Greeson: Painful lineup threatens Braves' long-term health

Greeson: Painful lineup threatens Braves' long-term health

May 7th, 2014 by Jay Greeson in Sports - Columns

St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Allen Craig (21) scores on a Peter Bourjos (8) base hit as Atlanta Braves catcher Evan Gattis (24) handles the late throw in the sixth inning of a baseball game on Monday, May 5, 2014, in Atlanta.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

This is starting to get serious, right? Seven losses in a row, going into Tuesday night, for an Atlanta Braves team built and designed to avoid extended slumps with a vast collection of good-but-not-great starting pitchers hardly inspire confidence.

So it goes for a bunch that had an offensive explosion -- for them -- Monday night with nine hits and three runs. Yes, those numbers seem minute, but by comparison it was a full three days' worth of work in the runs department for a Braves team that was swept by the Giants over the weekend.

In fact, when things turn, they turn in all directions. Take Monday's 4-3 loss to the Cardinals. Yes, the bats were slightly better, but the game hinged on two unearned St. Louis runs that were triggered by an error on shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

Yes, that Andrelton Simmons who is the best defensive shortstop in the major leagues and makes a river of plays seem routine on a nightly basis.

But the season is a fickle and funny marathon that must be trusted and frequently can prove to be untrustworthy.

How quickly a team can right the ship can be just as important as how long it can surf the good waves of winning streaks. So the Braves are faced with that parameter. Win or lose Tuesday night against the Cardinals, Atlanta needs to find something that creates energy and enjoyment.

Right now, a trip through this order is a day at the beach for opposing pitchers and a day in an insurance seminar for Braves fans. It's pain-free for foes and painful for supporters.

Maybe the jumpstart was at the end of the order Monday night? Meet Ramiro Pena, Braves utility guy and all-around scrapper who has used three starts in the team's last four games to go 3-for-10 with a homer.

Yes, that's a tiny sample for the long grind of a big-league season, but it took Pena, who started Monday night at second base, three games to bang out three hits. He replaced the mighty Dan Uggla -- aka Danny Struggla -- in the lineup. By comparison, Uggla has three hits -- all singles -- in his last nine games (3-for-31 over that stretch).

So maybe it's time to finally make Danny Struggla baseball's most expensive backup second baseman.

Uggla is due more than $13 million this year, and considering he's on pace for 99 hits and a .190 average with more than 150 strikeouts, well, making more than $100,000 per base hit would be a nice exchange rate, no?

So the questions linger, and those are not exactly calmed by Braves manager Fredi Gonzales' decision to juggle his lineup with his pitcher hitting eighth and Simmons hitting ninth. Yes, the pitcher hits No. 8, the shortstop hitting .290 hits ninth and the second baseman who could not hit the grass with his hat returns in the No. 7 spot.

So where do they go from here? Who knows. But the holes in this lineup put entirely too much pressure on the pitching, and that small margin of error leaves the pitching staff on the hook for everything.

Every team is going to go through ups and downs, and how they manage them is a testament to the potential of the organization.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.