Friday, June 09, 2006


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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Braves getting consistent at something

As inconsistent this season as late-career Woody Allen, the Braves recently have been utterly predictable in one sense – when a critical pitch or set of pitches is at hand, the home team is going to fail and the other team is going to come through like the ’27 Yankees crossed with the early ’70s A’s.

It’s amazing how many games, even some that end up lopsided, turn on a few pitches. Take tonight. When we left the bases loaded with no outs in the sixth, my dread was as sure as if it were October. Not the intensity of the dread, mind you, just the certainty of impending defeat. After that, I figured the chances of a Houston victory were about 90 percent. (The game’s not over as I write, so I hope I end up looking the fool.)

But tonight’s outcome again hinged on a few plays. Andy Pettitte made a perfect full-count pitch to strike out Todd Pratt, then Lance Berkman made a good throw home to nail Francoeur for an inning-ending double play. Poof. Rally over.

Minutes later, Thomson made a most imperfect two-strike pitch to Berkman. He hits it into the right field seats. Poof, 5-2. Game, most likely, over.

Again I hope I eat these words, but I’m already starting to resign myself to a down season. You can’t win forever, I’m thinking. It has to end some time. How would we want it to end? Have we forgotten what it’s like to root for a mediocre team? I believe I have. Getting reacquainted with that is so far not a lot of fun.

-- CD

JS must move, and fast

Where have we seen this hackneyed storyline? Team gets solid starting pitching, scratches out a run here and there to stay close entering the spooky late innings. Mediocre reliever X comes in, quickly populates the bases. Mediocre reliever Y jogs in, surrenders extra base hit and close game becomes much less close.

The only relief is for the opposing closer, who heaves huge sigh of same. No need anymore to intensely pinpoint every pitch lest a mistake tie the game. With a three-run lead, pitching is easier.

Unless JS does something soon, we’ll only see more of this deflating plot, or variations that have the team clinging to a small lead and losing it or holding a big lead that’s hacked to shreds. After last night’s rerun, the NL East standings show the home team closer to the Marlins, whom we’re 6.5 games ahead, than the Mets, whom we’re 7 games behind. The Bravos today are nearer the Natspos, 2 games up, than the Phillies, 3.5 behind.

Yeah, it’s early. Sure, there are 102 games left. But say the Mets, who have a .603 winning percentage, play just .520 ball from here. That would give them 89 wins. To match that, the Bravos need to play at a .588 clip, 60-42 from here. If the Mets continue their present pace, which isn’t out of the question, our boys would need to go a blistering 69-33 (.676) to tie them at 98 wins.

The Braves have surmounted bigger deficits. Who can forget the .740, 54-19 post all-star break run of 1993 that overcame a 10-game July 22 deficit? That was then. This is now. That ’93 team had a stronger bullpen – Stanton emerged as a reliable closer after McMichael had held the fort in the first half – a rock-solid rotation and a more consistent offense than this one. That team traded for a bona fide star slugger, Fred McGriff, to ignite that second-half charge.

This team appears to have little chance to import a player of that caliber. We could get Dontrelle Willis and that will take some pressure off the pen and give us a top 3 to match most any. But does anyone really believe that would be enough to make this pen reliable in a pennant race or the playoffs? Maybe Ken Ray keeps closing well. That still leaves the 7th and 8th innings. And who’s to say how healthy Smoltz will be come October, if there is one? He’s throwing 100-plus pitches every start.

Sorry to be a merchant of gloom.

The Office, as you might have gathered, has the utmost respect for JS as a GM. His methods have worked beautifully for 15 years. This is a new year. Not investing more in the bullpen in the offseason, and maybe the belief that any journeyman who wears the Tomahawk will instantly get late-inning outs, has already cost this team a few wins. The pen isn’t the only problem but it’s easily the biggest one. (Another one: Betemit needs five at-bats a night, not one. He’s probably right now the fourth or fifth best hitter on the team.) If JS doesn’t acquire one or maybe two good relievers before the all-star break, this season is toast.

