Braves need someone besides Freeman, J-Up to carry big load

  SAN FRANCISCO – Welcome to San Francisco, where the surging Giants are once again atop the National League West standings and the Braves will try to avenge getting swept by them in Atlanta earlier this month.

Suffice to say, it looks like the Bravos will have to hold the Giants to a couple of runs or fewer to win, since that’s become the formula for success in this rather odd early season for Atlanta. Six weeks into the season, the Braves have the rare distinction of allowing the fewest runs in the majors (106) and scoring the fewest runs in the majors (115).

Entering tonight’s series opener against the Giants, the Braves are 4-1 in five games since a seven-game losing skid, and the reason for the turnaround is pitching. Again.

After putting up a 5.10 ERA during their seven-game losing skid, Braves pitchers have gotten back close to their normal by posting a 2.35 ERA in the past five games.

That’s clearly been more important than the fact they hit .197 with four homers and 13 runs during the skid, compared to .229 with three homers and 13 runs during the past five games. Negligible difference in the offense, though they have gotten at least a few big hits with runners in scoring position lately, after getting remarkably few during the skid.

During their 4-1 stretch through Sunday, the Braves’ run totals in their four wins: 2, 3, 2 and 5. Their opponents’ scoring totals in those games: 1, 2, 0 and 2.

So it’s simple, right? The Braves hold the opponent to two or fewer runs and they’ve got a real good shot at winning.


Sustainable? Hey, we’ve said it’s not. But while we don’t think the Braves will continue to pitch at their current majors-best 2.64 ERA for the entire season or their current majors-best 2.55 starters ERA (a quarter of a run better than any other starters), neither do we believe they will continue to be the worst scoring offense in the majors.

But man, they sure haven’t put together many convincing offensive performances for nine innings, and particularly not for a bunch of games in a row. And you keep wondering just how long before they get all or most of the pistons humming and show folks that this is not an anemic lineup. I mean, with more than one-fifth of the season completed, when do you say, they are what they are?

Scoring the fewest runs in the majors while also allowing the fewest runs. We just don’t ever expect that from a team. Even the Padres (116) have scored more runs than the Braves, who’ve scored exactly half as many runs as the Rockies (230). Braves pitchers, meanwhile, have allowed just 96 earned runs, while the Cardinals (117) are the only other NL team that’s allowed fewer than 120.

In the AL, the A’s (113) and Tigers (113) are the only teams who’ve allowed as few as 130 earned runs, but the Astros (132) are the only team that’s scored fewer than 148. The Braves, to repeat, have scored 115 runs.

To me, the odd thing is just how bad Atlanta’s offense is in most games when Justin Upton and/or Freddie Freeman doesn’t have a big day. Particularly Freeman. I say that because we saw the offense have some impressive stretches last yeare when J-Up wasn’t doing much, but rarely have we seen them do that over past two years when Freeman was struggling.

And lately, since a recurrence of dry-eyes problem a few weeks ago, he’s just not been the same, save for a clutch hit or three.

Freeman hit .413 (26-for-63) with a .493 OBP and .746 slugging percentage in his first 17 games, with six doubles, five  homers, nine walks and eight strikeouts. At that point, he was leading the league in several major offensive categories.

But in 19 games since then, Freeman has hit .211/.268/.303 with four doubles, one homer, six walks and 17 strikeouts. With Freeman, that’s highly unusual. We’ve come to expect to not see him have more than a few sluggish games in a row due to that short, simple, compact swing that we’ve been told (and observed) almost makes him “slump-proof” for long stretches.

Unfortunately for the Braves, it’s not been that  unusual to see several mostly unproductive weeks at a time from Jason Heyward.  By now, at this point in his career, we figured that Heyward would have be an absolute offensive force, not a guy batting leadoff who you hope can get on base a couple of times a game, a guy who might hit a big home run every few weeks like he did Sunday.

That two-run, seventh-inning homer in a 5-2 win against the Cubs was Heyward’s and first homers ince April 9, a drought of 109 at-bats that was the second-longest of his career. He had a homerless stretch of 115 ABs as a rookie in 2010, when a mid-season thumb injury reduced his power.

Nowadays, Heyward has stretches of 10-12 days, like he did recently, where he produces at a .400 OBP clip with gap power and speed to go with his exceptional defense. But think about this: Before Sunday, he hit .195 (25-for-128) over a 32-game stretch with one homer, 16 walks, 30 strikeouts and a .288 OBP and .273 slugging percentage. Thirty-two games, a .195/.288/.273 stretch.

A few years ago, you might have figured that would be just about impossible at this point in his career for Heyward. I did.

