May 21, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) (second from right) reacts with team mates after he delivered the game winning hit against the Minnesota Twins during the tenth inning at Turner Field. The Braves defeated the Twins 5-4 in ten innings. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Braves: 1st Half Recap

If you’re an Atlanta Braves fan, and as passionate in your devotion as I am, then the first half of the 2013 season has been a mix for you ranging from giddiness, joy, and unbridled expectation, to disappointment, frustration, and downright anger.  I’m not that emotional, but my friends tell me something about me has changed this season.  I point to my ball cap, my keychain, or some other item with the Braves logo on it and say, “Take a guess!”

Despite the ups-and-downs of the last 3+ months, the Atlanta Braves are still comfortably atop the NL East, and minus a few injury hiccups recently, are still poised to continue the stride to October.  I’m sure I’ll leave some highlight out that a fan will pounce on me for, but my goal is to not be too longworded.  That said, let’s take a look at the first half of the season so far, note some of the highs and lows, surprises – both pleasant and unpleasant, and then I’ll leave you to your own conclusions about what the rest of 2013 will look like.  Oh, and by the way, our own Julien Benjamin will have something to say about that as well in his 2nd Half Predictions article.

April 2013 – El Oso Blanco, Homers, Whiffs, and Huddy200

May 15, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA: Atlanta Braves catcher Evan Gattis against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Few realized that Evan Gattis would make the roster when he got an invite to Spring Training, but not only did he make the roster, he went on to prove that perhaps every player ought to be given a second chance to realize their dreams.  His story unfolded before the American public and Braves Country in epic fashion, and now Evan “El Oso Blanco” Gattis is almost as much of a fixture as a mere rookie as any Brave.  As of this writing, Gattis is doing a rehab stint in Gwinnett to continue his road back after an oblique strain, but has been a pleasant surprise for the Braves this year hitting on a line of .252/.317/.577/.894, with 14 homers and 37 RBIs.  Gattis still needs some fine-tuning defensively, but is very capable, having played catcher, outfielder, and 1st baseman, and there’s a great many fans that would like to see him learn to play 2nd as well.

May 15, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA: Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The month of April also established pretty early on that the Atlanta Braves seem to be a feast or famine, power team, often living by the homer or dying for a lack thereof.  The Braves hit 11 homers in the first week of the season alone, and Justin Upton hit five in his first five games – which was more than any Braves player hit in all of April last season.  Every Brave fan will remember forever the home runs Justin and B.J. Upton hit in the ninth inning of the comeback win over the Cubs in April.  That moment will go down in the history of memorable moments right alongside the two walk-off homers Chipper Jones hit last year and the opening day blasts hit by Andres Galarraga in 2000,  and Jason Heyward in 2010.

If the Braves were going to be a power team, it was also quite clear they were going to strike out a lot.  In the first week of the season, the Braves struck out 63 times, which was more than any other team outside of the Astros.  That trend has continued, but the power has proven so far effective enough to keep the Braves atop the NL East despite the whiffs.

Pitching for Atlanta was pretty good to start the season, although it was obvious fans weren’t going to see the same prowess from Kris Medlen as we saw in the latter half of the 2012 season.  Instead, Mike Minor came out of the gate and established himself as the team’s early “ace”, while Paul Maholm was steady as a rock, Julio Teheran seemed to be getting better and better, and Tim Hudson struggled but still got his memorable 200th career win.

May 2013  - Appendicitis, Tommy Johns, Slumps, and the Road

It became pretty clear early in the season that Atlanta plays much better at home than on the road.  The road woes have baffled even the most astute analyst, and it remains a mystery why the Braves have struggled so much when not at the TED.  Suffice it to say that despite their road woes, their stellar play at home has saved the season so far for the Braves.  The month of May was painful beyond the road woes as Jason Heyward had to exit early in a series with the Colorado Rockies (back in April), a victim of appendicitis, and fans anxiously awaited his return into the month of May.  The Braves also lost stellar relievers Eric O’Flaherty and Johnny Venters to Tommy John surgery.  If those woes weren’t bad enough, it became evident that the usual slump we see in Dan Uggla (either 1st half or second) was evident in the first half, and many fans were and are  angry with B.J. Upton for being paid so much money and doing little if anything to earn it.

June 2013 – Cream Rising to the Top?

June 5, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran (49) celebrates after getting out of the fourth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

One of those pleasant surprises, although not really that much of a surprise, was seeing Julio Tehran develop into the pitcher he has become.  There was a time when at Gwinnett, Teheran had little beyond a simple four seamer, and posted ERA numbers of 5+.  He spent time playing in the Dominican winter league though, and began to slowly develop more pitches, including a better fastball, a curve, and a slider.  June showed clearly that Julio is beginning to master more pitches, especially his slider.  Against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Teheran came within four pitches of a no-hitter, and recorded 11 Ks while throwing his slider 41 times!

It was amazing to see Evan Gattis develop into the kind of player that can adjust and produce wherever he’s used.  When Jason Heyward finally came back from the DL, Evan took on more of a role as a pinch hitter and was simply amazing in that role.  In just his first nine pinch hit ABs with Atlanta, Gattis went 6 for 8 with four homers, one double, and a walk.

We’ve always known that Freddie Freeman is a great player and an underrated player, but the month of June (and now into July), Freddie Freeman has been as good as any player int he majors.   By the third week of June, Freeman was 3rd in the majors hitting with runners in scoring position with a .448 BA.  That was refreshing too, since the Braves as a team were close to being last in the majors with a mere .226 BA in RISP situations.  Freddie was a life saver for the Braves then, and continues to wield a dangerous bat today.

July 2013 – #VoteFreddie, Encouraging Signs, and Injuries

Jul 9, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) is seen prior to a game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves were certainly not without injury prior to June, but for the most part were able to weather the storm.  Losing Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty had everyone worried, but the Braves’ relievers, almost to a man, stepped it up and got the job done.  Atlanta got through most of July without seeing any major injuries [although I should mention that on June 20, we lost Ramiro Pena - a terrible loss - to season ending surgery], but in the current series with Cincinnati [the last before the ASG], Jason Heyward, and both Upton brothers have gotten injured.  As of this article, how fast they will heal is unknown, but if you must get injured, doing it just prior to the All Star Game is good timing.

We’ve seen encouraging signs during the month of July.  Dan Uggla continues to improve, though slowly, and seems to be proving that getting a new pair of contact lenses may have just been the ticket.  Justin Upton has been coming around, and showing the kind of form he had that set the team and the division on fire in April and May.  By far though, the most memorable days of June had to be the push all across Braves’ Country and the nation to get Freddie Freeman enough votes to get into the All Star Game.  Fans voted online, on Twitter, and via Text MSG, and the votes he got ended up being a record, beating out LA Dodgers’ rookie Yasiel Puig.  I was at the game in Atlanta on the day that the announcement of Freddie’s win was made, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the atmosphere any more electric.

Looking Ahead

All in all, the first half of the 2013 season has been amazing.  As I noted earlier, it’s been an emotional roller coaster, but we are witnessing a team that has the talent, the tools, the drive and ambition to make it to October.  With a current 54-40 record and a 6.5 game lead over the Nationals, the Braves are still ranked #1 in homers, #2 in team ERA with pitching, and are poised to continue their amazing run.  The rest of the season won’t be easy, but however it turns out, like every year I’ve watched the Braves, it’s a blast to be along for the ride.  Go Braves!

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