-- CD

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The next wave

I'm already a big fan of the Bravos' first round draft pick:

There was no question about which major league team Cody Johnson wanted to be drafted by Tuesday.

"I grew up watching the Braves on TV," the left-handed hitting outfielder from Mosley High School in Panama City, Fla., said. "It's the only team I've ever really rooted for and it's the one place I've always wanted to play."

Braves Scouting Director Roy Clark is bully on Johnson's potential as a hitter.

At just 17, the 6-foot-4 Johnson is a long way from being ready for the majors. But the Braves like his chances of eventually getting there.

"In our opinion, Cody was the premier power bat in the draft," Clark said.

After drafting Joey Devine last year, the Braves returned to their familiar pattern of selecting high school pitchers with their next two picks -- righty Cory Rasumus and left-hander Steve Evarts.


Sigh of relief

Very encouraging win tonight. First, Ken Ray showed that he might just be able to handle the closer's role. Even more impressively, Horacio posted his third consecutive quality start, battling through eight innings in a MUST-win game. Frankly, I had pretty much counted Ramirez out, but Smoltzie told me in an interview this offseason to expect "Ho" to make a big comeback this season.

On a recent Braves telecast Don Sutton provided some more insight into Ramirez's resurgence, saying that, of all Braves pitchers, he'd likely be the one to benefit from Leo's departure. Horacio was never comfortable with the low and away approach preached by the Bravos' former pitching coach, Sutton said, and that was evident tonight as Ramirez successfully pounded Nats' hitters inside.

I've been worried about our starters since before the season began, but Horacio is starting to alleviate those concerns. Still, I wouldn't mind seeing Dontrelle in a Braves uniform. You might've heard and read the talk about a Salty for D-Train trade the last few days in the local media, but the Office was speculating about said possibility months ago.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Twist of fate

In no way do I intend to belittle the passing of former umpire Eric Gregg, but it's hard to ignore the coincidence that, on the night of his death, Livan Hernandez is pitching against the Braves. Gregg, you'll remember, framed a strike zone almost as large as his belly while working behind the plate during Livan's 15 K performance against the home team in Game 5 of the 1997 NLCS.

Hernandez was a Marlin then, and Florida went on to win the series in six games. Braves fans haven't forgotten.

It was downhill from there for Gregg, who, along with 21 other umpires, resigned in 1999 as part of a failed labor strategy orchestrated by then-union director Richie Phillips. While some who resigned were later rehired by MLB, Gregg ended up judging chicken wing eating contests in Philadelphia.

He may have been a terrible ump, but Gregg was, by most accounts, a good guy. He leaves a wife and four children behind.


The next nobodies

With Atlanta's pitching scuffling mightily, expect to see some new imports boarding the Richmond shuffle in the weeks ahead. Two possible candidates:

*Phil Stockman -- The former D'Backs prospect is dominating Triple A hitters, compiling a stingy 1.09 ERA in 24.2 IP, with only 7 HA and 34 K's. The only negative is his control (10 walks).

*Kevin Barry -- Considered a journeyman type before this season, the converted reliever continues to post one quality start after another. Besides a 2.04 ERA, he's put up solid secondary numbers, with 55 K's and only 45 HA in 57.1 IP. Again, control has been somewhat of a problem (22 walks).

Meanwhile, Chuck James is pitching decently as he racks up innings in Richmond. Look for him to make his debut as a big league starter in the near future.

A darkhorse: Mississippi prospect Matt Wright, who's healthy again and pitching lights out (4-2, 2.28 ERA, 43.1 IP, 31 HA, 16 BB and 50 K's) for Jeff Blauser's club.


Bobby goes ballistic

Not really, but this as close as he gets --

"That's probably the worst series we've ever had here," the Atlanta manager said after the Arizona Diamondbacks completed their domination of the Braves with a 9-3 rout Sunday at Turner Field.

I was in the Braves' clubhouse yesterday, and while it's been a bleak weekend I didn't sense much pessimism from the local 25. Fans may be panicking, and rightly so, but Bobby's an expert at keeping his team believing. This season is shaping up to be his most challenging, and that goes double for JS and the front office.

