PHILADELPHIA -- Watching it rain here in Philly and thinking again about last night’s game and how, no matter how long you watch baseball, there will invariably be at least a few things every season that you’ve never seen before, things that leave you shaking your head at the splendid unpredictability of this great game. Like last night's come-from-behind (twice) win for the Braves, capped by Dan Uggla's ninth-inning grand slam.
By the way, before we go any further, do you realize that after losing the season opener at Milwaukee, the Braves are 9-3 with a 2.75 ERA in their past 12 games. They’ve hit a modest .253 in that dozen-game stretch, but have 20 homers including 14 in the past five games.
It’s easy to let one bad series (the Mets series in ATL last week) cloud the overall judgment. But so far, even the most difficult-to-please Braves fans would have to say a 9-4 start to the season, first place in the NL East, and a majors-leading 1.80 ERA from a pieced-together starting rotation is pretty good stuff, no?
There are concerns, no doubt. The bullpen being at the top of that list. And that’s not even taking into account Craig Kimbrel, who has a sore shoulder. Assuming the Braves and Kimbrel are right and this is just typical soreness that other relievers, the non-dominant closer kind, would get and we might otherwise not even know about – because they’d be held out a few games to rest without raising an eyebrow among outside observers – then Kimbrel will be back doing his thing later this week.
(If Kimbrel’s injury is more serious – well, we’ll not even speculate on that. Suffice to say, it would change everything.)
No, we’re talking about the setup part of the ‘pen that’s causing some concerns. Jordan Walden and now Luis Avilan have not been the dominant relievers they were for most of last season (and Avilan for almost all of 2012 as well), and Eric O’Flaherty is gone. Jonny Venters won’t be back until late May or June, and no one knows what level he’ll perform at once he returns.
Lefty Ian Thomas has been impressive, but he’s a rookie with almost no experience and probably isn’t the ideal guy to thrust into tied or one-run games as a bridge between the starters and Kimbrel.
David Carpenter is solid, but the Braves can’t use him every night or he might be on fumes by August.
The Braves’ bullpen ERA climbed to 4.75 after Avilan gave up five runs and blew a 5-1 lead in Monday’s 9-6 Braves win. That bullpen ERA ranks 20th in the majors, from a team that’s been at or near the top in bullpen ERA for the past several years.
The Braves need their bullpen to remain a stalwart component, a major team strength. Because as great as the patchwork rotation has performed so far, it’s not realistic to think that will continue indefinitely. Even with the likely return of Mike Minor next week, the Braves starters are due to have a few more mediocre or worse starts than they’ve had so far.
And on those nights when they do, they’re going to need the bullpen to hold it down for 3-5 innings. Lately, that hasn’t looked like a sure thing, by any means.
So they’ll need to either have some guys in the current ‘pen to step it up, and/or hope for a boost from a starter or two moved to the ‘pen when Minor and Gavin Floyd return from the DL (Floyd is probably at least 2-3 weeks from returning). And if neither of those developments occurs, then at some point the Braves might need to make a move and add a reliever.
One thing to remember: They signed lefty Luis Perez to a free-agent contract just over a week ago, and the former Blue Jays reliever could prove to be a good pickup by this summer, once he’s completely recovered from having scar tissue removed via arthroscopic surgery in January.
• Last night: Five homers. Two apiece by Evan Gattis and Uggla, with Uggla’s slam in the ninth proving to be the improbable difference maker.
We say improbable for a couple of reasons: He’d already been part of the back-to-back-to-back jacks along with Gattis and Simmons to start the eighth inning, when those three solo homers gave the Braves a 5-1 lead. Uggla hit .146 with four homers and 48 strikeouts against lefties in 2013, and according to ESPN Stats & Info, he was in a 1-for-45 slog against lefties before his ninth-inning at-bat against Phillies lefty Jake Diekman.
Uggla crushed an 0-1 slider, sending it about 20 rows into the left-center bleachers, turning a 6-5 deficit into a 9-6 lead. And it wasn’t even his first go-ahead grand slam against Philly – he hit a walkoff slam off Tom Gordon on June 11, 2008, when Uggla was slugging for the Marlins.
“Oh, man, you just kind of hope you get something – you hope he doesn’t throw a strike, or you hope that he leaves something up, because he’s got such great stuff," Uggla said of his approach against Diekman. "He throws so hard, you just go up and try to get your foot down and put the barrel on it... It was a slider. He threw a fastball first pitch and I was kind of, like, oh, man, this is going to be tough. But then he threw a slider, and luckily I just got enough of it.”
Don’t look now, but Uggla is 4-for-8 with two homers and seven RBIs in his past two games, after going 6-for-37 (.162) with two doubles, three RBIs, one walk and 11 strikeouts in his first 10 games.
With their five homers Monday, the Braves raised their total to a gaudy 14 in the past five games and 20 for the season, second in the majors to the Angels (21). No other team has more than 18 entering Tuesday.
Oh, and by the way: This group of Braves hitters, whom we once thought might threaten major league strikeout records, is actually ranked in the bottom half of the NL in K's as of today with 113. That’s just ninth most in the league, and five NL teams have more than 120 including the Mets with a league-high 132.
• ATL vs. Philly: The Braves are 23-12 with a 3.31 ERA in 35 games against the Phillies going back to July 2012. It’s not to the level of recent supremacy the Braves have displayed against the Nationals, but it’s pretty impressive, given the difficulties the Braves had against the Phillies for about a half-decade or more previously.
