The Braves sailed through the first half of their season with a pitching staff worthy of a World Series winner.
They also featured a lineup worthy of the Dead Ball Era.
Their ultimate destiny shall be determined by the interplay between these diametrically opposed forces over the season’s second half.
The Braves finished June with a tidy 47-35 record, second best in the National League. They posted a 34-20 record in May and June, which is a 102-win pace. That rivals the Red Sox (35-19) for baseball’s best mark over that time.
The Braves trailed the Phillies by four games as June ended, but they enjoyed a three-game lead in the wild card race. Surely, the Diamondbacks and Pujols-less Cards don’t strike fear into the Braves’ hearts.
The Brewers? We saw them in action against a good team last week, reduced to quivering jellies in the big ballpark in the Bronx. The Yankees outscored Milwaukee 22-4 during the three-game sweep.
The Phillies are quite another matter. They’ve got that swagger that the Braves had during their great run. They’ll win some games they shouldn’t just because they think they should.
They’ve lost Roy Oswald and Joe Blanton from their rotation, and Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge from their bullpen. Yet there they were, ending June with the best pitching staff in baseball. The only team with an earned run average lower than the Braves.
Only the Phillies could lose two closers, and still have an Antonio Bastardo available. Before closing out the Red Sox last week, Bastardo had compiled a nifty 0.96 ERA in 28 innings.
If the first half repeats itself, we’d expect to see the Phillies and Braves squaring off in a beautifully pitched NLCS come October.
But the beauty of baseball is its unpredictability. That’s what gave us the ’91 Braves, the ’69 Mets, and even the Miracle Braves of 1914. That creates the intrigue that keeps us watching as the story unfolds on a daily basis over the summer. We know what we’ve seen, and what we hope to see. We can only guess at what we will see.
The educated guess is that the Braves will hit better in the second half. The reality is, if they don’t, their weak bats will destroy their wonderful pitching staff.
We already saw Jonny Venters stagger last week. Venters certainly spoiled us over the first 78 games. He was as close to a sure thing as baseball provides. Then came two rough outings.
Even more ominous was what manager Fredi Gonzalez told David O’Brien of the AJC last week. Gonzalez had planned to give Venters a day off against Seattle if the Braves had scored one more run. But he couldn’t trust Scott Linebrink to pitch the eighth inning with a 5-1 lead.
Since the Braves’ bats aren’t going to pound anyone into submission — they averaged under four runs per game over the season’s first half — it’s easy to envision Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, and Craig Kimbrell sucking wind with dead-tired arms come September. If they make it that far.
Even worse, that might necessitate the recall of Jairo Asencio from Gwinnett.
The starters don’t have it easy, either. Every pitch is vital when there’s no margin for error. The pressure is constant when you can lose by giving up a couple of runs. It’s tough to pitch knowing you’ve got to be nearly perfect.
The starter most affected? Derek Lowe, whose head has gotten in his way throughout his career. He’s won just once in his last nine starts, and remains the only starter with an ERA over four.
Will the Dead Ball Braves ever hit enough to save this staff? That’s the million dollar question. Or World Series question.
Everyone seems to be counting heavily on Martin Prado’s return, but he’s been out a long time, and he had an odd injury. It might take him a while to be a sparkplug again.
Jason Heyward hasn’t bounced back from last year’s injury. Will he ever hit like he did last April and May? The longer he hits .230 without power, the more doubt he casts.
Chipper Jones looks like he’s gone about as far as he can go on one knee. You know things are serious if he’s moved out of the third spot in the lineup. He needs to take three weeks, get it fixed and come back with some power.
Brooks Conrad’s bat has livened up; let him man third in the interim, even if balls hit in his vicinity become an adventure.
The Braves cannot imagine life without Brian McCann in the lineup. He’s done nothing but carry the offense. Along with Freddie Freeman, who has exceeded rookie expectations.
But not even Ruth and Gehrig could carry a lineup featuring the slumping Alex Gonzalez and Dan Uggla, and the punchless Jordan Schafer and Nate McLouth. Toss in the slumping Eric Hinske off the bench, and you’re wasting lots of good pitching.
Imagine if they’d all heat up at once. The Braves’ pitchers would rival any of their predecessors.
Imagine if they don’t. The Braves might wind up looking more like the ’87 assemblage that amassed a team ERA of 4.63.