BTW, a reporter who covers the team told me there's talk of giving Betemit a shot at first base. One way or the other, the smart money's on Wilson playing regularly come the All-Star break. Whether that's in Atlanta or somewhere else remains to be seen.


Sunday, June 04, 2006

NL Best?

I'm still not sold on the Diamondbacks, despite their dominance over the Bravos the past few weeks. However, I am bully on the boys in blue, so much so that I rate the Dodgers as the team to beat in the Senior Circuit.

Better than the Cards? Sure, I'm always shortchanging Tony LaRussa's club, mainly because of Tony LaRussa. But regardless of the severity of Albert Pujols' injury, I'm becoming convinced Grady Little's squad will emerge as the class of the NL.

That's assuming they get another starting pitcher, but if any team has the goods to acquire Zito or Dontrelle, it's the Dodgers, who have baseball's best farm system.

Already OF's Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier have shown they belong in the bigs, which should insulate them from the annual J.D. Drew injury sure to come. They also have another highly regarded prospect just promoted from Las Vegas, Joel Guzman, who can play several positions.

And with young stud Willy Aybar performing soldily at 3B, the Dodgers look to have considerable depth on the infield, as well. Plus, they're about to get Cesar Izturis back (another solid trading chip) off the DL. They've got speed up and down the order and they're strong defensively. Other top prospects, such as lefty starter Chad Billingsley and 1B James Loney, are progressing nicely at Triple A.

Give them another starter -- Billingsley might prove to be the answer -- and I think the Dodgers are certain to make the playoffs. Hard to believe they've turned it around so quickly, but as of now a Los Angeles-Boston World Series seems a decent bet. Imagine those subplots, with Grady and Nomah returning to Fenway in October.

Naturally I hope that doesn't happen, but I'm not exactly optimistic about the home team right now.


All or nothing

Since last we met, the Braves have lost thrice, not won, made Damion Easley and Tony Clark, a pair of utility players, look like Ruth and Gehrig and further solidified themselves as a boom-and-bust team.

Jeff Francoeur, who has a paltry .260 on base percentage but is on pace to hit about 30 homers and knock in 110, personifies this club. The 06 Bravos are so far a whiff or longball club: 10-14 in April, 18-11 in May, 0-4 in June. We already have two losing streaks of four games and one of five games, and a four-game win streak.

The home team has scored in double figures seven times but allowed double-digit runs eight times. By contrast, the Mets have scored 10 or more just three times but have allowed double digits but once, to the Braves. It seems the home team has trouble blending hitting and pitching. Nine times we’ve posted five or more runs and lost; our rivals in Flushing have done that four times.

While the home team remains among the top three National League clubs in runs, we’ve been limited to 3 or fewer scores 23 times. The Mets, on the other hand, are well down the rankings in runs scored, but have posted three or fewer 20 times. This Bravos club simply must start making more contact – only Milwaukee and Florida have fanned more -- moving runners, bunting, pitching more consistently early, and late, in games. Then there's the semi-regular defensive blunder, not always an error but a missed cutoff man or clunky would-be double play that becomes a fielder's choice.

Back to Easley and Clark. Those two hit six home runs in this four-game sweep, more than the entire Braves team. In the season’s first 52 games, they had totaled five homers. As for the cripple bullpen, current semi-closer Ken Ray had his worst outing last night to ensure that a huge comeback was moot. Today former closer Reitsma had a similar ninth to snuff out another, albeit smaller, comeback attempt.

Chip Caray said on the radio the Braves hadn’t been swept in four since the Phillies did it in 1995. That team won the World Series. It’s nigh ludicrous to suggest a repeat from the 06 edition as presently constituted.

-- CD

Friday, June 02, 2006

Novel idea -- baseball night at the baseball park

Wednesday night the crowd did the wave in the third inning. No half inning passes in silence: Cartoon tools and water heaters hop around bases or pitch and hit on the vast center field screen. Hot chicks in Braves shirts and little shorts exhort fans while a fat blond guy with a butt cut asks people from Florida or North Carolina or Stockbridge trivia questions. There’s an endless assault of corporate sponsored promotions, even one by a gambling casino. PA announcer Bill Bower screams at us about “our second baseman!!!!!”

