Braves in tailspin after fast start

What a difference eight days makes. When Atlanta left Tampa Bay to head north to Cincinnati on May 20, the Braves had just taken two of three from one of the American League’s best teams in a building where visitors rarely find success. The Braves were winners of three of their previous four with just a four-game series against the Reds blocking an extended home stand.

The Reds, however, swept the four-game set with the Braves, and then the Nationals took three straight from Atlanta in Turner Field. St. Louis ensured it was a bad Memorial Day by taking out Tommy Hanson and the rest of the pitching staff 8-2 this past Monday.

What has happened to the Braves to go from first place in the NL East with a 1.5-game lead to dead last in the NL East in a stretch of just eight days? How did things turn so quickly that Braves fans feel like they are drinking expired milk whenever the home team takes the field? Unfortunately, there is no short answer to solve the riddle that is an eight-game losing streak.

 

PITCHING WOES …

Many people looked at the Atlanta rotation entering the season and thought this would carry the team all the way to the postseason. The rotation had former all-stars Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens headlining with Hanson backing them up as a strong No. 3. Brandon Beachy tasted some success last year and Mike Minor looked sharp throughout all of spring training. The fans were even excited about Randall Delgado, who was pitching like he didn’t want to call Gwinnett home ever again.

The script was quickly rewritten and not for the better.

Jurrjens was demoted to Class AAA-Gwinnett after posting an 0-2 record with a 9.37 ERA in four starts. He was roughed up repeated in his starts and averaged four innings per appearance. Opponents were crushing the 2011 all-star to the tune of a .411 batting average and 17 runs in just 16.1 innings of work.

Jurrjens wasn’t the only culprit though. Mike Minor has gone 2-4 in 10 starts with a 6.98 ERA. Minor has surrendered 13 home runs in his 58 innings of work this year.

Even Hanson hasn’t been his dominating self this year. He leads the team with five wins, but he was shelled on Memorial Day and has four losses to go with his five wins.

Beachy and Hudson have been the bright spots for the rotation this year as Hudson has won half of his starts while Beachy has five wins. But both have lost during this losing streak as neither has gotten much help in terms of run support. Beachy has also seen his league-best ERA increase from 1.33 to 1.77 after giving up three home runs against Cincinnati. Hudson, meanwhile, gave up seven runs in a loss to Washington.

The bullpen has also struggled after appearing to be a strength entering the year. While 2011 NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel has converted 14-of-15 save opportunities, Jonny Venters has struggled to find the strike zone. The filthy left-handed set-up man has appeared in 21 games, but has been shelled for a .329 average and a 1.85 WHIP. Venters has surrendered nine walks and 25 hits in his 18.1 innings of work. Chad Durbin has earned the ire of Braves fans by posting a 5.60 ERA in 17.2 innings of work over 22 appearances. Durbin has allowed 11 runs this year, surpassed by Livan Hernandez’s 12 earned runs and .303 average in 29.1 innings of work. Hernandez has given up 33 hits. Cristhian Martinez is also struggling with a 4.05 ERA.

 

INJURY BUG …

It would be easy to point the finger at the injury bug that has bitten the Braves hard of late, but that is no excuse as every team experiences injuries throughout a 162-game schedule. The injuries have all come at once for Atlanta, though it seems. Chipper Jones was the first to go down for an extended period of time after taking a line drive off of his ankle. Jones had been missing games due to travel and a balky knee, but the ankle injury recently required surgery to help alleviate the pain for Jones. The team is 19-5 with Jones in the lineup this season.

Freddie Freeman also was relegated to the bench after suffering corneal abrasions during the Colorado series. He has been suffering from blurred vision and dry eyes. When he has played, Freeman has struggled, going 1-for-17 with six strikeouts during the losing streak. Freeman is awaiting prescription goggles be- fore his full-time return to the lineup.

Brian McCann has also been under the weather, missing six games in the process. He returned to the lineup Monday after backup David Ross was forced out due to an injured groin.

The injuries all mounted at once, and with so many regulars on the bench with various ailments, the deep bench that gen- eral manager Frank Wren put together was suddenly sapped with backups forced into regular action. Eric Hinske has spent time in the outfield and at first base during the losing skid, though he is hitting just .246 this season.

 

MOVING FORWARD …

So what happens now? How do the Braves shake this funk they sit in and once again challenge for a spot in the postseason? One thing to remember is that the Braves sit just four games out of first place. The team has struggled at home this season, but how often do you see a team consistently tank at home throughout the course of a season? The team has a nine-game homestand approaching the week of June 10, so perhaps the Braves can start winning again on that extended stretch.

Despite the recent cold spell, the Braves still have a positive run differential, which cannot be said about two teams that currently sit ahead of the Braves in the NL East standings.

The offense should receive a boost now that McCann has returned to the lineup. McCann is a six-time all-star that also won the last four Silver Slugger awards for National League catchers and five of the last six. Assuming Freeman finally receives his prescription goggles, the Braves first baseman will look to return to his pre-condition form when he was hammering balls out of the park and registering a .303 batting average.

The onus is on manager Fredi Gonzalez to weather the storm and ride out this rough patch. If Gonzalez can keep the staff cobbled together until the offense returns to full strength, perhaps the Braves can still be within striking distance of a playoff berth come September.

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