The Braves banged out 45 homers and scored 175 runs in those 35 games, while the Phillies had 34 homers and 120 runs, along with a 4.43 ERA.
• Gattis madness: With two homers Monday night, Evan Gattis has consecutive two-homers games at Citizens Bank Park, where he hit two off Cole Hamels on Sept. 8 including the longest homer in the majors last season (486 feet to center field) and the longest by a Brave in the past nine seasons. All four of his hits in five career games at Philly have been homers.
But wait, there’s more.
Gattis is now 10-for-25 with five homers and 10 RBIs in his past six games against the Phillies. He has half as many homers (four) in five games (20 at-bats) at Citizens Bank Park as he has in 54 games at Turner Field, where he’s hit eight in 174 at-bats.
Gattis has slugged .800 in five games at Philly, his highest slugging percentage at any ballpark where he’s played more than two games. (He has a .466 slugging percentage at Turner Field).
Meanwhile, Freddie Freeman had his nine-game hitting streak snapped Monday night, and it was appropriate that it be snapped in Philly: The big Braves 1B has only five homers in 60 games against the Phillies (half as many as he he’s hit against the Mets) and three homers and a .351 slugging percentage in 30 games (111 at-bats) at Citizens Bank Park.
Interestingly, Freeman also has no homers and a .294 slugging percentage in nine games (34 at-bats) at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. However, at Coors Field, Freeman has raked for a .349 average and nine extra-base hits (four homers) in 10 games, for a .767 slugging percentage in 43 at-bats.
One more thing about Gattis. After going 1-for-8 with three strikeouts in the first two games of the season, he is 9-for-25 (.360) with two doubles, three home runs and six RBIs in his past seven games.
Braves lineup Tuesday
- Heyward 9
- BUpton 8
- Freeman 3
- JUpton 7
- Gattis 2
- Uggla 4
- Johnson 5
- Simmons 6
- Hale 1
• Facing Cliff Lee: If the rain holds off and we get a game in tonight, the Braves and David Hale will face veteran lefty Cliff Lee. And if there’s anyone who could cool their hot bats, it’s Lee.
Cliff Lee has 113 strikeouts and seven walks in 99 2/3 innings against the Braves. Seriously, the man has 113 strikeouts and seven walks against them.
Lee is a relatively modest 7-6 with a 2.80 ERA in 15 starts against them, but Lee is 6-4 with a 1.79 ERA in the past 11 of those starts, going back to May 2011.
He has 96 strikeouts, six walks and a .199 opponents’ average in 80 1/3 innings of those 11 starts, including games with strikeout totals of 16 (in seven innings), 11, 10 and 13. He struck out 13 with no walks in eight innings of his most recent start against the Braves on Sept. 27, when he he limited them to three hits and one run -- and still took the loss. It was the fifth time the Phillies scored one or no runs while he was in the game in his past 11 starts against the Braves.
Lee has a 5.50 ERA and .358 opponents’ average in three starts this season. He got rocked by the Rangers on opening day this season, allowing 11 hits and eight runs in five innings. In two starts since then – at Wrigley Field and home against the Brewers -- he’s allowed 18 hits, three runs and no walks with 14 strikeouts in 13 innings.
Oh, and the Braves aren’t the only team against which he has some absurdly good numbers. Against the Giants, Lee is 5-0 with a 0.88 ERA in six starts, with 42 strikeouts and four walks in 51 innings. Against the Dodgers, he’s 2-2 with a 1.70 ERA in seven starts and has 55 strikeouts with 10 walks in 53 innings.
This guy has some ridiculous strikeout-to-walks ratios, including 26 K’s and 2 walks in 26 1/3 innings vs. Colorado.
Chris Johnson, expected to return to the lineup after being benched for two games, is 6-for-23 with two homers against Lee. Uggla is 7-for-27 (.189) with 17 strikeouts against Lee, but does have two homers against the lefty. Catchers Gattis and Gerald Laird are a combined 2-for-26 with 13 K’s against Lee, including 2-for-20 with nine strikeouts for Laird.
As for Hale, the second of his four major league starts – and his only decision so far -- came against the Phillies on Sept. 26, when he got the win after allowing seven hits and one run in six innings, with no walks and five strikeouts.
Hale had allowed only one run in 16 innings of three big-league starts before giving up five hits and four runs (three earned) in a career-low 4-1/3 innings Thursday against the Mets. He got no decision in that Braves loss.
Jimmy Rollins is 3-for-3 against Hale, while Cody Asche (1-for-3) is the only other Phillie with a hit against him.
• Still no ‘K’ in Simba: He tripled and homered for the second consecutive game Monday, which made Andrelton Simmons 11-for-29 (.379) with five extra-base hits and five RBIs in his past seven games. He had also tripled and homered Sunday against the Nats.
He still hasn’t struck out in 45 plate appearances this season, easily the most PAs in the majors without a strikeout. Simmons leads the NL with a .467 average (7-for-15) on two-strike counts. He’s also ninth in the NL with a .438 average (7-for-16) after the sixth inning, while Jason Heyward is a league-worst 0-for-17 after the sixth inning.
• I'll close with one from the great Nick Cave, which you can hear by clicking here. Do it, I think you'll be glad you did.
“NATURE BOY” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds