June 2008

Pen gets a much needed shot in the arm…

It’s been a long season of injuries for the Atlanta Braves pitching staff, but finally there is some good news on that front. And it comes in the person of Mike Gonzalez. The Braves got a taste of what they’ve been missing on Wednesday night, when Gonzalez returned from the disabled list to pitch a perfect ninth inning against the Texas Rangers and earn his first save in over a year.

Gonzo_return.jpgAtlanta’s ninth inning duties have been in a state of flux with the mysterious sore arm of Rafael Soriano limiting his availability and the abbreviated return of John Smoltz coming to an abrupt halt with season-ending shoulder surgery. It has not been easy to cobble together a capable replacement for the closer’s role in their absence. Now the Braves may not have to worry about that anymore.

“We decided in the eighth inning that when it came to the ninth, if we’re leading, we’re going with Gonzo no matter what,” said a very pleased Braves manager Bobby Cox.

Gonzalez, 30, hit 94 mph on the radar gun, unleashing a flury of fastballs complemented with wicked breaking pitches on the Rangers batsmen. No doubt, adrenaline was pumping through his veins as Gonzalez rocked back and forth on the rubber and made short work in converting his first save opportunity.

This was the vintage that Cox and the Braves remember from Gonzalez’s days with the Pittsburgh Pirates – great velocity and excellent breaking stuff. With his entire arsenal at his disposal, Gonzalez may have the saved the Braves in a number of ways. No pun intended.

“All I remember him throwing in Pittsburgh was 93-94, so that part is back and I think his breaking ball is right there too,” said Cox after his first look at Gonzalez in a game situation.

While the Braves work to solidify their team in the face of all the injuries to their pitching staff, getting Gonzalez back with half a season to go may have kept them from having to pay a high price in prospects for a closer to help in a pennant run. Couple that with the fact that there are no guarantees on what kind of quality relievers would be available as the trade deadline approaches in mere weeks and you have the best of all scenarios – an in-house solution to a problem that has plagued Atlanta all season.

“When he’s throwing the fastball and then he throws that curve ball up there, if he bounces it, they’re going to swing at it,” added Cox. “He’s kind of like [Billy] Wagner in that respect. When he’s throwing the breaking ball and the fastball, he’s hard to hit at.”

It doesn’t take much convincing when it comes to opposing hitters, as to just how good Gonzalez is when he’s locked in. The save against the Rangers is the 31st consecutive conversion for the lefty from Robstown, Texas. How appropriate that his return would come in his home state and in front of family and friends to boot.

Losing Gonzalez to Tommy John surgery last May severely crippled the Braves options last season, as they chased the New York Mets and eventual East champion Philadelphia Phillies down the stretch. There is some chasing to be done this season as well, but Gonzalez has a chance to be the difference maker at the end of the ballgame.

 

Till next time,

G-Mc

 

When it rains it pours…

Glavine_Cubs_start.jpgAs if suffering another road loss in what has become a woeful storyline in a frustrating season was not enough for the Atlanta Braves, they have now lost Tom Glavine for at least 15-days with a left elbow strain.

The soreness in Glavine’s elbow was revealed after the game to have been problematic since early May, with the 42-year old pitching in pain over his past seven starts. Now the Braves have a serious question that may only be answered following an MRI in Atlanta – which could come as early as Wednesday.

Atlanta is already trying to cope with the loss of John Smoltz, who underwent season-ending surgery on Tuesday in Birmingham, Alabama. Without Smoltz, Glavine and Mike Hampton, who is still yet to make a start this season after a successful Spring Training showing, the Braves have some serious holes in their starting rotation.

So what does this mean?

