You can’t win the division in April, but you can lose it. After starting 0-4 against the hapless Mets and Astros, the Braves were in danger of doing the latter.
In winning 14 of their last 19 games, the Braves have made people forget all about the early season swoon and brought about memories of the team that was steamrolling towards the Wild Card last year.
This team is hot right now, and it’s not a fluke. Splitting with Pittsburgh isn’t really impressive (especially when you recall that winning the finale would’ve given the Braves the NL East lead), but between the Arizona destruction and Dodger series there is obviously talent and depth in the Atlanta dugout.
The Pirates series wasn’t the best; they gave up lots of runs to a bad team in a finale. But even the split with the Succos couldn’t dampen what is the first successful – or at least winning – first month for the Braves since 2007. It’s just the kind of start this team needed after the events of last September.
Without further ado, let’s hand out some awards for the first month of the season…
While you can’t discount the impact Bourn has at the top of the line-up and in center (both of which have been huge), here’s what I find most telling:
Jason Heyward: .263/.354/.525 to .273/.341/.442
Martin Prado: .252/.295/.378 to .271/.351/.435
Freddie Freeman: .217/.314/.380 to .273/.302/.489
Dan Uggla: .194/.250/.380 to .271/.361/.424
Those are the batting average/on-base/slugging splits for those four guys. The first are from this point in the season last year (pre-Bourn) compared to the same point this year (with Bourn). Four of the most important hitters on the team are better with Bourn leading off. They see more pitches because teams can’t afford to let him get a free base thanks to a walk. Having him on first itching to take off for second is a major distraction for opposing pitchers and having him around has raised the ceiling for Freeman and Prado from ‘solid players’ to ‘potential stars and solid contributors on a team that could win the division’.
Last year’s team was constantly playing at a disadvantage with no speed or consistency from the lead-off spot. Not a problem this year. As long as Bourn keeps hitting .337 from the lead-off spot, this team will be in good shape.
While it’s tempting to choose the first two D’Back games (combined 19-3 score) or even the second Dodgers game (4-3 win, Chipper homers on his 40th birthday), the choice has to be the ninth-inning rally in the finale against LA. Not only did you have Freddie G. pull the right strings in the bullpen, not only did you get workman-like efforts from Uggla and Freeman (two hits apiece), you had a game the Braves could have easily just rolled over on.
Think about it: it’s April, you’re playing one of the hottest teams in the league on the road and as soon as the game is over, you fly across the country on a red-eye. Few would’ve blamed them for saying, “Ah, it’s a long year and we’ll get ‘em next time.”
Instead, the Braves went to work on the comeback, getting on in ways conventional (line drive single from Freeman) and unconventional (infield single by Brian McCann that ricocheted off Javy Guerra’s foot). At that point, things looked pretty good.
Uggla, Chipper and Heyward then dropped in back-to-back-to-back singles to win it — that is to say, three of the guys that were struggling at this point last season picked the team up with clutch hits playing one of the best teams in the league this year. Chipper got the game-winner in his last LA plate appearance (unless these two meet again in the play-offs, which is distinctly possible), adding another chapter in what’s set up to be a season of storybook endings for he and the Braves.
Yep, ahead of Beachy and Minor. Kimbrel’s numbers aren’t exactly overpowering (although eight saves in eight opportunities is nothing to sneeze at), but his stuff has been. He’s striking out almost two batters an appearance, which doesn’t sound great until you remember he only faces three batters most of the time. He’s third in the league in K’s/9, tops among closers.
One concern: His BABIP is high (.416), but considering he’s not allowing many balls to be put in play at all that’s not bad; a couple of one-out bloops can hurt that number. Once that regresses back to normal, he could be what many consider ‘unhittable’.
My favorite part of the Kimbrel experience is the surprise registered by everyone when he allows a baserunner. I don’t remember a Braves closer performing on that level since Mark Wohlers lost his fastball (quite literally).
Player in a Supporting Role: Jonny Venters
You could make the argument that he’s pitching better than Kimbrel. I won’t because that would be silly, but the numbers are out there (no earned runs allowed in nine appearances, 17 K’s in 8.2 innings pitched).
Duh. In fact, there are so many people are kicking JJ right now that I’m going to leave him alone. I’ll be tickled if he comes back strong and unsurprised if he doesn’t; that’s all I’ll say.
Our first match-up with the Phitin’ Phils in 2012 is a bit lessened; at three and a half games out, with a losing record and missing some of their most important horses (no Ryan Howard, no Chase Utley, probably no Cliff Lee) dampens this three-gamer a bit. No Roy Halladay is another stroke of good fortune for the Bravos – they also missed facing Clayton Kershaw while in Los Angeles. Never seeing anyone’s ace isn’t the best thing for the Braves long-term, but wins are the most important thing at this point.
After that, the Braves embark on a 10-day roadie to Colorado, Chicago and St. Louis. I say it’s wonderful that the Bravos are heading to Colorado at this time – when swinging bats this hot, the thin air and shallow staff at Coors Field is the best way I can think of to keep it going. And who doesn’t want to see the Cubs? Could be a big week for our Tomahawk Heroes.
About Colby Wilson
Colby Wilson is a free-lance columnist for the Clarksville Sports Network. He enjoys some of the finer things in life, but is at his most content lounging on the couch watching sports. If you like what he wrote, let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org; if you didn’t, keep it to yourself, okay?
Web Site: http://www.clarksvillesportsnetwork
SectionsAtlanta Braves, Columnist, Featured Story, MLB, Sports
TopicsAtlanta Braves, Baseball, Braves, Clarksville, Clarksville Sports Network, Colby Wilson, Craig Kimbrel, Dan Uggla, Freddie Freeman, Jair Jurjjens, Jason Heyward, Jonny Venters, Martin Prado, Michael Bourn, MLB, Tennessee