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Atlanta Braves Blog / David O'Brien

Posted: 3:05 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013

Braves in control of NL East; they remember '11 

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By David O'Brien

  PHILADELPHIA – The Braves are riding high on a nine-game winning streak that’s given them a commanding lead in the NL East standings, sitting 11-1/2 games ahead of Washington before the Nats played today, and 15-1/2 games ahead of Phillies entering tonight’s Braves-Phillies series finale on ESPN.

  The winning streak, the mounting home runs, the recent scoring outburst, the lockdown work of a bullpen that’s managed to not skip a beat despite what many of us thought could be devastating early season injuries – all of these factors have helped many folks in Braves Country forget what happened a couple of years ago.

  Or at least push it back into an ugly corner of the mind, where they hope to keep it.

  But even if manager Fredi Gonzalez chooses to keep his responses short these days when asked about The Collapse of September 2011, that doesn’t mean all the players have been told to do the same. They have not. They are free to discuss.

   And since there’s been so much turnover from that team to this one, it really doesn’t come across as picking at scabs when you ask about it. Not at this point, when this group of Braves has seen what this particular team is capable of doing, and how little relevance that epic meltdown in ’11 seems to have to their current situation.

   Actually, if there’s one thing you get when you ask those who were around then what they can take from that and apply to now, it’s a positive response along the lines of what Kris Medlen said after his win Friday against the Phillies.

   “I think something we can learn from is our failure in 2011, and even last year,” Medlen said. “Just finish strong toward the end of the year.”

   Since he was the one who brought it up, I went a little further and asked Medlen specifically about what he and others took from September 2011, when the Braves blew a huge wild-card lead and missed out on the playoffs with a loss on the final day of the season.

 “I think you learn when you fail that hard,” he said. “I just don’t think…” Here he paused, reached for a partition separating his wooden locker stall from the next one over, and knocked on it.

  “Knock on wood, we have a different team, we have a different focus, a different mindset from that year,” he said. “It’s something you learn from, and you don’t really get ahead of yourself, no matter how big your lead gets. Until you’re mathematically there, you just play the damn games and fight till the end.”

  For the record, the situation they were in then, way behind the division-leading Phillies and fighting for the only wild-card spot, was quite a bit different than the one the Braves find themselves in today, when they have a bigger division lead than they had a wild-card lead back then.

   But with the addition of a second wild card last season, and a single-elimination Wild Card game between those two teams to determine which advances to a division series, winning the division is now a lot more important than it was before last season. The Brave found that out quickly last year, when they won the top wild-card berth and then lost to second wild card St. Louis in a home game in Atlanta. Season over. One game. Pfft.

   So, in a sense, today’s situation isn’t entirely different than 2011. The Braves’ division lead is only two games bigger than the wild-card lead they had before that collapse, and there’s a lot more time left this season than there was when the meltdown began. And since it doesn’t look, at least today, like a wild card team will come from the East – Washington is currently fourth in the wild-card standings, 6-1/2 games behind leader St. Louis – then winning the division is important not just to assure you get to play a postseason series, but to assure you make the postseason at all.

    Anyway, here’s the deal. For the record, on this day in 2011, the Braves were 64-48, 8-1/2 games behind the NL East-leading Phillies and 2-1/2 games ahead of Arizona in the wild-card race.

   And on Aug. 25 -- the day before the collapse began with a loss at New York in the three-game series reduced to one by a hurricane approaching New York City -- the Braves were 79-53, six games behind the first-place Phillies and leading the wild-card race by 9-1/2 games over San Francisco, with the Cardinals a game behind the Giants.

  Thirty games and 20 losses later, the Braves were done for the season and the Cardinals were the NL wild card winners.

  Entering today (Sunday), the Braves are 66-45, only a half-game behind Pittsburgh for the NL’s best record, which would assure home-field advantage for the two NL rounds of the playoffs. The most difficult part of the Braves schedule is out of the way, and if they keep playing close to their recent level of ball and avoid any significant injuries, they could have a good shot at finishing the season with the NL’s best record.

  If there’s one positive from that 10-20 finish in 2011, it’s that those who experienced it, including Fredi Gonzalez, his coaching staff and several key holdovers from that team, never, ever want to go through something like that again. And they believe – rightfully so – that this team is far better suited to avoid it. It’s younger, healthier, with a more-potent lineup and a solid pitching staff that has a top-rated bullpen that, unlike the top-rated ‘pen in 2011, has not been overworked before August.

