Wiedmer: Braves deserve more cheers than jeers

Wiedmer: Braves deserve more cheers than jeers

June 30th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Philadelphia Phillies' Marlon Byrd is greeted by Cody Asche after his solo home run during their game with the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, June 29, 2014, in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Phillies' Marlon Byrd is greeted by Cody...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Could it be that we've been too hard on these Atlanta Braves? Could it be they deserve far more cheers than jeers? At least everyone but second baseman Dan Uggla and batting coach Greg Walker?

Imagine you'd told the most optimistic Braves backer on the planet at the start of spring training that starting pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, as well as reliever Cory Gearrin from Rhea County, would be lost to Tommy John surgery before the season began, and then fellow pitcher Gavin Floyd's promising spring would end in June with a broken elbow.

Imagine you'd added to that sad scenario the not-so-unimportant stat that Atlanta has thus far scored the 14th fewest runs in the 15-team National League.

Given those facts, do you think even Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez could have convinced anyone that the Braves would be in first place in the NL East more than halfway through the season?

Yet here they are after 82 games, 44-38 on the year and one-half game ahead of the Washington Nationals following Sunday's 3-2 win at Philadelphia. Moreover, they won eight times on their just-completed 11-game road trip, which makes them 24-20 away from Turner Field this season, the fourth-best road mark in the NL.

More good news? Starting with tonight's visit from the New York Mets, the Braves play their next 24 games against six teams that all have losing records and stand a collective 60 games under .500.

So by the time Atlanta flies to the Left Coast in late July for an eight-game trip that includes three games against the Dodgers and two against the Mariners, there's no reason to believe Fredi's Feistys can't be at least four or five games in front of the Nats.

Especially since Washington's next 24 games include a 14-game road trip and come against seven teams that stand a collective 10 games under .500.

"To go 8-3 on this road trip was really, really good," said Gonzalez, whose decision to make light-hitting B.J. Upton his leadoff hitter this past week has looked really, really good in the very short term of seven games and six wins.

"We pitched well the whole series and had some timely hitting."

This isn't to say the Braves are good climbing toward great. Former Vanderbilt and South Carolina basketball coach Eddie Fogler used to dismiss the scoring averages of players on struggling fives by saying, "Somebody has to score on a bad team." And somebody has to win the NL East, however impotent their postseason prospects.

But this much must also be said of the defending East champs: They can flat-out pitch. Only four teams in major league baseball -- Seattle, Oakland, Washington and St. Louis -- have given up fewer runs than the Braves' 298, and none of them have scored as few as Atlanta's, um, 298.

Beyond that, only two teams in baseball -- the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates -- have managed to score fewer runs than they've allowed and still post winning marks, and neither of them has won as many as the Braves.

This doesn't necessarily mean Atlanta is destined to claim its first playoff series since 2001. It does mean that if it ever figures out how to score more than 3.6 runs a game, this club might at least prove dangerous come October.

"We're staying tough, grinding it out, winning close games," Upton said after delivering a two-run triple Sunday. "If we can stick to that, and keep swinging the bats the way we did this weekend, we'll be fine."

That's THE question, of course. Can the Braves finally score more runs than they surrender? Can they take at least a little heat off the bullpen, especially closer Craig Kimbrel? Can they take advantage of the schedule to make the Nationals play serious catch-up come August and September? Especially if catcher Evan Gattis's back spasms become more frequent.

And should they fail to improve at the plate, isn't it time to consider replacing Walker, who, if anything, has appeared to do less to boost the Braves offense than his predecessor Terry Pendleton?

It's certainly not all Walker's fault. For instance, he had nothing to do with Jason Heyward getting hit in the face by a pitch less than two months before last year's playoffs. He also shouldn't take all the heat for Uggla. And Freddie Freeman certainly has improved under Walker's watch.

But the body of work is far from impressive. The Braves often appear incapable of manufacturing runs through bunts and sacrifices, as with Tommy La Stella's double-play out Sunday after failing to execute a bunt.

Still, the pitching has mostly been amazing, as when Sunday winner Aaron Harang forced Phillies pinch-hitter John Mayberry to hit into his first double play of the season in the sixth with one out and two aboard. Harang has surrendered two or fewer runs in 13 of his 17 starts. And he was an afterthought at season's dawn.

So maybe the MVP of this team is pitching coach Roger McDowell. Maybe the Atlanta pitchers should sell this motto to their everyday teammates: "Give us four [runs] and we'll shut the door."

Maybe we should all simply be thankful these flawed Braves never have quit staying tough and grinding it out.

Said Gonzalez of Sunday's win before boarding a plane home to the Big Peach early Sunday evening: "Doing it in that fashion, with pitching and timely offense, you can't ask for anything more than that."

At least you probably shouldn't expect it with this bunch. And given that, no reasonable Braves fan should ask for anything more than to be right where Atlanta is perched this morning -- shakily atop the NL East.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.