In keeping with time honored baseball traditions, I figured now would be the best time to step up and lob a nice, easy, fat strike right down the heart of the plate. Just to get things started. Welcome one and all to what I hope will be an informative and entertaining look at the Atlanta Braves and, well, baseball in general.
The 2007 team has felt far and away better than the 2006 model, but crazily enough, both teams came into the final days of May with roughly the same record: (29-23 in ’07 coming into today – compared to 28-25 in ’06).
It is easy to forget in face of all the bullpen meltdowns, the horrific month of June last season (6-21) and the New York Mets basically running away in the East that the Braves weren’t that bad. But, when anything less than a trip to the post-season has become the norm, it is difficult to even fathom a losing season.
So what exactly leads the Braves and the Atlanta faithful to this renewed sense of optimism this season? Here are five reasons that I credit with making the club that much better from a year ago.
1.) Rafael Soriano – The set-up man has been a dominant force at the end of the ballgame. I found myself asking Braves Radio analyst Mark Lemke last week, “All the Mariners wanted for this guy was Haracio Ramirez?” Seattle’s desire for a left-handed starter certainly helped out, but Soriano has come into games with a menacing glare, high-octane fastball and ice water pumping through his veins every time the bullpen door has swung open. That kind of swagger gives the team a confidence that was not there last season when anyone without “Wickman – 28” on their jersey came on.
2.) Jeff Francoeur – Don’t look now, but the budding star is growing up right before our very eyes. ‘Frenchy’ is hitting to the opposite field, walking more and striking out less. Some baseball experts credited Francoeur with the dubious honor of “worst season ever by a 100-RBI guy” last year, due to his rather paltry .293 OBP. Are these the same experts who somehow managed to ignore the fact that more than half of those came in 2-out situations? You bet. And he’s doing it again this year. The best is still yet to come from the cannon-armed kid from Lilburn.
3.) Tim Hudson – This is the pitcher Atlanta believed they had acquired from Oakland prior to the 2005 season. Vintage Hudson has returned in 2007 and the results have been fantastic. Hudson has failed to pitch six or more innings in only one of his 11 starts and has allowed three or less earned runs in nine of them. With the uncertainty swirling at the back of the Braves rotation, Hudson’s success has been a sight for sore eyes.
4.) John Smoltz – Not that he shouldn’t appear in the number one slot of this list, out of respect for the constant warrior’s effort he puts forth every fifth day, but Smoltz will be the first to tell you that he appreciates the work Soriano and others do for this year’s squad. An injured pinky on his throwing hand may slow him down slightly, but Smoltz is the one piece of the puzzle that makes everything else fit. Baseball’s winningest post-season pitcher hopes to get another shot this October. Without him, Atlanta would be dead in the water.
5.) Kelly Johnson – If you had told me that Kelly Johnson would be the starting second baseman two years ago, I would have laughed… hard. But Johnson has many Atlanta fans saying, ”Marcus who?” KJ has transitioned nicely on the defensive side, much more smoothly than I had expected. After all, I fully expected Martin Prado to make the club with the spring he had. Johnson has been the consummate lead-off man (.386 OBP) with 38 runs scored through his first 51 games. His plate discipline has shown through more than ever this season as well.
Those are my five reasons, err… players, that the Braves can thank for much of their success this season. But as I mentioned before, this club wants to make this June the complete opposite of 2006. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them do it either. Bobby Cox has a way of keeping his team focused on the big picture.
Till next time,