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Ashway: Braves first half reveals a mystery team

POSTED: July 1, 2014 6:15 p.m.
 

"Roll up! Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour! Step right this way!"

The Braves season reached its halfway point over the weekend, and what a magical mystery tour indeed!

When Rolling Stone magazine reviewed the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour album back in 1967, included was this quote from John Lennon: "There are only about 100 people in the world who understand our music."

I doubt that many understand these Atlanta Braves.

There’s been some magic involved. The Amazing Kreskin could not have predicted the contributions of Shae Simmons out of the bullpen.

The kid arrived after only one full season of professional baseball, from Double-A Mississippi, no less. Suddenly, no one is wondering when Jonny Venters might make it back. Granted, he’s only pitched 13 innings, but those 13 innings produced 13 strikeouts, a save and a 1.38 earned run average.

And what about Tommy LaStella? The kid from Jersey arrived at the end of May, and all he’s done is keep Tyler Pastornicky in Gwinnett and Dan Uggla on the bench. Both are major contributions.

LaStella hit so well upon being inserted into the Braves lineup, that manager Fredi Gonzalez thought he might be the answer to the Braves leadoff woes.

Not yet. After going 0-for-his duration hitting leadoff, LaStella was back in the bottom third of the lineup over the weekend. All he did was pound out key extra base hits.

How about Aaron Harang? Here’s a guy coming off a 5-12 season in which he recorded a hefty 5.40 ERA. Comparatively, his 7-6, 3.69 through Sunday threatens believability.

Harang, rocked for eight earned runs in five innings against the Phillies on June 18, rebounded with two solid starts. The second, Sunday against those same Phils, saw him allow 11 hits and 2 walks in 7 innings, but only two runs.

"It all comes down to executing that pitch when you really need it," Harang told MLB.com Sunday.

Andrelton Simmons performs magic with his glove on a daily basis. Evan Gattis, Julio Teheran, and Craig Kimbrell have provided abundant magic as well.

Others have provided magical moments, but only to the extent that it remains a mystery why it doesn’t happen more often.

And that pretty much goes for the lineup as a whole. Through Sunday, the Braves ranked 11th among all major league teams in home runs. That is the only key offensive statistic in which the Braves rank in the top half of the 30 clubs.

They’re 16th in total bases, tied for 20th in slugging percentage, 25th in on-base plus slugging percentage, 26th in average and 27th in on-base percentage. They’re 29th in runs scored, and that’s really what it’s all about.

With numbers like those, the mystery is that they’re anywhere near first place, let alone sitting there. The pitching has been good, but not as good as the hitting has been bad.

Freddie Freeman remains a solid presence in the lineup, but we also witnessed him struggle through a rare, lengthy slump. Yet there was Freeman, leading Friday night’s win by knocking in four runs in his first two at bats.

Freeman hit one of only two home runs the Braves hit in Philadelphia, and that was good news for BJ Upton. "This was a heck of a series," Upton told the Associated Press. "We really played well. Nobody really tried to do too much. It was little out of character for us, not hitting a lot of home runs. It all came together for us. Now we just have to keep grinding."

In a lineup of streaky hitters, that can be troublesome. One of the primary frustrations watching this team is the lack of consistent contact, the inability to simply move a runner over a base when the situation requires it.

And now you seek consistency from a lineup with BJ Upton topping it off? Please. But stranger things have happened. That’s baseball.

The odds are that what we’ve seen from this lineup over 82 games is pretty much what we’re going to get. But what if Upton is right? But what if this offense is just now finding itself?

Could happen. Last year, the offense roared to life when Jason Heyward assumed the leadoff position. What if the same thing happens with Heyward assuming the fifth spot in the lineup this year?

The tendency is to look at the Braves first half and see a 17-7 start and a 27-31 record since. That bodes well for nothing.

But the Braves suffered that seven game losing streak from April 29 to May 5 and then went 11-7. They had a wretched 8-14 stretch that began with four losses to the Red Sox and ended with three to the Phillies. Now they’ve just won 8 of 11.

So it’s not like they’ve been consistently mediocre since April. They’ve had two rough spells. Every team does. Have you checked on the Giants lately?

The pitching has been quite good, except for Mike Minor. Might it be about time for him and David Hale to switch places? Ervin Santana has produced in accordance with his career stats, and Alex Wood should have remained in the rotation all along. The bullpen? Fantastic.

In short, this staff will easily support an average offense.

Whether the Braves lineup can muster even that remains a great mystery for the second half of the tour.

 

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