The Braves have lost three of their last four series (eight of 12 games) to drop into a three-way tie for first place in the National League East with Washington and Miami, neither of which have been very good, either.
This usually is when everybody picks a side in the world of sports’ debate extremes. It’s either: “The Braves are doomed because they stink, and I said so!” Or, “The Braves are golden because they’ve managed to hang in there with slumping players and … well, you just wait!”
I’ve never made it a secret that the Braves’ roster construction and flawed hitting has bothered me, and it tends to catch up with them down the stretch and in the playoffs. But since the team is 61 games into a 162-game season and things can swing either way, here’s fodder for the optimists and pessimists.
• For the optimists: The Braves (32-29) are only three games over .500. But there’s only one team in the National League (San Francisco) and two in the majors (also Oakland) playing .600-plus baseball, so there’s no reason to think they’re about to be blown off the map.
• For the pessimists: They started 17-7. They’re 15-22 since. They just lost two out of three to last-place Arizona and recently dropped four straight to a Boston team that had lost 10 straight. There’s your reality.
• For the optimists: The Washington Nationals have shown themselves to be a one-year wonder. So the Braves will win the East, which means they’re in the playoffs, and then anything can happen.
• For the pessimists: The Nationals (32-29) are treading water despite an inordinate number of injuries. Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Denard Span, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister are among those who've spent time on the disabled list. Are we supposed to expect they’ll play at a 32-29 pace if and when they finally get healthy? (Notable: I should add that Washington actually has won seven of its last nine.)
• For the optimists: The Braves’ staff ERA of 3.02 ranks third best in the majors, far better than expected after going through Tommy John Surgery Hell before the season even started.
• For the pessimists: The bullpen has come unraveled of late, starter-turned-temp-reliever Alex Wood hasn’t fared well in the bullpen and the team is counting on the return of Jordan Walden from a hamstring injury to straight things out. File under things you didn’t expect to hear this season: “Well, as soon as we get Jordan Walden back…"
• For the optimists: Jason Heyward, the most important hitter in the Braves’ lineup because he bats leadoff, has added 50 points to his average since dropping to .206 on May 10. When he is getting on base, the offense is far more productive and the team is less dependent on hitting home runs.
• For the pessimists:The lineup is often criticized for striking out too much (the Braves have the eighth-most in the majors at 529) and reaching baseball infrequently (the majors’ 26th ranked on-base percentage at .302). Now we can’t even count on the big bop. Notwithstanding three homers Sunday, the Braves rank 12th in the majors in homers and 19th in slugging percentage.
• For the optimists: B.J. Upton is 0-for-14 with five strikeouts in his last three games. But he’s not quite the mess at the plate that he was earlier in the year (and last season). Prior to his three games, he had hit safely in 10 of 12 games: 14 for 47, .298.
• For the pessimists: The guy makes $75 million. He’s hitting .192 in 183 games as a Brave. Is this where I celebrate a 12-game sample size?
• For the optimists: Rookie second baseman Tommy La Stella is hitting .400 (12 for 30) in nine games since being recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett. This could prompt the Braves to soon release Dan Uggla.
• For the pessimists: Great – so Uggla can sign back with Miami or another National League club for the minimum and probably return to the hitter he was before he came to Atlanta and haunt the Braves down the stretch. History: He hit .263 with the Marlins, .210 with the Braves. He had an .838 OPS (on-base and slugging percentage) with the Marlins, .711 with the Braves. He had 33 homers and 105 RBI in his final season with the Marlins, two homers, 10 RBI and is on the bench in possibly his last season with the Braves.