It could have been so easy.
Don’t lie to me, Atlanta Braves fans. There was a moment, after the first game in Milwaukee when the Braves were shut out and lost by a pair of runs, when you thought “That’s it! The season’s over! Just give the Nationals the crown!”
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I know you thought it.
But the past three games should have put your mind at ease. In fact, the past three games should give you reason to think maybe all that bad luck over the last month isn’t going to sink this team. It would be so easy to write this team off before they even began. Frankly, a lot of people have.
So, here’s what I’ve seen from the “injured team that could” as the 2014 season kicks off.
5. B.J Upton
Let’s just get it out of the way. The pressure is on, and it’s turned up to 11. So far, though, Upton’s new swing isn’t doing him any favors. He’s had 12 at-bats, with one hit and six strikeouts. Obviously, the strikeouts are the big problem. We know this. And the lineup is on this list as well, so we’ll come back to him batting in the two hole. But I do know that, for his one hit, he successfully stole second, which is what Fredi Gonzalez wants out of that position in the lineup. Best I can say at this point is to keep your fingers crossed — Gonzalez is probably going to keep him right where he is for now to show some support.
4. Dan Uggla
While we’re on the topic of new swings, let’s talk Uggla for a second. The bad news is his average is sitting at .182. But that’s pretty much it for the bad news. Out of Uggla’s 11 plate appearances, he has one strikeout. One. For those keeping score, that means he’s put the bat on the ball the other nine times. His two hits have both been doubles. The easy way to read this is that Uggla is actually seeing the ball pretty well. He’s really been unlucky in that every hit has been right at somebody. Look for Uggla’s average to come up and pretty soon. He’ll be a productive member of this lineup in no time. (Knock on wood! Seriously! Right now!)
3. The lineup
We’ve covered two members, but let’s talk about the rest. Jason Heyward batting at the top is no surprise, and he’s flourishing there. A homer already, his OBP is over .300 and he’s generally causing trouble for opposing pitchers. B.J. batting second probably shocked many in Braves Country, but, like I said, Gonzalez wants speed at the top of the lineup, both to disrupt the opposition and to try and set the table for Freddie Freeman and the next surprise — Chris Johnson. Like Heyward, Johnson is not a prototypical cleanup hitter, and many might not see the value of him batting fourth. But Johnson’s approach at the plate might be exactly what this offense needs. He makes contact, hits to all fields and has occasional pop. He’s more likely to double than hit a game-changing homer (like he did the other day), but with the table set, he’s going to find more than a handful of RBI opportunities.
2. The bullpen
These guys are killing so far. They’ve lost Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters still hasn’t returned, Cory Gearrin may be out for the season and spring training gave reason to believe this bullpen couldn’t handle the workload this season. At least not as well as they did last year. But with David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan and newcomer Ryan Buchter, the later innings and any lead seem to be in good hands. Oh, and here’s the part where I talk about how awesome Craig Kimbrel is. Consider it done.
1. Starting pitching
I mentioned in my last article that, if the Atlanta Braves were going to find themselves in trouble, it would be during the first two weeks in April. Without Mike Minor, Ervin Santana and Gavin Floyd, the youngsters had to carry the team. Well they’ve done just that, along with veteran Aaron Harang, who’s trying to prove he’s not done. Well, Julio Teheran’s opening day outing was the worst the Braves have had this season. Worst being two earned runs on six hits in six innings. After that, Alex Wood picked up where he left off in the second game. Harang blew everyone’s mind when he went toe-to-toe with Matt Garza and the two threw no-hitters through six innings. I probably wasn’t the only Braves fan who held my breath when Harang started the game, but he showed he’s still got stuff. And last, but certainly not least, was David Hale. He had a rough spring and many probably doubted he could flash the brilliance he showed last season in two starts. But he went out and kept the Nationals off the scoreboard through five innings. Which means that, over his three major league starts, he’s given up one run in 16 innings. Let’s just say the starting pitchers are holding their own so far. In fact, the whole team has set a new franchise record — they’ve given up the fewest runs, five, through the first four games of any Braves team. I’d say that’s fairly impressive.
Now, don’t read too far into this.
We’re not even done with the first week. There’s still a lot of baseball to be played. So, don’t have any World Series champion shirts printed just yet. But after four games, including the Nationals’ home opener, the Atlanta Braves are tied for first place and showing the grit and determination that helped them win 96 games last year.
It could have been easy, Braves fans. But go ahead and get ready to ride the wave. Because this team isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
(Knock on some more wood. Seriously.)