Upper deck facades are forever electronically lit with advertisements.

If you’re at Turner Field, and I suspect it’s the same at most ballparks, you have to fight for your right to reflect. That’s too bad because part of baseball’s beauty lies in its pauses, its spaces. The anticipation of a critical full-count pitch, the seconds between the crack of the bat and the end of Andruw’s sprint across the green gaps – will he catch it? – the throw home from left field when you can watch ball and runner converge and thrill to the sweet approach of resolution.

These sensations are not unique to baseball among sports. It just has more of these gaps, and they are more essential in baseball. In jazz or writing, the space between notes, the words left out are often as important as what is there. Baseball allows for such spaces.

Yet today’s ball parks are entertainment extravaganzas doing their best to fill every space. If nature abhors a vacuum, 21st Century major league parks abhor contemplation. Should Bobby have left McBride in last inning? Who has time to consider that when there’s a Home Depot paint can race, a Napa cap shuffle, a Delta Air Lines Mini Cooper circling the field?

Let’s see – it’s the 8th inning, two outs, the Braves lead by a run with a full count on the other team’s best hitter. Do we whoop and holler? No need to think. Just look up and see if the Loud Security Systems ad is ordering us to “get loud.”

Sorry if I sound like Furman Bisher. (A curmudgeon’s curmudgeon for those not familiar with the octogenarian columnist.) I understand baseball must adapt. If teams still played all day games, most people could never go. The advent of the relief specialist has added layers of new strategy to the game. I’ve grown to sort of like the wild card and interleague play. I love the influx of Latino and Asian players. Little kids like hitting in cages and playing with people in cartoon character costumes. Older kids like drinking in a place that feels like a Buckhead bar. And team owners love the revenue.

I understand all that. But since fans have embraced players occasionally wearing old-timey uniforms, how about the Braves, or any other team, holding an annual retro promotion? A game with just organ music, no cartoon tool races, no screaming PA men nor corporate-sponsored cheers. A night of just baseball. Who knows, people might like it.

-- CD

Bravos are so close

It’s right there in this blog’s tagline – we are no fans of blind devotion to statistics, especially obscure creations like PECOTA. Why trust something with the same name as a mediocre utility man?

I must confess, though, that I’m a sucker for the occasional numerical nugget that makes some sense.

Here’s one. We all know the home team has a dismal record in one-run games -- 10-14. The Bravos have played more one-run games than any team in baseball, according to the local organ.

The nugget: In one-run tilts against sub-.500 opponents, we’re 4-2; versus winning teams the record is 6-12, a .333 percentage. If the bullpen doesn’t improve, those demoralizing defeats like last night’s, like the extra-inning one at Shea, like the 10-9 defeat in the desert, etc. etc. will continue.

The evidence is mounting that small events – base running, outfielders throwing to second to keep double plays in order and especially critical pitches by relievers – will likely accumulate to determine the ’06 Bravos’ fate. So far, 18 of 35 games against winning teams have been decided by a single run. Obviously the bullpens don’t decide every close game, but they often do. Fix that screaming problem and this team probably reverses half the one-run losses and makes the playoffs. The status quo likely means an October off.

-- CD

JS: Devine might return to bigs in 06

JS said this morning that he hopes Joey Devine returns to Atlanta this season. Hoping and doing are different, but I had not heard even this much about the young righty from anyone of authority.

Schuerholz was doing a radio interview on Atlanta's 680 The Fan, during which he also gave his usual response to questions about the bullpen: We’re hunting answers inside and outside the organization. He thinks Tyler Yates can help. JS also said he’s confident the rotation is solid for the long haul, with Horacio looking better than anyone could’ve hoped, Sosa rounding into form and Hudson and Smoltzie doing what they do.

No huge news, really, though it is interesting that the club thinks Devine might be able to contribute this season. JS said they expect him to start pitching again in a week to 10 days, presumably in extended spring training then in the low minors.