Well, it’s clear the Braves have more questions than answers. Jo-Jo Reyes and Jair Jurrjens were battling to become the fifth starter in Orlando this Spring, but both are now key members of a tattered Braves starting rotation. The Braves now rely on Tim Hudson to continue to anchor the staff as the lone veteran presence. Chuck James was dreadful in five starts (2-3 with a 8.22 ERA) and Jorge Campillo has filled in void over the past four weeks that was created by injuries and James’ ineffectiveness.

morton_MS.jpgOne answer could be 24-year old right-hander Charlie Morton (5-2 with a 2.05 ERA in 13 games for Triple-A Richomond). Morton was on the prospect bubble before having a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League last season. His numbers this year are highly respectable, holding opponents homerless and limiting them to just a .181 average while racking up 72 strikeouts in 79 innings of work.

Morton seems the most likely internal candidate to get a shot at filling in for Glavine, if the Braves go down to the farm. There’s no doubt that the injury to Glavine could drive up the asking price of any pitching to be had on an almost non-existant trade market. Most teams have not decided whether or not to be buyers or sellers at this point, and alot could change before now and the non-waiver trade deadline of July 31.

Any way you slice it, this latest development could not have come at a worse time. While elbow injuries at any age are a cause for concern, the Braves could find themselves waving good bye to not one, but two, legendary hurlers in the same week.

Sheez.

 

Till next time,

G-Mc

(more…)

What’s going on lately…

It’s been an eventful week for the Atlanta Braves, with no if’s, and’s or but’s about it. With that said, here’s a few of the things that have been on my mind as I sit high up in the writer’s box at Turner Field.

Braves must consider life after Smoltz

It’s hard to think of the Atlanta Braves without thinking of John Smoltz. Since the initial run of success began in 1991, no other player has been as easily identifiable as a symbol of winning and determination as the right-hander who wears number 29.

Smoltz_Press_PIC.jpgYet, with the announcement that Smoltz will undergo season ending surgery as soon as next week, the Braves and their fans will have to start giving some serious thought to life after John Smoltz. While he does not yet know what his future holds, a decision will likely be coming sooner than later.

Acquired in a deadline deal in late 1987 in exchange for Doyle Alexander, Smoltz debuted with eight strong innings and came away with a victory against the New York Mets on July 24, 1988. Just like that a Hall of Fame career was born.

If this is the end, and the final pitch has been thrown by the veteran right-hander from Warren, Michigan, then we have all been witness to something pretty special. While the legacy of Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux both have the nice tidy 300-win club attached, Smoltz has cobbled together a different brand of Hall of Fame worthiness. Eight All-Star games, one Cy Young, 200 wins, 154 saves and 3,000 strikeouts later, Smoltz has put together a career unlike any other hurler in the history of the game.

Chipper belts 400th career homer, average still over .400

 Thursday saw the long awaited 400th homer in the stellar career of Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. Driving a 2-0 pitch from Ricky Nolasco into the right field seats to become just the third switch-hitter to reach the 400 home run plateau.

How about a little stat department fun for the Chipper Jones Cooperstown contingent, shall we? Only Frankie Frisch holds a higher average among switch-hitters with at least 6,000 plate appearances (.316). Jones is sporting a .310 career mark heading into play on Saturday. But which side of the plate does he hit better from, you might ask. Chipper likes to keep it even from each side, with a .311 mark from the right side and a steady .310 average from the left side of the dish. Pretty impressive.

I wasn’t able to find a full set of splits from Mickey Mantle’s career, but I can tell you that from 1956 (when he won the Triple Crown) to 1968, Mantle played in 1748 games and hit .333 from the right and .281 from the left. Usually there is a disparity (Eddie Murray – .292 left and .276 right), but Chipper is almost dead even. Even Pete Rose had a 13 point differencial (.306 left and .293 righty). Maybe it doesn’t mean that much in the grand scheme of things, but it means alot to know you can count on the same track record one way or the other.

There will be plenty more times to talk about the stats of Chipper Jones as the season wears on, but one that has caught the most attention this season is his .421 average through Friday’s game against the Phillies. If you ask Chipper when it’s time to start talking about hitting.400, you’ll get a simple one word reply, “September.”

 I like it… and he’s right.

 

Till next time,

G-Mc