  • Speaking of the ‘pen: Braves relievers have allowed two earned runs in 30 innings during nine-game winning streak, posting a stingy 0.60 ERA in that span to further reducing their majors-leading bullpen ERA (2.48), which is now nearly a half-run lower than the next-best (Kansas City, 2.88).

  A few other points:

  -- Atlanta relievers also lead the majors in opponents’ batting average (.214), opponents’ slugging percentage (.302) and opponents’ OPS (.595). No other bullpen has a slugging percentage lower than .330 or an OPS lower than .624.

  -- Braves relievers have allowed 16 home runs, while no other bullpen has allowed fewer than 22.

  -- The bullpen’s 1.14 WHIP is tied with Pittsburgh for the major league lead.

   -- Braves relievers have done all this while ranking just 15th in strikeouts per nine innings (8.26).

    -- Oh, and Braves relievers have pitched the fifth-fewest innings in the NL at 311-2/3.

   That last one is big, folks. For example, that’s 62-1/3 inings fewer than Pittsburgh, which has the league’s third-highest innings total and which recently put Jason Grilli go on the DL with a lower-arm strain.

  The most effective of the Braves non-strikeout guys -- not just on this team but most effective in the majors -- is Luis Avilan, who has learned at the knee of Eric O’Flaherty the art of being economical with pitches, getting ground balls and double plays, managing an inning, not giving anything to hit to one batter if you know you can get the guy deck out, the whole ball of smart-lefty wax.

  Avilan’s last 30 appearances: 0.00 ERA, 27-2/3 innings, 10 hits (.112 opponents’ average), one unearned run, eight walks, 18 strikeouts. Yeah, that’s pretty good.

   Braves starters haven’t been as dominant as the relievers, but they’ve been pretty darn good for a unit that doesn’t have a Clayton Kershaw or Matt Harvey at the top of it. Atlanta starters have whittled their ERA to 3.68, sixth-best in the majors, even though their opponents’ BA (.257) is tied for 16th. And with Brandon Beachy making rapid strides last night in his second start, the loss of Tim Hudson might – MIGHT -- not be quite as substantial as some feared a week ago.

  The Braves’ 3.30 overall ERA ranks second in the majors to Pittsburgh’s 3.09. The Braves’ .244 overall opponents’ average ranks fifth in the majors, and their .303 opponents’ OBP ranks fourth in the majors. Atlanta pitchers have allowed the fifth-fewest homers (88) in the majors.

  • Offensive surge: After hitting .303 with 12 homers and 62 runs during the nine-game winning streak, Braves hitters had taken over the National League lead in OPS (.742) entering Sunday, ahead of St. Louis (.741) and Colorado (.739).

   Atlanta’s 136 homers were 14 ahead of the league’s next-highest total (Colorado, 122), and the Braves are second in runs (505). They were also second in the league in slugging percentage (.415) behind Colorado (.419), and tied with Cincinnati for third in OBP (.327), behind the Cardinals (.335) and Dodgers (.328).

  Oh, and since the All-Star break, the Braves’ 90 runs is 12 more the next-highest total in the majors.

  The Braves still lead the league in strikeouts (945) but could be overtaken real soon by the Mets (944) and possibly the Pirates (932). Who’d have thunk that possible a couple of months ago, when it looked like the Braves might smash an assortment of whiff records?

  Meanwhile, Atlanta hitters are second in the league in walks (382), behind only the Reds (394).

  One other thing: Braves pinch-hitters have a .295 average that’s 34 points better than the NL’s next-best (Reds, .261). And with Jordan Schafer likely to come off the DL in the next week, and Reed Johnson not far behind him, they should be able to keep up a good clip in that department. Joey Terdoslavich, in the interim, has been quite impressive as a second Braves rookie this year who’s shown the unusual ability to pinch-hit at the big-league level, after Evan Gattis lit it up early in that role.

BRAVES LINEUP Sunday

  1. Heyward rf
  2. JUpton lf
  3.  Freeman 1b
  4.  McCann c
  5.  CJohnson 3b
  6.  Uggla 2b
  7.  BUpton cf
  8.  Simmons ss
  9.  Wood p

 • Tonight’s matchup: It’s Braves rookie Alex Wood, making his fourth start, against Phillies lefty Cliff Lee. And given Lee’s  track record against the Braves, it might seem like there’s little chance the winning streak will reach double digits.

