Saturday, May 31, 2014

Braves end lackluster May looking to recapture momentum of April

Back on April 26, I wrote how I could not relax even though the Atlanta Braves had begun the baseball season on a tremendous hot streak.  The Braves ended April with a 17-9 record and a lead in the National League Eastern Division.  However, the success was built on a remarkable hot streak by the pitching staff and covered the sins of an offense that was inconsistent at best.  At some point something had to give, and unfortunately, we saw some of that in May.

The Braves completed May with a 13-16 record for the month.  The good news is the team is still in first place by two games, but bad times could continue if more offensive consistency cannot be found.

The team's strength is its pitching staff, but there was no way it could continue the high level of work it produced in April.  The team still leads the league in Earned Run Average, but some performances plateaued.  Julio Teheran continues to do excellent work (5-3 record, 1.83 ERA), but Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang both came down to earth a little.  Before today's start, Santana had gone 0-2 over a three-start period with an ERA of 9.00.  As for Harang, he had a few bumpy starts, but his ERA remains a solid 3.29.

However, as I previously wrote, this team's problem is not its pitching.  It's just that the pitching cannot continue to cover for a frustrating offense.  The problems remain the same.  Second base is a flat-out disaster.  Four people have played there (Dan Uggla, Tyler Pasornicky, Ramiro Pena and the recently called up Tommy La Stella).  Three of those players have batting averages slightly below or above .200.  As for La Stella, it is his turn to see if he can provide some offensive punch from that position.  Today, the results were good as he had two hits, but as the last game of the Red Sox series showed on Thursday, his defense is likely a work in progress.

Additionally, B.J. Upton's bat remains a problem.  He adds a lot to the team defensively in center field, but he is only batting .216.  My expectations for him have become so tempered that I would be happy if he could get his average up to .230 and keep it there.  If he did that, I think he would be able to hit 15-20 home runs with the same amount of stolen bases.

There are bright spots on offense.  Justin Upton is hitting .301 with 13 home runs and Freddie Freeman is being Freddie Freeman.  Lead-off hitter Jason Heyward has found his stroke the last couple of weeks and has his average up to .246.  If he can keep improving, he can be the threat we desperately need at the top of the line up.

As we enter the season's third month, the Braves are fortunate to be playing in the league's weakest division. None of the teams have shown a sign of putting it all together and getting on a sustained hot streak.  If this continues, the divisional winner might be able to do it with only 85-88 wins.  And if a team from this division wants to make the playoffs, it will have to win the East.  At this point anyway, it doesn't look like the division will be good enough to produce a wild card team.

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