What of these Braves?
No sport celebrates its traditions quite like baseball. And baseball tradition holds that Memorial Day marks the proper time to evaluate a new season.
The Braves awoke on Monday morning having completed exactly one-third of their schedule. Their record stood at 30-24, putting the Braves on pace to win 90 games.
That pace would keep the Braves in the playoff hunt well into September.
It’s a nice, modest start for the new regime under Fredi Gonzalez. After watching The Bobby Cox Show for the past two decades, those expecting radical change were deeply disappointed.
Those hoping for a continuation of the formula that worked so well for Cox sighed with relief. Gonzalez has given no cause for alarm. While we likely haven’t exclaimed that the guy is a genius, neither have we moaned that he’s an idiot.
We got the seamless transition that Braves management anticipated. To their credit, Gonzalez was their sole choice to succeed Cox, and did so with the blessing of clubhouse veterans. Gonzalez stepped to the helm without rocking the boat, and he has his club playing nice ball despite not hitting a lick.
This team has won with pitching and defense, and that’s a proven formula in Atlanta. Clearly part of the seamless transition under Gonzalez is winning this way.
The Phillies garnered the offseason attention by amassing their Starting Rotation For The Ages, the greatest assemblage of talent in one place north of the Miami Heat. Yet the Braves rotation has pitched every bit as well, and better head-to-head.
Will the Braves rotation hold up over the course of the long season? Tim Hudson had back issues entering Monday’s start, Brandon Beachy has oblique issues, and Derek Lowe has head issues. Can you name any other pitcher who can pitch like an ace when he’s on his game, and like he needs to go back to Double-A when he isn’t?
Will Lowe put together another awesome stretch drive this September? And will the price be another summer of five inning, five run starts?
Oddly, the major cause for concern might be Jair Jurrjens. Simply put, he’s been the best pitcher in baseball. He’s fashioned a start worthy of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, or even Buzz Capra in 1974.
Sunday night, facing the Reds and their ace Johnny Cueto, on national television with a big, lively crowd at Turner Field, Jurrjens rocked again. He gave up a home run to Jay Bruce (who hasn’t?) over eight innings to win, 2-1. He’s 7-1 with a 1.51 era. Can you say Cy Young?
So why the concern? He can’t possibly keep this up for four more months, can he?
The same concern rises in the Braves bullpen. This crew has been outstanding. Even the only poor performer to date, Scott Linebrink, seems to be coming around. But are we seeing too much of a good thing?
Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, and Craig Kimbrell are all on pace to pitch over 80 innings. When every inning pitched comes with the game on the line, it takes a toll. Mentally and physically.
The staff has been buoyed by the Braves’ solid defense. Alex Gonzalez has been the flawless, steady shortstop we thought we were getting last summer. Freddie Freeman has been a Wes Parker around first, and Dan Uggla’s defense has been better than advertised.
But who would have imagined that we’d be raving about Martin Prado’s play in left? He single-handedly put Sunday’s game in the win column for Jurrjens with a two-run homer, and a dazzling throw home that cut down the tying run in the eighth inning.
Yes, these Braves pitch and catch well enough to contend. Will they hit enough not to waste what they do well?
You keep thinking that Uggla will work his way out of his slump. He always has, but he’s never been down this long before. If he comes around, that cures most of the Braves’ offensive woes.
Jason Heyward hasn’t been healthy for a year now, and shoulder injuries are never good things. But I can see Eric Hinske stepping up and remaining a big offensive force. He’s a gamer.
And you have to like what Jordan Schafer has done in his brief stay at the top of the lineup. He gives the Braves a semblance of speed, and for a team on pace to amass 27 steals all season, any added speed will go a long way toward igniting the offense.
It won’t take much offense for this Braves team to be a big winner. But it will take more than they’ve shown so far.