|ESPN.com: Buster Olney||[Print without images]|
|Due to injuries, lefty Luis Avilan plays a crucial role in the Braves' bullpen.|
There are a lot of ways to evaluate talent, and maybe the worst is the good old-fashioned "pulse of the room" check. But you walk into the clubhouse and the Atlanta Braves are loaded.
Freddie Freeman, 23, sits at his locker and chats with the Justin Upton, 25, and Jason Heyward, 23 -- and you realize these three players already have a combined 6,500 career plate appearances. They are just getting started.
Craig Kimbrel walks by. In 2012, he recorded one of the greatest seasons of relief pitching in history, becoming the first pitcher ever to strike out more than half the batters he faced. Kimbrel is 24 years old. Mike Minor has been one of baseball’s best pitchers over the past 10 months; he’s 25 years old. Kris Medlen is 27 years old, Julio Teheran is 22.
A veteran player in the room acknowledges the potential of the group with a nod and a laugh. “Dude, we are goooooood," he said quietly, emphasizing the potential with that long, understated syllable.
The first time shortstop Andrelton Simmons realized that he had an unusually strong arm, in his life experience, was when he was an 8-year-old pitcher and he felt the gawks of opposing hitters and coaches as he racked up strikeouts. The No. 2 pitcher on his childhood team: Didi Gregorius, the shortstop for the Diamondbacks. Simmons is now 23 years old, and in the eyes of some Braves, he already is the sport’s best defender. Former Braves third baseman Chipper Jones wrote in a direct message Sunday that Simmons reminds him of Andruw Jones in how smooth he is, how effortless everything seems to look, including throwing. Rafael Furcal had a powerful arm and seemed to use his whole body to launch the ball, but with Simmons, the act of throwing looks as natural as the roll of waves on a beach.
At age 26, Evan Gattis has less than two months in the big leagues, but he already might be the most dangerous pinch-hitter in the game; in 2014, he is likely to be Atlanta’s frontline catcher. This has all been a whirlwind for him, all the attention about his past and his unusual bare-knuckles style of hitting. I mentioned to him that on a particularly cold day recently, the game announcers said it had to be really cold because Gattis was wearing long sleeves. Gattis chuckled at the whole legend thing; he’s having a great time but is looking forward to the day, he said, when “it gets back to being about baseball.”
The Braves’ older guys are talented, too, from 29-year-old Brian McCann to 28-year-old Chris Johnson to 37-year-old Tim Hudson. Atlanta has a deep bench, deep rotation, power up and down the lineup. “They may be the best team in baseball,” said a rival GM last week. “They’ve got growing to do, and they’re already really good.”
But on "Sunday Night Baseball," the Braves’ one glaring issue was exposed: They need more bullpen help. Manager Fredi Gonzalez will need more options. Gonzalez doesn’t necessarily need them today, or even in June or July or August, but they will be needed eventually, inevitably.
Teheran didn’t have his best stuff against the Mets on Sunday, going through a couple of blasts of wildness before sorting it all out, and after Dan Uggla crushed a monster home run into the second deck in left field in the seventh inning, the Braves had a 2-1 lead. With two outs and runners on base, Gonzalez called on the only lefty in his bullpen, Luis Avilan.
Jonny Venters was one of the best lefty relievers in 2011 and 2012, making the All-Star team, but he never threw a pitch this season before having Tommy John surgery; some of his teammates sensed last year that he was breaking down. Eric O’Flaherty was also one of the best lefties, but he broke down, after years of a heavy workload.
So Avilan has to move up to seventh- and eighth-inning duty, and he jammed Daniel Murphy so bad that all Murphy could do was lift a little looper to the mound, an inning-ended popout. When the eighth inning started, right-handed hitting Justin Turner was inserted as a pinch-hitter, with right-handed hitting David Wright scheduled to bat behind him, so Gonzalez called on right-hander Cory Gearrin, who is now the primary setup man.
Turner singled, and Gearrin struck out Wright. Left-handed hitting Lucas Duda was coming to bat, having had some good swings on the night, including a line-drive home run. In the past, Gonzalez had the luxury of reflexively going to the mound to call on another lefty.
But there is no other lefty. There is no Venters, no O’Flaherty. There is only Avilan. Gearrin remained in the game.
