet wet again, and the Braves would maintain their depth, should anything happen to anyone in the current rotation.
Given the way the Braves have handled their staff this year, I think they are unlikely to demote Tommy Hanson in favor of Hudson. They certainly wouldn’t do that to Jurrjens, and everyone else in the rotation has a big contract. So, will the Braves attempt to move a pitcher at the deadline and insert a TJ rehab case into the rotation? I’m honestly not sure, but they don’t have much time to decide.
The Road Ahead
The short current road trip ends with three games in Florida, starting tomorrow, before the Braves welcome in the Dodgers for the weekend. The first series will be important for the Braves to gain some separation from their division and Wild Card foe, while the weekend series will help them know where they stand against the league’s best.
These are the pitching matchups:
Tue @FLA: Jurrjens vs. Ricky Nolasco
Wed @FLA: Kawakami vs. Josh Johnson
Thu @FLA: Vazquez vs. Rick Vanden Hurk
Fri vsLAD: Hanson vs. Jason Schmidt
Sat vsLAD: Lowe vs. Randy Wolf
Sun vsLAD: Jurrjens vs. Chad Billingsley