When a team like the Atlanta Braves, who have a lot of expectations attached to a season, begins the season 0-4, it can lead to some concern. When those four losses are against one of your division rivals who is predicted to finish last, that concern quickly becomes worry. But since the Braves’ inauspicious start against the New York Mets, they’ve manged to win every series – against the Astros, Brewers, Mets, Diamondbacks and Dodgers – and are poised to climb over division leader Washington this weekend. As Alfred E. Newman says, “What…me worry?”
The Braves turnaround can’t be attributed to any one particular area of the team, or player. It’s been a team effort, and contributions have come from up and down the lineup, in the bullpen, and on the bench. This is the way championship teams are supposed to play. The areas of concern from the season opening series against the Mets now seem like an afterthought. Third baseman Juan Francisco, who made three costly errors in one game, and was 1 for 8 at the plate against the Mets, has been clean as a whistle on the field since then, and has upped his average to .258 with three home runs (equaling his home run total for all of 2011 with Cincinnati). Francisco was picked up to add another left-handed bat to the bench, and to back up the retiring Chipper Jones. Even much maligned relief pitcher Chad Durbin has managed to come around, giving up zero earned runs, one walk, and only three hits in his last five outings.
It would also seem that the change in the hitting coach has done a lot to awaken the Braves sleepy bats. Atlanta is fourth the major leagues in runs scored – only behind Boston, Texas, and the N.Y. Yankees – and fifth in the major leagues in runs batted in – only behind Boston, Texas, N.Y. Yankees, and St. Louis. What makes those two stats even more impressive is that the Braves are ranked tenth in the majors in home runs, which means they aren’t being dependent on the long ball to score. This is perhaps a testament to the fresh ideas and approach that new hitting coach Greg Walker has instilled into his hitters.
That’s not to say there aren’t still some issues to be addressed. The fifth spot in the starting rotation now must be shuffled around with the reassignment of Jair Jurrjens to AAA Gwinnett. Second baseman Dan Uggla‘s glove has been a bit suspect so far this year. The position of shortstop could still end up being a battle between rookie Tyler Pastornicky and prospect Andrelton Simmons, and there are those who still feel that a power hitting left fielder is the greatest need among position players. But all things considered, those are pretty minor tweaks, and many managers in the majors would be happy to have those as their only real problems. If the Braves can sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates in the April-ending series, they will have gone from 0-4 to 16-7. Quite an impressive turnaround, and definitely more what Braves fans, as well as baseball experts, had in mind for Atlanta this season.
Strong starting pitching, a lights-out bullpen, putting speed on the base-paths (and using it), and timely hitting with just enough power. Combine all that with just the right mix of veterans, youth, and strong role players off the bench. Should sound like a familiar formula to Braves fans.