Duda lifted a double inside the left-field line, and after John Buck singled home the tying run, Mets manager Terry Collins inserted left-handed pinch-hitter Mike Baxter for Marlon Byrd -- without fear, of course, because Gonzalez didn’t have a countermove available.
Gearrin hit Baxter with a pitch, bringing left-handed hitting Ike Davis to the plate, with just three hits in his previous 47 at-bats, and no RBIs since May 9. Davis has been terrible against all pitchers, but especially against lefties.
However, Gonzalez had no lefties, of course. He stuck with Gearrin.
Davis hit a hard single through the right side, scoring two runs, setting off something of a happy explosion in the Mets’ dugout -- which is where, before the game, Davis had met with owner Jeff Wilpon, general manager Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins to talk about Davis’ slump. It was a discussion, Davis said later, about getting back to having fun again. A game-winning, two-run single in the eighth -- that was fun, although somewhat weird for Davis. He accepted the hugs of teammates but added through a smile, “That was awkward. I have gotten a hit before.”
The Braves have a nice lead in the National League East this morning, and all that talent is going to grow through the long summer. But they also have that nagging issue of bullpen depth that will manifest itself in the seventh and eighth innings until it is patched. Maybe Medlen will be the fix, shifting into that role after Brandon Beachy comes back. Maybe the Braves will make a trade, for someone like the Marlins’ Mike Dunn. Maybe the fix will be Alex Wood, a 6-foot-4 left-hander who was the Braves’ No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft out of the University of Georgia; he has a little unusual motion in his delivery, a little funkiness, and so far in Double-A this season, he has a 1.26 ERA and just 15 walks and 1 homer allowed in 57 innings. Maybe he can be a missing piece for the Braves -- and maybe sooner rather than later.
They are goooood, and could be great. But the manager will need more options in order to dent October.
From ESPN Stats & Info, how Strasburg won:
A. He dominated righties: they went 1-for-10 with 5 K's. His K% of 45.5 against righties was his second-highest this season.
B. He got hitters to swing at bad pitches: zone% (43.8) was his second-lowest of the season while his swing% on pitches out of the zone (36.5) was his most this season.
C. A good curveball: 27 curveballs tied his most this season. He recorded 4 of 9 K's with the pitch (also tying his season high). Entering the day, the Phillies were hitting .168 against curveballs, 27th in MLB.
• On Sunday, Patrick Corbin recorded his eighth consecutive win to begin the season, tied for the second-longest streak by a Diamondbacks starter in franchise history. The Diamondbacks are 10-0 in Corbin's starts this season.
From ESPN Stats & Info: Corbin’s slider has been incredibly effective for him this season – he’s racked up 41 of his 56 strikeouts with the pitch, and he’s used it to get both righties and lefties. The interesting thing is that Corbin has been getting a ton of strikes and strikeouts with the pitch despite rarely throwing it in the strike zone. No pitcher has thrown breaking pitches outside the zone at a higher rate, and no pitcher has gotten more whiffs per swing on breaking balls than Corbin.
OTHER NOTABLE PITCHING PERFORMANCES
• Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers: Second Tigers pitcher to start 7-0 or better in last 25 years (Jeremy Bonderman - 2007).
• Shaun Marcum, New York Mets: Career-high 12 K's; fourth different pitcher in Mets history to get a no-decision or loss in a 12-K, 0-BB game (Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, Matt Harvey).
• Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals: Allowed 3 ERs or fewer in all 11 career starts.
• Bartolo Colon, Oakland Athletics: 7 IP, season-high 9 K's (most K's since July 19, 2011 at Rays).
From ELIAS: This marks the first time since 2005 that four starting pitchers have started a season 7-and-0 or better (Max Scherzer, Matt Moore, Clay Buchholz and Patrick Corbin).
• From ESPN Stats & Info about CC Sabathia: He allowed seven-plus ERs for the first time since Aug. 6, 2011 versus the Red Sox. The Yankees fall to 1-9 in Sabathia's last 10 road starts at Tampa Bay.
"I'm hurting the team,” Sabathia said. “It's just everything. Not being able to make pitches with two strikes, fastball command, location. I just need to work and make certain I can get better and try to help the team."
Sabathia actually had his best fastball velocity of the season -- 90.6 mph. But the stat that did him in: He allowed as many HRs with his fastball (2) as he got swings-and-misses with it.Memorial Day Note
And today will be better than yesterday.