Wiedmer: Are Braves pretty good or great?

Wiedmer: Are Braves pretty good or great?

July 11th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Braves' Paul Maholm pitches against the Miami Marlins in the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in Miami.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

There's something both invigorating and infuriating about expecting this year's Atlanta Braves to swing for the fences at every opportunity. Kind of like throwing the bomb on 2nd and 2. Or jacking a long 3 when a 2 will do. Great if it works. But, oh, those whiffs and airballs.

Chicks may presumably still dig the long ball, but wouldn't it have been nice to see Dan Uggla move a runner along in Monday night's 14th inning against the Miami with the Braves holding a 3-1 lead, the bases loaded and just one out?

Instead, Danny Struggla swung as if he was attempting to swat away the world's most vicious killer bee, ultimately whiffing badly for out No. 2.

In that specific instance it didn't matter. Atlanta ultimately won 7-1, then won again on Tuesday night before ending the 3-game set against the Fish with a 6-2 loss Wednesday afternoon.

That defeat aside, going 3-3 on the road against the Phillies and Marlins marked an improvement of sorts for this team, which has limped home with losing records on four of its previous five road trips.

In fact, should Freddie Freeman edge out former Chattanooga Lookout and LA Dodger rookie Yasiel Puig for the final spot on the NL All-Star team in the Final Vote fans balloting today, he desperately needs to help the NL win and secure home-field advantage in the World Series, because the Braves are beginning to look like a team that can't win away from home.

Atlanta's current 23-26 road mark is the worst among all division leaders in either the American or National Leagues. Fortunately for the Braves, 35 of their final 60 games will be played at Turner Field and seven of their final 10 foes have losing records.

Ironically, no Brave better illustrates that split personality than Wednesday loser Paul Maholm, whose ERA at the Ted is 1.93, but 7.13 on the road.

"I thought we'd never win another road trip," Freeman told MLB.com on Wednesday. "At least we came in and tied it up."

But should was that singular Uggla grand fan from Monday night be another reason for Braves Nation to worry that its heroes still lack the intelligence to win in the postseason, when there are no free at-bats?

Isn't it the most elementary of baseball's rules that your first job is always to advance the base runners with the bases are loaded and less than two outs?

Well, isn't it?

With a six-game lead over the Washington Nationals in the National League East entering Wednesday, it still seems likely that the Braves will win the East.

After all, this is still a team with the NL's second-best earned run average -- 3.24 to Pittsburgh's 3.14 -- the league's third-most runs scored and the second most walks earned.

Yes, the Braves have struck out more than anyone in the NL (778) and are second for most men left on base (635). Their batting average (.250) is eighth among 15 teams. And then there's the little matter of the 11 times they've been shut out, hardly the stuff of pennant winners.

How perplexing is this bunch? They lead in strikeouts, which would seem to signal a lack of both discipline and patience, yet are second in walks drawn, which would seem to be the ultimate example of discipline and patience.

Can somebody get Dr. Phil on the phone?

But it's also hugely significant that its NL East lead has been accomplished without a single inning tossed by Brandon Beachy, who had become the Braves best pitcher last season before being lost to Tommy John surgery a little over a year ago.

If Beachy makes it back by August or September, an already solid Atlanta staff could become downright scary.

There's also the schedule. The Braves played 16 of their first 24 on the road, and they weren't exactly cream puffs, as judging by those opponents' records entering Tuesday's contests -- at Washington (46-43), at Pitt (53-35) and Detroit (49-39).

Then came early May series at Cincinnati (50-39), Arizona (47-42) and the defending world champion San Francisco Giants.

So regardless of how unspectacular this team sometimes looks at this moment, no one in the NL has faced the schedule these Braves have to this point.

Does this mean there aren't flaws? Anytime your offense is leading the league in strikeouts there are flaws. Especially when you're tied for second in runners left on base.

"[The Braves] have got a lot of guys who can hit home runs," Miami pitcher Jacob Turner noted Wednesday. "You want to keep as many guys off base as possible, because with one swing, it can really change the game."

Unfortunately for Atlanta, that mentality sometimes costs you games when it matters most.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.