Braves escape with their first victory

Braves claim their first win, 6-4

Braves win! Braves win!

Good to get that monkey off our back, now let’s talk business.

The Astros were sporting their old Colt .45 throwbacks, and Chipper was back in the lineup and batting in the six hole for just the ninth time in his career. He would be the hero tonight, but more on that later.

That little turd Jordan Schafer immediately tested Chipper’s knee in the first inning by attempting a drag bunt. Chipper put him back in his place, making a tough play look easy for the out. In the top half of the second, Jones welcomed himself back with a first-pitch single back up the middle. Braves fans held their breath as he slid into second to break up a double play just seconds later, but he popped up and jogged off the field like it was 1999, and it was back to business as usual.

Chipper made his presence felt in his first game back.

Hanson worked himself into a jam in the bottom of the frame, but Chipper made a heads up play to get a confused-looking Carlos Lee at home. Marwin Gonzalez (can’t believe I’ve mentioned that name twice in two days now) drove in Chris Johnson for an ealry 1-0 Colt .45 lead.

In the third, Uggla tied it up with a long double to center, causing McCann to chug around all the way from first to score. Chipper followed with a two-run homer to right, and suddenly all was right in the world. Turns out all the Braves needed was an additional 40-year-old bat. Pastornicky added on with his first career home run in the fourth, a solo shot to left off Kyle Weiland, and suddenly the Braves were leading 4-1.

Schafer proved to be a pain in the you-know-what all night, going 3-5 and stealing three bases off Hanson, the second two of which set up Carlos Lee for an RBI single in the fifth to bring the score to 4-2.

Tommy’s curveball was flithy and was his weapon of choice in striking out eight. However, with 101 pitches through five innings, the Braves would again have to dip into their bullpen early. Medlen came on and pitched a perfect sixth, which included retiring Justin Maxwell (the kid that tatood a Chad Durbin “fastball” last night).

The Braves manufactured an insurance run in the seventh with a Bourn walk and steal. Prado advanced him to third with a ground ball, and Freeman drove him in with a little help from the defense ineptitude of Carlos Lee. 5-2 Braves.

But Medlen ran into trouble in the bottom of the inning when Carlos Lee drove in Schafer with a very long single off the left field wall and was lifted in favor of Eric O’Flaherty. EOF conceded an RBI single to Chris Johnson (the run was charged to Medlen), and suddenly it was 5-4 and Braves fans were starting to sweat. But Hinske beat the shift with a big two out pinch hit that scored Jason Heyward, and the Braves recaptured their two run advantage.

Both Venters and Kimbrel allowed men to reach in their innings, and Braves fans everywhere were praying to whatever God they hold holy when Kimbrel finally closed out the Colt .45′s with an appropriate game-ending groundout to Chipper. 6-4. Braves win.

It was undoubtedly the best game yet for the Braves offense, which almost certainly had something to do with Jones’ presence. In total, the boys went 11/36 but more importantly had some good at bats and played a solid game all around.

The Braves look to take the series tomorrow at 8:05 EST against tough lefty Wandy Rodriguez. The Braves will send Randall Delgado to the bump and hope to harness some offensive momentum to close out the series.


Astros embarrass Braves 8-3.

There’s losing, then there’s losing like that. If the Braves were a high school baseball team, they’d still be running poles right now.

In what turned into an incredibly sloppy evening, the Astros embarrassed the Braves by a final count of 8-3.

4/9/12 Houston Astros

Beachy got no support from his team tonight.

The Braves took their first lead of the season in the second with a Tyler Pastornicky single that scored Matt Diaz, then Beachy dribbled one back to the pitcher JA Happ and scored Juan Francisco (who had just recorded his first hit as a Brave). McCann tacked on an RBI single in the third, and the Braves looked poised to have a night of Astro fun.

And then Juan Francisco happened.

With two outs in the bottom of the third, Beachy got a little too picky trying to pitch to Schaefer and issued a walk. Jose Altuve reached on a throwing error by Francisco that allowed Schaefer to take third. Then Francisco made two errors in one play (impressive, right?). What followed was a play so stupid I can’t quite describe it in words, but the result was a Travis Buck double that drove in Altuve and Schaefer and ended with Buck standing on third after a bad throw by Pastornicky. Suddenly, the first Braves lead of the season was gone.