With Freeman still scuffling, the Braves hope that Sunday’s homer and a return to AT&T Park will again bring out the best in Heyward. The big right fielder is 15-for-38 (.395) with six home runs, 12 RBIs and a .477 OBP in 10 career games at San Francisco. Also, he’s 7-for-16 with five walks and a .500 OBP against Tim Lincecum, who starts Monday’s series opener against Gavin Floyd.

• Gigantes surging: After taking three of four from the rival Dodgers in  L.A., the Giants are 13-4 with a 2.84 ERA in their past 17 games. They've hit 24 homers and averaged 4.6 runs per game in that span, and improved to 23-14 overall, tied the Brewers for the best record in baseball. They're a game ahead of the Rockies (23-16) and 3 ½ ahead of the Dodgers (20-18).

The Braves will again avoid facing longtime former Braves veteran Tim Hudson, who’s been the Giants best starter at 4-2 with a  2.09 ERA and .206 opponents’ average. Huddy has 38 strikeouts and only four walks in 60 1/3 innings. He got no decision in Sunday’s 10-inning win at L.A. after giving up two runs and eight hits in six innings.

It was the fifth consecutive start in which Hudson has allowed two runs or fewer and the first time all season that he pitched fewer than seven innings.

The Giants lost Brandon Belt to a broken thumb for about six weeks after he was hit by ex-Braves lefty Paul Maholm on Friday. And Michael Morse, the former Nationals slugger who hit .312 with six doubles, eight homers, 22 RBIs and a .356 OBP and .634 slugging percentage in his first 30 games, including homers in consecutive games against the Braves May 2-3, has cooled off since.

In eight games beginning with the May 4 series finale in Atlanta, Morse is 4-for-28 (.143) with two doubles, no homers, two walks and 10 strikeouts.

Tonight's matchup: It'll be Tim Lincecum against Gavin Floyd, who'll make his second start for the Braves and second since Tommy John surgery in May 2013.

Floydmade a splendid return from the DL Tuesday against St. Louis, allowing one run and six hits in seven innings and getting no decision in the win. He’s 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA in two starts against the Giants, but last faced the in 2008.

Lincecum (2-2) has a 5.55 ERA and .329 opponents’ average, and he’s produced only two quality starts in seven games. However, he limited the Braves to one run in six innings of a May 2 win in his best start of the season.

The former hard-throwing, former long-haired righty is 8-6 with a 2.89 ERA and .218 opponents’ average in 14 regular-season starts against the Braves, including 3-6 in his past nine. But that latter stat is a big misleading: The Giants scored two or fewer runs while he was in seven of those nine games, including no runs in four of them.

• Etc.

 Justin Upton is 7-for-21 with four extra-base hits (two homers) and six RBIs in his past five road games, after going 4-for-34 with no extra-base hits, no RBIs and 17 strikeouts in his first nine road games. The ex-Diamondback has a .235 average, two homers and 51 strikeouts in 45 games (166 at-bats) at AT&T Park, and he's 11-for-51 (.216) with no homers against Linceum…. B.J. Upton is 4-for-26 (.154) with a .233 OBP and .269 slugging percentage in his past nine games, with three doubles, two RBIs, three walks and 12 strikeouts…. Sunday's win made the Braves 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA in their past 10 games against the Cubs…. Dan Uggla has nine homers and a .567 slugging percentage in 90 at-bats at AT&T Park, but is 0-for-13 with six strikeouts in his career against Lincecum. He didn't play against Lincecum earlier this month, and I'd be surprised if he does tonight.

• I'll close with one from one of the best singer-songwriters alive, Alejandro Escovedo, a guy who came up in the San Francisco punk scene a long time ago. He's gone to hell and back with health issues and came through it all with so much perspective, which he's infused into more great songs and albums in the past decade. This is one of them. Click this link to hear it.

“SISTER LOST SOUL” by Alejandro Escovedo

Nobody left unbroken

Nobody left unscared

Nobody here is talking

That's just the way things are

You had to go, without me

You wandered off alone

And all the neon reflects

Off the sidewalk

Home reminds me

You're not coming home

Sister, lost soul

Brother, lost soul

I need you

Sister, lost soul

Brother, lost soul

I need you

Every last heart is pardoned

And every last tear's been cried

Out on the street the water's frozen

And I feel like the only one alive

Sister, lost soul

Brother, lost soul

I need you

Sister, lost soul

Brother, lost soul

I need you

I long to lay down beside you

Feel your breath in my ear

You're not the first or last

I've lied to

I'm lying to myself right now

You're still here

Sister, lost soul

Brother, lost soul

I need you

Sister, lost soul

Brother, lost soul

I need you