  However…. Lee has a 6.05 ERA and .300 opponents’ average in his past three starts, beginning with a July 5 game vs. the Braves when he got a win but wasn't his usual dominant self (6-1/3 innings, eight hits, four runs, four strikeouts).

   In two starts since then, against the Nats and Mets, he lost both games and allowed 16 hits, nine earned runs and a whopping seven homers in 13 innings. This will be his first start since July 21, as he's been dealing with a neck problem.

  Before July 5, Lee had gone 7-0 with a 2.15 ERA and .199 opponents’ average over 11 starts, with 81 strikeouts and 14 walks in 83-2/3 innings. Few were pitching any better.

   He’s long been a serious Braves nemesis: Lee is 6-4 with a 2.97 ERA in 12 career starts against them, including 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA in his past seven. He had a .194 opponents average with 49 strikeouts and just three walks in 52-1/3 innings in those seven games.

   Against Lee,Dan Uggla is 7-for-28 with two homers and 11 strikeouts, Justin Upton is 6-for-14, and Brian McCann is 8-for-23. On the other hand, Jason Heyward is 2-for-17, Chris Johnson is 2-for-14, Andrelton Simmons is 1-for-9, and B.J. Upton is 7-for-30 with 11 strikeouts.

  • Braves vs. Harvey Haddix: This is a special day on the blog, because something that happened in the Braves’ win Saturday against the Phillies is tied directly to the song I’ll use to close today’s blog.

  According to Elias, the five hits for the Braves in their 5-4, 12-inning win Saturday were the fewest hits for a Braves team in a win lasting 12 or more innings since May 26, 1959, the famous game when Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix pitched a perfect game against the Milwaukee Braves for 12 innings before losing 1-0 in 13 innings.

   Haddix is not credited with a no-hitter or perfect game. Them’s the rules. The guys in The Baseball Project, an alt-rock super group of sorts that includes, among others, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and former Dream Syndicate front man Steve Wynn, don’t think that right, and sang a song about it, which you can hear by clicking here.

  (By the way, their first album, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, is a worthy find for any fan of both baseball and ‘80s era alt-rock.)

“HARVEY HADDIX” by The Baseball Project
May 26, 1959, in Milwaukee, on the mound
Harvey Haddix of the Pirates was mowing 'em down
27 up, 27 gone, nine innings in the book
And not a man had gotten on
Now, in history, only 17 have thrown a perfect game
A most exclusive club, and a most exalted fame
But after nine, the Pirates hadn't scored
A perfect game, and still old Harvey had to pitch some more

David Wells, David Cone, Sandy Koufax, Cy Young
Jim Bunning, Tom Browning, Charlie Robertson
Don Larsen in the Series in 1956
Why don't we add old Harvey to that list?

10th inning down, 11th inning down, he moved on to the 12th
Three straight outs, and the fans were pinching themselves
The best game ever pitched, and still a scoreless tie
Poor Harvey had to carry on and give it one more try
Thirteen's never lucky, so you can guess the rest
Harv gave up a hit, and then he lost the whole contest
I wonder how he slept that night, knowing how close he came
To a most exclusive club that should include his name

David Wells, David Cone, Randy Johnson, Addie Joss
Kenny Rogers, Mike Witt, Dennis Martinez
Don Larsen in the Series in 1956
Why don't we add old Harvey to that list?

The search for perfection is a funny thing, at least as I've been told
It drives you nuts, it makes you curse, and eats away at your soul
Sometimes better isn't better, sometimes justice just ain't served
Sometimes legend isn't laid where it's most deserved
But humanity is flawed, as the losers will attest
We're drawn to tragic stories, the ones that suit us best
But for 12 innings on that fateful day, old Harvey was a god
A perfect game, if nothing else, because perfection's always flawed

David Wells, David Cone, Lee RIchmond, Monte Ward
Len Barker against the Jays and Catfish for the A's
Don Larsen in the Series in 1956
Why don't we add old Harvey to that list?

 

David O'Brien

About David O'Brien

David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002, and previously covered the Marlins for the (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel for seven years.

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