I had a hard time deciding how to describe just how bad Franciso played tonight, so I found a few choice tweets that I believe do it justice:

Atlanta Braves Juan Francisco

You hear that? "Conradian."

In the next inning, Beachy gave up an RBI single to opposing pitcher JA Happ, and suddenly the Braves found themselves losing to an Astro team filled with such household names as Marwin Gonzalez and Jose Altuve. Heard of them? Me neither.

Francisco was mercifully removed from the game in the sixth, as Livan Hernandez came on in relief of Beachy. He reminded everyone of his outstanding athletic ability by failing to get to first to cover a double play. You could tell he was poised to take revenge on the team that cut him just weeks ago by gasing 83 mph fastballs by their eyeballs and lobbing curveball after curveball after curveball in their general direction. Livan gave up two in two innings on four hits.

Oh yeah, then we brought in the soft-toss machine Chad Durbin in the eighth, and Justin Maxwell (who?) hit one 384 feet and trotted the bases like he does it all the time (trust me, he doesn’t). When the dust settled, it was 8-3 and we all just wanted to go home.

Losing three games to the Mets was bad. Losing tonight was embarassing. The Braves committed four errors (three by Francisco) and made many more mental mistakes en route to what was undoubtedly the worst loss of the young season. Time for Fredi to change some things around and try and get this team going, because until now he’s been a bit too casual for this fan’s liking.

On the bright side, Chipper is expected to return tomorrow, beating his own timeline for recovery. Let’s hope his presence (and Francisco’s absence) is the spark this team needs to get going.

The Braves look for their first win Tuesday at 8:05, as Tommy Hanson will battle Kyle Weiland. If we lose to Kyle Weiland, I suggest we give soccer a try.

Here’s one for the road:

Chad Durbin Atlanta Braves


After a tough series in New York, Braves head to Houston

Well that was ugly.

As Frank Francisco struck out Jack Wilson for the final out of the series on Sunday, the Braves had no choice but to pack up their 0-3 record and team .151 OBP (worst in baseball thus far) and hope for clearer skies in Texas.

Let’s review.

April 5: Braves 0, Mets 1

Opening Day on Thursday was at least a pitcher’s duel. Hanson went five strong and struck out four, and Medlen was lights out in relief. For the Mets, Santana also pitched a gem, going five innings, striking out five, and blanking the Braves before handing it over to Ramon Ramirez. Ramirez got the win as David Wright drove in the game’s only run on an RBI single in the sixth. The Braves stranded seven and failed to score, and the Mets went on to win 1-0.

April 7: Braves 2, Mets 4

Saturday’s game pitted Jair Jurrjens against knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who had a 1-4 record against the Braves with a 4.01 ERA entering the game. However, a lack of timely hitting would haunt the Braves again. Michael Bourn was thrown out at home on a past ball in the first. The team went 0-4 with runners in scoring position, stranding seven runners overall. Prado logged the first runs of the year with a two-run blast off Dickey in the fifth, but it wouldn’t be enough to match Lucas Duda and the Mets, who put up four and once again rolled past the Braves 4-2.

April 8: Braves 5, Mets 7

It was too little too late in this one for the Braves, as the Mets piled on runs in the first, fourth, fifth, and sixth to accrue what would turn out to be an insurmountable 7-0 lead. Minor had a poor outing, allowing six runs in five innings (although two were tacked on in his name because Christian Martinez failed to strand his inherited runners in the sixth).  Jonathon Niese was lights out for most of this one, striking out 7 in six innings. The Braves rallied late, including a two-run double by Jason Heyward and a solo home run by Brian McCann, but it wouldn’t be enough to avoid the sweep. The Braves fell 7-5.

The series stats look pretty pittiful:

Braves stats

When your team leader is hitting .250, you know you're in trouble

Losing all three games of this series may as well have been the first sign of the apocalypse for most Braves fans. I have never seen this fan base so impatient and unforgiving, and after last September, I’m not sure I can blame them. The Bravos dropped nine places in the ESPN power rankings to 23rd, which in my opinion is a bit excessive. Just remember that these things take time, people, and that we’re only three games into the season. Still, let’s hope they right the ship soon or Fredi may have a mutiny on his hands.