A boot for Ooops

This is nitpicking, I know. In his story in today's local organ, O'Brien writes that in the fourth inning, Renteria was thrown out at third by shortstop Craig Counsell. Counsell didn't play until the 8th inning. Damion Easley threw out Renteria.

It's a small, perhaps meaningless, mistake, but part of a larger pattern of sloppiness. I've come around on O'Brien. I think he does a serviceable job overall and is excellent at trading info with readers on his blog and seems to have great musical taste. Plus, as a former reporter I know it's no fun to have people pointing out your minor mistakes. Yet he often misstates names and innings. Deadlines, blizzards of information -- there are plenty of excuses. He just needs to get these things right.

-- CD

Did you know ...

Babe Ruth and Al Jolson grew up in the same Baltimore orphanage? Overheard that last night on the "Charlie Rose" show -- guest hosted by columnist and author Frank Deford, who had former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent on as a guest. Vincent went on to relay a story I had never heard before about legendary owner (and promoter) Bill Veeck, who in 1943 had acquired the backing to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies. If the sale had gone through, Veeck planned to stock the roster with African-American players.

That would've made Jackie Robinson virtually irrelevant, historically. And if Veeck had consummated the deal, the Phils would've probably won their first World Series well before 1980.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

Wouldn't he be nice?

As you ponder the putrid state of the Atlanta bullpen, consider this: Newly reactivated Dodger Eric Gagne has 160 saves in 166 career opportunities. That encompasses more than three full seasons as the L.A. closer.

Meanwhile, Braves relievers have blown 12 saves so far this year.



I'd rather see Pete Orr come in to face a lefty than Mike Remlinger. We try not to question Bobby around here, but the evidence is in: Remlinger is virtually useless against lefthanded batters.

This year they have 11 hits in 34 AB's against him, following a recent pattern; since 2003, lefties have hit .284 against Re-malinger-er, while righties have managed only a .215 average.

So why does Bobby keep going to that empty well? Beats me, but it's cost the Bravos two wins this week.

Meanwhile, the Mariners are scuffling mightily. Eddie Guardado has struggled this season, but he would provide a definite upgrade, giving the home team two elements it desperately needs -- a dependable late inning southpaw and a proven resume as a closer. And, with his contract expiring after this year, he might very well be available. Plus, the M's have a deep bullpen, one of that team's few strengths.


Must be the hot dogs

Who knew the notorious "fat tub of goo" -- getting his second Office mention in as many nights -- had so much in common with Babe Ruth?

Besides being a portly lefthander, Terry Forster was a helluva hitter, compiling a lifetime .397 BA (with an .886 OPS). That includes a .526 mark (10-for-19) for the '72 White Sox, the last year pitchers hit in the AL. Like Ruth, Forster ended his career with a higher batting average than ERA (3.23).

Of course, the Babe's career numbers were a bit more impressive, finishing with a lifetime .342 average and a 2.28 ERA.


Scenes from the field level seats

I gave up my usual perch in Section 407 for Wednesday night’s game for a chance to sit amongst the fortunate sons and other recipients of corporate graft in Section 102. Here’s a rundown of the evening’s sights and sounds:

Pregame – Not sure who was this night’s VP of Marketing designated to throw out the first pitch, but he drills it in the dirt about 8 feet in front of the plate. Brayan Pena makes the save of the night. We have to abstain from ridiculing the poor sod, because his family is sitting in front of us.

Suchita Vadlamani of Fox 5’s Good Day Atlanta is tonight’s honorary captain. Wow! The seating upgrade has already paid off. How is it that I haven’t seen her before? No more Mike and Mike in the Morning when I’m getting ready for work.

First inning – We’re right across the aisle from the scouts’ section, and I glance over and immediately recognize Dennis Martinez. I believe that El Presidente is now working as a consultant for the Orioles.

