ATLANTA — In its first game out of the All-Star break, the Atlanta Braves offense found ways to do what it struggled so often with in the first half of the season: putting runs on the board. In a 6-4 win over the Philadelphia Phillies at Turner Field, the Braves capitalized in a number of ways against starter A.J. Burnett, including five two-out RBI. Here are three observations from the game:
Following a big-time personnel move prior to the divisional showdown, Braves general manager Frank Wren sat in the home dugout and alluded to the importance of a "fresh start." If any component of his first-place NL East team could use one, it was the offense, which sputtered far too many times in the first 94 games before the break. Walks, timely hits and, most importantly, runs were in short supply entering the four-day break. If anything, manager Fredi Gonzalez was unsure how his team would start out of the gate.
To his relief, even on a rain-soaked night in Atlanta, there were positive signs.
"You never know when you come out of the four days of not playing baseball," Gonzalez said. "We had a couple guys — we had an optional workout and about seven or eight guys showed up, offensive guys. The entire pitching staff showed up. It was nice for them to come out and have them swing the bat a little bit and get back into the swing of things. But yeah, offensively today we kept the line moving and we’re able to get some tallies there with two outs."
The Braves got the ball rolling in the second inning after falling behind 2-0, piecing together four straight two-out hits to drive home three runs after right fielder Jason Heyward planted his ninth homer of the campaign. Just like that, five hits later, Atlanta’s offense was in business.
Three innings later, two RBI singles from Heyward and rookie second baseman Tommy La Stella broke the game open. The Phillies made it a game in the sixth inning, but the Braves bullpen and outstanding defense slammed the door from there.
Each of the nine Atlanta starters, including pitcher Ervin Santana, reached base in the game — including two hits and three RBI from the top-of-the-order combination of B.J. Upton and Andrelton Simmons.
"That’s the way we’ve been playing some baseball lately," Heyward said. "Manufacturing stuff, getting timely hits and putting up good ABs and making that pitcher work for the extra out."
Added third baseman Chris Johnson, who logged his team-leading 31st multi-hit game: "Any time you get one guy rolling and you get a hit, or you get a couple hits, guys just want to keep that line moving. That’s what we preach and what our hitting coaches preach is keep that line moving no matter what, whether it’s a walk, a base hit and just keep it going."
One game does not immediately solve Atlanta’s offensive problems. That’s going to take some time. However, with the news that the franchise finally moved to release second baseman Dan Uggla, which opens up another roster spot for help in key situations, and with Evan Gattis reportedly recovering from a back injury, things are beginning to look up for this group.
The beginning of the second-half slate is far from daunting — Phillies, Marlins, Padres — so there’s an opportunity to gain some momentum, especially offensively, moving forward. Friday night was Step No. 1. With the third-lowest scoring offense, though, it’s a steep uphill climb.
Also, for what it’s worth outside of a local trivia factoid, the Braves have now won nine straight games after the All-Star break, which is tied for the longest such streak in MLB history with the Yankees (2002-10) and Expos (1984-92). Wren was a coach and executive in the Expos organization from 1981 to 1991. Draw your own (second-half miracle worker) conclusions from here.
For a variety of reasons, including the fact that it is very difficult for any pitcher to replicate, Santana has struggled to find the groove he was in during the first six career starts in the National League. He held a 4-0 record with a 1.99 ERA and 2.33 fielding-independent pitching in those starts, a dominant performance that offered immediate justification for his $14 million price tag.
And while Santana has certainly found success in one- and two-start spurts since early May, there have been rough patches in between. Friday night was not a disastrous outing for the veteran right-hander, but it wasn’t necessarily a "good" start either. It was a game manager-type of start.
Santana tied a season low with just one strikeout, he walked three batters and gave up three earned runs. As a general rule of thumb, allowing three earned runs (four runs total) in six innings usually keeps your offense in the ballgame … but as another general rule of thumb, walking three times as many batters as you strike out will typically catch up with you.
The best thing to say about Santana’s 19th start of the season is that he limited damage, particularly by forcing two key double plays.
"Good thing we got the win. It was a tough battle today, but finally we got things together and we got the win," Santana said. "(I was missing my spots) a little bit, a couple pitches up. After that (first) inning I just tried to recoup and throw strikes."
So where does this leave Santana in the grand scheme of things? Pretty much in the same spot he was in entering the night. His ERA jumped up just two points (4.03) and his FIP (3.35) rose just five points. Behind All-Star Julio Teheran, there’s still a case to be made that Santana has been the second-best pitcher on this Braves’ staff throughout the campaign.
That being said, the Braves could really use Santana stepping up as a clear-cut No. 2 starter moving forward. Starting the second half with a 1-0 record is encouraging, but there are much better teams out there and the Braves find themselves in a playoff race — something they never really had to worry around this time in 2013. Santana was good enough to beat the Phillies on Friday, he’ll need to be better moving forward. Good news? He’s shown he can be much, much better.
After discussing the departure of Uggla in his pregame media session, Gonzalez turned to the situation behind the plate as it pertained to power-hitting starter Evan Gattis and his rehab stint. And while Gattis is expected to make a few more starts at the minor league level (he went 0 for 2 on Friday at Triple-A Gwinnett), the manager said he’s been more than impressed with rookie Christian Bethancourt.
Bethancourt received his 12th start behind the plate on Friday, hitting in the eighth spot and helping Santana and the bullpen work their way through the Phillies lineup. In fact, it was the rookie’s second-inning hit that helped kickstart the four-run frame and helped Atlanta build its early lead.
Still, even with the hit, it’s clear the offense still has a ways to go: he’s now hitting .255/.300/.277 in 50 plate appearances, which would leave him with the least weighted runs created in everyday lineup. He’s not stealing Gattis’ spot with those numbers, certainly not this season.
With Gonzalez’s endorsement of how Bethancourt’s handled his first extended MLB stay, it did bring up the question: Will the Braves consider carrying another three-catcher rotation, as they did last season with Gattis, Brian McCann and Gerald Laird. Gonzalez quickly corrected the assertion: it would actually be a four-catcher roster including Ryan Doumit, who has served primarily as a pinch-hitting option this season. Even with the extra roster spot opened up by Uggla — Tyler Pastornicky stepped into it in the immediate corresponding move — that’s a lot of catchers, especially since Bethancourt doesn’t come equpped with the same positional versatility Gattis did in 2013.
To clear things up, Gonzalez said he does not expect the Braves to carry four catchers once Gattis is healthy, which is probably for the best in Bethancourt’s case. Even though the 22-year-old could serve as a late-game defensive replacement (do we need to discuss his eighth-inning arm cannon to complete a strike-’em-out/throw-’em-out double play?), he needs more at-bats if he’s going to challenge for the position full-time in 2015.
Sending him back to Triple-A Gwinnett is the likely option — barring another injury — but the Braves seem pleased with their first long look at who, before Gattis’ emergence, was long tabbed as the catcher of the future.