The Braves open up their series with the Astros tonight at 8:05 EST with a duel between Brandon Beachy and JA Happ. The Braves have been beating the tar out of  the Astros in their last few match-ups (but then again, who hasn’t?), but watchout: JA Happ is 2-0 with a 1.72 ERA against the Braves in six career starts.


Braves fall to Mets 1-0 in season opener

Today was the day we’ve all been waiting for. For fans around the league, it means baseball is back, and there’s a full season ahead of us. To the Braves, it means so much more: a clean slate, a fresh start, and the first step toward what fans hope will be a season of redemption.

I could go on and on with the narrative: the September collapse, the struggles down the stretch, Chipper’s retirement, spring training acquisitions….but we’ve heard it all before. Let’s just get down to baseball.

But first, a little music to set the mood:

The matchup pitted Tommy Hanson against Johan Santana in what was sure to be a pitchers’ duel, and they did not disappoint. Against Santana, Fredi alternated between left and right handed batters up and down the lineup, which featured Diaz in left and Prado at third to fit the scheme (Francisco would watch his first Braves game from the bench).

Hanson was in command early but ran into trouble in the bottom of the sixth, when David Wright broke the stalemate with an RBI single. Fredi gave Hanson the hook, and Kris Medlen came on to pitch with two on and nobody out. He hung tough, retiring the side and stranding his inherited runners (there was a brief scare when Jason Bay sent one out to deep left-center, but, in typical Jason Bay fashion, the shot fell just shy of the wall). Medlen was excellent in relief, allowing just one hit in two innings and completely shutting down the rallying Mets. Expect to see more appearances like this one from guys like Medlen and Livan Hernandez. These multi-inning outings give Fredi the freedom to pull the starter when there’s trouble and not wear out the back half of the bullpen.

Fredi pulled Medlen in favor of Venters in the eighth, which I wasn’t too happy about. Medlen has the stamina to put in three innings of work and had looked sharp, whereas Venters had been complaining of soreness in his throwing arm and could have certainly used the rest. His command suffered, and he loaded the bases before striking out Lucas Duda to escape from trouble.

The determining factor in this one was the Braves’ inability to cash in with men on base. In typical 2011 fashion, the Braves stranded seven runners, failing to capitalize with the bases loaded in the fifth and a runner on third with one out in the seventh. They left the game scoreless and will have to wait until Saturday to get another chance to score the first run of the season.

It wasn’t the start to the season we hoped for, but it was good to see the Braves back in action, and, to be fair, it’s only game one out of one sixty-two.

In other news…

  • Heyward struck out in the second, ending his streak of Opening Day first at bat home runs (Remember this one and this one?). He finished the afternoon 0-4 with two strikeouts.
  • Tyler Pastornicky recorded his first major league hit, a triple off Ramon Ramirez in the seventh inning. Third was as far as he would get, as Tim Byrdak came in and struck out Constanza and Bourn.
  • Andres Torres came up limp after running down Pastornicky’s ball and was removed from the game. The Mets have an astonishing lack of depth at just about every position, and if Torres is down, the offense could suffer greatly.

Box score here. See y’all Saturday.


Braves Futures Game Recap

Now that was fun.

The Braves took on the Future Stars in Atlanta’s first ever Futures game, which I would describe as soggy. The game had it all: good looks at young guys, Bobby Cox back in the dugout, and some good old fashioned offense.

Here’s a quick recap:

The Future Stars were dressed in their respective club’s road jerseys, which gave the squad the feel of a little league team at their first practice. It was cute, until they started beating the Braves.

In the first, Matt Lipka worked a walk out of Mike Minor (who started for the Braves) and came around to score on a dribbler by TerdoslavichSean Gilmartin got the nod for the Future Stars and retired the Braves 1-2-3 in the first before a rough introduction to Dan Uggla in the second, who tied up the game with a solo shot. Still, Gilmartin got a chance to talk to the CSS broadcast team and sounded poised and ready to be challenged at the next level. Keep an eye on that young man.

