Schafer making case for short-term leadoff solution

Though he did not drive in the winning run, Jordan Schafer showed improvement at leadoff Friday night.

ATLANTA — By the time Jordan Schafer made significant contact Friday night, he already knew the ball was sailing in the wrong direction.

New York Mets center fielder Marlon Byrd had a beat on the potential sacrifice fly, one that was intended to score substitute third baseman Ramiro Pena from third to break a ninth-inning tie. In fact, it was hit right at Byrd.

"If it's to his left or right there's probably a good chance the game's over," Schafer said.

Instead, given the trajectory of the ball's flight, Byrd was able to position himself to take a running start toward home plate as the ball neared his glove, creating enough momentum to deter Pena from trying to score. And he did; when the throw came in, Pena stayed put.

He was eventually stranded on-base with the game tied 5-5, and the Braves (17-12) would go on to lose 7-5 in extra innings — their third-consecutive loss at Turner Field.

"Wish I could have got that ball on the barrel a little more we'd have been home already," Schafer said after the 10-inning affair. "(Mets pitcher Bobby Parnell) got in on me a little bit. They threw me a little differently that at-bat than they did the rest of the game. They were mostly staying away, away. And then that at-bat they were trying to throw everything in, obviously so i wouldn't get extended and get a ball to the outfield."

The just-miss game-winner would have been a fitting feather in the cap to Schafer's evening, the most patient night of his career. He drew a career-high four walks in his leadoff role, helping to set up Atlanta scoring plays in the fifth and seventh innings.

It was just his fifth start in the No. 1 spot since the organization brought him back by claiming him off waivers in November.

And with the franchise still searching for a suitable leadoff replacement for Michael Bourn, whom Schafer was swapped for at the 2011 trade deadline, it would be no small bit of irony that Schafer, of all players, would come full circle and earn the spot he was groomed for when Atlanta drafted him in 2005, even as a short-term solution.

He didn't appreciate that storyline much Friday night, though.

His team just lost for the 11th time in 16 games. He's still the team's fourth outfielder, in spite of his efforts. And his team's offense is still trying to find itself.

"We just couldn't seem to finish it up there," he said. "We just kind of stalled there in the beginning and just ran out of time in getting guys on and scoring some runs. We had opportunities but we couldn't finish them."

However, there's good news in that statement: The opportunities were there, and that has not always been the case. Pena reached third base three times Friday night — twice being driven in by shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who provided some much-needed production in the 2-hole — while pitcher Mike Minor scored from third and outfielder B.J. Upton scored from second. That's certainly an improvement.

After all, the Braves have had 191 at-bats with runners in scoring position this season, third-worst in baseball. (Side note: it does not help that the Braves are batting just .230 with men on second and/or third base.)

Much of that improvement stems from the top, where Atlanta has been dreadful at times this season. In its six previous losses alone, the Nos. 1 and 2 hitters reached base just seven times in 54 plate appearances. Schafer's four-walk night looked like a postcard from another era.

Though he's not known for exemplary plate discipline — "I usually go up there and hack a little bit," he admitted with a laugh,"but I'm just starting to learn a little bit. Mature. I can't try to make stuff happen with pitches that are balls." — Schafer's ability to get himself on the basepaths was a reminder on just how much the Braves have missed that aspect of their offense through 29 games. For perspective, here are the offensive production rankings league-wide (in terms of OPS+) for the Braves' top four lineup spots:

No. 1: 26th
No. 2: 30th
No. 3: 2nd
No. 4: 13th

So even with cleanup man Freddie Freeman missing 13 games with an oblique injury — Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson filled in adequately in the No. 4 spot — the heart of the Braves order produced at an above average-to-elite level. Justin Upton's first 29 games, of course, need no introduction. But there's a reason runs have come at a premium for the Braves. The power numbers are near the top of the league, but they still rank 17th in runs scored thanks in large part to the lack of production at the top.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has tried everything up there, too, or so it seems.

He's run out five different leadoff hitters. He's tried eight different No. 2 hitters, many of which have received a look during Heyward's recovery from an appendectomy — not that he was producing at his normal levels anyways (.121/.261/.259, two home runs, 12 strikeouts).

In total: 23 batting lineups in 29 games.

There comes a time when experimentation gets exhausting and consistency becomes a welcome idea, though Gonzalez was far from tipping his cap as to his next move following the loss.

"(Schafer) did a nice job. He got on-base every single time, he just couldn't hit that last fly ball deep enough for him to win the ballgame," said the third-year manager, who was more focused on the lead his bullpen relinquished than on his leadoff hitters. "I liked our at-bats today."

Heyward, one the most valuable all-around players in baseball last season, will return to his No. 2 spot when he's healthy. The expectations in the organization, by and large, are that he will rediscover his 2012 form. Heyward will also take his place alongside the Brothers Upton in the outfield upon his return, so it's safe to assume Schafer's playing time will eventually diminish for an N.L. team lacking the fallback of a designated hitter.

A career .223 hitter may not be the popular choice — B.J. Upton is the speedy new free agent with a $75 million contract and Simmons is the up-and-coming star who won a batting title in the minors — but it's tough to argue against the team giving Schafer an extended look after watching him patiently frustrate Mets pitchers.

What does Schafer make of the situation? Not much, it seems. He's just trying to stick around on a 25-man roster demanding a shakeup when Heyward and catcher Brian McCann return.

So he plays. And plays. Waits to get Gonzalez's call, and plays some more.

At the very least now, he's in the running to be table-setter for the Braves until Heyward returns to the outfield, and he's showing marked improvement. That's more than anyone was prepared to say about him just a few months ago, back when Schafer was simply the talented, but self-destructive young player whom the team traded for its former leadoff man.

The cards have been reshuffled and re-dealt, but Jordan Schafer is still here, and still relevant, in Atlanta.

"Me getting on-base, no matter how it is, that's gonna help us win. That's my only focus and objective."

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