Arriving on the other side of us, just in time for her husband’s at bat, is Mia Hamm. She takes a seat in the second row of the visiting team’s box. I don’t recognize anyone else in the box. Frank McCourt definitely isn’t there, and nobody has a hairpiece bad enough to be Ned Coletti’s.

Second inning – Absent from the visiting team box, but now sitting by Dennis Martinez in the scout’s section, is Dodger Assistant GM Kim Ng. Not sure how you pronounce that, but I think you pronounce it like you're making fun of a hairlip. Kim apparently prefers to keep company with people interested in baseball, rather than the celebrities in the team box, which is why she’ll be the first female GM.

Third inning – Here’s where the game was won. Of particular note is Andre Ethier’s dropped ball. He takes a good razzing from Mr. First Pitch, who exhibits Kennedyesque hubris in ridiculing the faults of others.

Fourth inning – By now every teenage girl in the lower level is aware of the presence of the US’s Greatest Women’s Soccer Player. There’s a steady wave of girls running down to the end of the aisle to snap a photo of her watching the game. What they are getting are photos of someone who looks like they couldn’t possibly be less interested in the game.

Fifth inning – Time for some scoreboard watching. Obviously worthy of note is the scoreless duel between between Brandon Webb and Pedro Martinez. What we need is the D-Backs to win, but for the game to go about 18 to tire out their pen. Oscar Villareal in particular wants to see someone other than Webb get the win so he can close in on the league leader for best record. Dennis Martinez knows that a no-decision for Pedro means that he gets to keep the title of All-Time Winningest Latin American Pitcher for another five days.

Sixth inning – Nomar homers, and gets nothing more than a golf clap from his wife. Nomar’s torn groin must have some lingering effects, because she doesn’t look like a satisfied woman.

Seventh inning – Sandy Alomar Jr. enters the game. We ponder how old he is, and I note that he’s so old that his younger brother is retired. I guess that he’s 40, then look it up in the program. He turns 40 in 18 days. I also notice that it’s Kenny Lofton’s 39th birthday. And I didn’t get him anything…

Keeping with Dodger tradition, Mia Hamm leaves in the bottom of the 7th.

The Diamondback-Met game has now gone to extras, still knotted at 0-0. Both starters are gone.

Eighth inning – Villareal enters the game with a 9-2 lead. We speculate whether El Buitre is intending on giving up 7 runs so he can vulture another win. Bobby won’t give him the chance, pulling him after 1 run surrendered.

Ninth inning – Ken Ray takes care of business and gets us out of there without further ado. Nice to see a game from this vantage point every once in a while, but I’m looking forward to slumming it when the D-backs get into town for this weekend’s series.


Gotta start somewhere

Looks like Dayton Moore has his work cut out for him. I wonder if this came with a ringing endorsement from Fred McGriff?


New owner MUST keep Smoltzie

Yeah, it could be a bad sign that Dayton Moore’s bolting. But it will be grim news indeed if ownership does not jump on Smoltzie’s 2007 option. At $8 million, that’s a bargain for an elite starter who’s also the most popular player on the team and its undisputed leader. Oh yeah, and he wants to come back, he told the local organ.

Think of it this way – the Bravos can re-up No. 29 for about a third what Houston’s paying Roger Clemens. In pure baseball terms and as a PR move, it would be spectacularly stupid and shortsighted not to exercise the option. Let Smoltzie go and you might as well double beer prices, ban cell phones at games, kill the seventh-inning stretch, show “Bonds on Bonds” constantly on the big center field screen, frisk every spectator, make fans return foul balls to security.

Baseball is a business, yes. And guys rarely spend entire careers in one place. But Smoltz has sacrificed money to stay here a couple of times. Eight million is, conservatively, about 50 percent less than he could command on the open market. By comparison, Clemens, who has been a shade better than Smoltz but is also three years older, is milking the Astros for a prorated $22 million one-year salary.

If Liberty, or some other owner, wants to immediately and completely alienate the players and fans, there’d be no better way than exiling the greatest Atlanta Brave ever.

A note on last night's game: Fine performance all around by the home team, and I was pleased by a marked increase in organ music. Bravo, Bravos.

-- CD