David Hale came on to pitch for the Future Stars in the bottom of the third and worked himself into a jam. But Hale lucked out, and Prado crushed one right at Brandon Drury at first for a double play.

In the fourth, we got our first look at Livan Hernandez in a Braves jersey. Hernandez hasn’t appeared in relief since his very first season in the majors with the 1996 Florida Marlins, but he will primarily come out of the pen for the Braves in the long relief/mop-up role.

Matt Chaffee looked sharp for the Futures as he struck out the side in the fourth, but not before Freddie Freeman could show off his wheels by swiping second.

It was a sloppy evening defensively for both sides, as a Freeman throwing error in the first allowed Lipka to advance to third, and a bad pickoff attempt by David Ross in the fifth put the Future Stars back on top.

The big leaguers broke it open in the fifth, as the wheels came off for JR Graham. A Michael Bourn double scored Francisco, a Prado triple scored Constanza (who pinch ran for Bourn), and a McCann double scored Durango (who pinch ran for Prado). When the dust settled, the Braves were up 4-3.

The rain started coming down heavily in the sixth, making poor Adam Milligan look silly on a pop fly. That’s all the baseball the Braves would get in, as the bad weather put an early end to the Futures game.

It was good to get my first look at some of the promising future Braves and to see some familiar faces like Terdoslavich and Bethancourt on the other side of the diamond. I’ll be looking forward to next year’s game, but until then, opening day is just hours away.


Francisco…that’s a fun name

Braves swap JJ Hoover for Juan Francisco

Author’s note: I was going to write an article summarizing the weekend. Then the Braves traded for Francisco. Then they made some major roster adjustments. Then the signed Chad Durbin. I guess I have some work to do.

On Sunday, the Braves finalized a deal with the Cincinatti Reds to send young arm JJ Hoover to Cincinatti for third baseman Juan Francisco. Let me start by saying I love this trade, and I’m excited to see Francisco in a Braves jersey. Here’s why:

Braves Juan FranciscoThis kid can flat out hit the ball, as evidenced by this Paul Bunyan-style home run he let fly out of Great American Ball Park last September (seriously, watch this video). He’s also known to have an excellent arm, which will come in handy while filling in for Chipper over at third base (which, let’s be honest, could be for more than a few games). His numbers hold up as well at .286/.317/.502 for his minor league career, including 112 home runs and 419 RBI’s. He’s had limited opportunities at the major league level, appearing in 81 games over the last three seasons and producing a respectable .284/.331/.450 slash. On another club, Francisco may have already gotten an opportunity to play, but he’s been stuck behind Scott Rolen on the Red’s depth chart (I wonder if he’s met Chipper yet…).

On the flipside, his range is below average and he’s not too swift, adding another heavy-footed runner to a middle of the order that already features McCann, Freeman, and at times, Hinske (better keep the oxygen tank nearby in the dugout). Additionally, he has a bit of a personality issue, showing up to camp overweight and failing to properly rehab an old injury this offseason. Hopefully, the change of scenery will help.

This deal makes a lot of sense for the Braves. JJ Hoover showed a lot of potential in the minor leagues, posting a career 25-19 record with a 3.14 ERA, but with the laundry list of young arms ahead of him, he wasn’t likely to get a real shot at becoming a big league regular any time soon. The trade benefits both clubs, as the Reds get a promising young arm and the Braves provide some insurance for the injury-prone Chipper Jones over at third. Francisco also poses a potential option for the future at third base, and if he keeps mashing like he has in the past, I see no reason why he shouldn’t be manning the hot corner for seasons to come.

The only downside I can see to this deal is that it likely forces Drew Sutton off the roster, which is too bad because he certainly earned a spot on the big club this spring. From a practical standpoint, Sutton provides much more versatility in the field, but Francisco will likely provide a better bat off the bench and more permanent solution at third.

We’ll get a look at him in the future’s game tonight. And just for good measure:


What Can We Expect from Jason Heyward in 2012?

Atlanta Braves

There's one for the scrapbook.

