The unbalanced schedule is an annoying and perplexing part of baseball these days, everyone complains about it but nothing seems to change it. With the exception of a couple of short series against the Nationals and Mets, we started the year with a spate of tough games against contending teams. In spite of Jason Heyward’s injury, Dan Uggla’s slump and Brandon Beachy’s oblique we managed to stay within spitting distance of the Phillies due in part to their injury and pitching issues. But what the scheduled taketh the scheduled giveth back.
So on the 16th of May we entered a month long stretch against the non-contenders in the league; a chance to regain some confidence by whipping on the Astros, Pirates,Diamondbacks (oops), Padres (oops) and Mets with only brief stops against the Marlins (who were in an awful slump thankfully) and the Reds. It’ was time to get well and for the most part we have.
After last night’s harder than it should have been win over the Astros we’re 14-9 at 37-28 (exactly our Pythagorean prediction) moved from 3.5 games back after May 15th to 2 games back today. A 1.5 game improvement on the face of it but better under the numbers.
On the morning of the 16th we were 23-19 while the Phillies were 25-14; that’s five games back in the lost column. We had however played three more games than the Phils and while we’ve been playing five games over 500 they were only two games over and now two games over their current Pythagorean. This stretch has seen Craig Kimbrel blow two saves but only lose one game, Jordan Schafer make a great case for remaining in center field and as leadoff man after Nate McClouth’s return and Freddie Freeman on a hot streak both at the plate and with the glove around first.
Until Jordan Schafer took that whack to his nose from during a bunt in New York he was becoming what scouts predicted he would be; the Braves leadoff man and base stealing threat for the foreseeable future. Between May 25 and June 1st he struck out only once in 28 AB and had a line of .286/.412/.321 with a BAbip of .308. The most important number in the line is his .412 OBP. A leadoff man’s job is obviously to get on base and in that role Schafer has been superior to anyone we’ve had in that position; yes even Martin Prado. True Schafer’s numbers dropped after getting a fractured sinus from that foul ball but they are on the way up again and barring injury the leadoff job should remain his no matter who comes back off the DL.
Freddie Freeman is also becoming exactly what he was predicted to be, a gold glove caliber fielder who will hit for average at any level. Much like his career as he moved up through the minors, Freeman struggled initially to make the jump between AAA and the major league at the plate. In the last 28 days he’s found his stroke (.344/.372/.522, four homers and 11 RBI) signaling that while a slump now and then may happen, his period of adaptation is complete; he can hit any pitcher – lefty or righty – and has delivered in the clutch. In the field Freeman’s glove makes the infield defense significantly better than at any time since the departure of Mark Teixiera.
Much is made – and quite correctly – about the athleticism and outstanding play of Alex Gonzalez yet much of that is due to his confidence that if he gets his throw anywhere near first base Freeman will pick it. When I pointed this out last night I was told ‘that’s his job.’ That’s true of course but short sighted. Freeman makes the infielders better by turning errant throws and difficult digs in the dirt into outs. Never underestimate however the effect his presence at first base has on our infield defense; his teammates don’t.
If I had one gift to give Craig Kimbrel it would be a day with Billy Wagner. Kimbrel’s stuff is so electric and his strike outs so exciting that fans sometimes forget he’s only 23 and in his first full major league season. His 18 saves is a rookie record before the All Star break and puts him in a three way tie for third in the majors behind Leo Nunez and Huston Street with 19 and his 13.5 K/9 leads all relievers with a save this year. He has however blown 5 saves and the look on his in the ninth last night betrayed his frustration and the pressure he’s putting on himself. There’s extra pressure because Jonny Venters is having a spectacular year so when Kimbrel succeeds the fans see it as something he should do every time and when he blows one there are immediate cries for Venters to be the closer. If Wagner were there he’d pull Kimbrel aside and tell him the same thing happened to him, that all he can do is demand the ball then go out there everyday like it’s the first save chance of the year and go right at the batter; pound the zone because most can’t catch up with 97 on the black. Unfortunately Wagner isn’t around and Sherrill is a poor source of advice because he never figured out how to get out of his funk as a closer and ended up a LOOGY. Kimbrel will probably get the day off after a 30 pitch inning last night. Let’s hope the rest helps him because this young man will be an outstanding closer.
This series also saw Chipper Jones left handed swing reappear after a visit with his hitting coach dad and Dan Uggla is showing signs of awakening at last. I hope these trends continue and we can find a right handed outfield power bat laying around somewhere because the month of softer scheduling ends next weekend when the Rangers visit Atlanta. From that point until the All Star break we face a tough stretch culminating with three against the Phillies just before Phoenix. After a month of getting well we now need to stay healthy and continue to score runs. While Eric Hinske, Joe Mather and Matt Young have performed admirably in Jason Heyward’s absence we need another bat from the right side to kick the Phillies out of first and get back to the post season.