That first swing changed everything. You know the one. Opening day 2010. In his first major league at bat, Heyward sent a three-run bomb out to right, confirming the hype and permanently raising the bar for all future expectations that would surround the young star. His 2010 campaign was nothing short of stellar, as Heyward posted a .277/.393/.456 slash, started the All-Star game, and finished second behind Buster Posey in an exciting NL Rookie of the Year race. It was the year of the J-Hey Kid.

2011 was not quite as kind. Plagued by injuries and a bit of clubhouse drama, Heyward saw his numbers drop dramatically to .227/.319/.387 (that’s a very considerable difference of .050/.074/.069, for those of you keeping score at home). He lost playing time to the plucky Jose Constanza. He lost the his elite status. He lost the confidence of some fair-weather fans.

But none of this is news. Heyward’s story is well-documented, scrutinized by analysts, and blown up in the blogosphere a million times over (so a million and one couldn’t hurt, right?). Cutting through the noise, there’s only one real question that matters: what does the future hold for Jason Heyward? Will 2012 be reminiscent of his rookie campaign, or could his sophomore slump continue into season three?

There’s some real disagreement by the peanut gallery regarding Heyward’s spring performance. On one hand, a .190 batting average puts him in a category that most Atlanta fans reserve for Nate McLouth and Jesse Chavez. On the other, some reports say he’s “regaining his power stroke,”  and that “scouts are seeing improvement.”  He’s hit rockets that don’t seem to find holes. He’s also pounded balls right into the ground in classic 2011 J-Hey fashion.

Frustration

Heyward's spring frustrations revolve around the strikeout.

Hitting .190 in spring training? Not a big deal. What could be a cause for concern, however, are the 18 strikeouts and just 4 walks he’s accrued in 63 at bats. That’s a strikeout every 3.5 plate appearances, and a 4.5 K:BB ratio. Those numbers are not good. Here’s why:

2010 Heyward was lauded for his patience and approach. He was selective and discerning, walking 91 times en route to a .393 OBP. His K:BB ratio was 1.41.

2011 Heyward was a different story. His bad wrist elongated his swing, and he developed a reputation for being vulnerable to inside pitches. Pitchers came after him rather than pitching around him, and he began to press, chasing pitches we didn’t see him go after in 2010. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) dropped .075, a good indication he wasn’t hitting balls as hard. His K:BB ratio was 1.82, which was certainly not the worst in the league but constituted a significant step backward.

The point I want to make here is that a high K:BB could be the first signs of trouble for a hitter like Heyward, who is expected to hit for a high average and drive balls to all fields. The litmus test, in my opinion, will be how Heyward handles inside pitches. Look for opposing pitchers to challenge him inside early in the year. A healthy, locked-in Heyward pulls these balls with power. Opponents compensate by tempering their approach and pitching to both sides of the plate, giving JHey an opportunity to hit to all fields and awakening the Heyward of 2010.

Long story short: he hits the inside pitch, he gets his mojo back.

Other things on his plate…

“Unless something happens before we break camp, we don’t really have a true [backup] center fielder. I think Heyward may be better than Constanza if [Constanza] makes the team. I think Durango could do it, but if he doesn’t make the team then I think Heyward is your next choice. If [Jordan] Parraza makes the team, he’s more of a corner [outfield] guy. So it just gives us options and looking ahead, if something happens you feel comfortable Jason could do it.”

Heyward last saw actual playing time in center in 2009, where he played just 11 games there between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi. Constanza, Durango, and Parraz are all more experienced at the position (although none are excellent defensive options). Let’s hope Bourn stays healthy.

  • Another obvious difference between 2010 and 2011 is the team management. During his All-Star season, he was led by future Hall of Famer Bobby Cox. Last year he had Fredi at the wheel. I’m certainly not pinning his dramatic change in production on management, but that’s a resource I’m sure Jason sorely missed in 2011. Chipper is unquestionably the team leader, and hopefully he can make his presence felt in the clubhouse before hanging up the spikes at the end of the year and handing over the reigns to a relatively young squad. At 21, Heyward is being asked to grow up pretty quickly.

What do you think? Which JHey will we see in 2012?


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