The Braves turned back the clock to the days of Hank Aaron and Milwaukee across their chests in completing a four-game sweep of the Phillies.
Sunday’s 3-2 victory marked the first time the franchise had won a set that long in Philadelphia since Sept. 24-27, 1964. This one came courtesy of another strong outing from B.J. Upton at leadoff — punctuated by a two-run triple — and Aaron Harang finding his way out of trouble time and again as the Braves wrapped up an 8-3 road trip.
Here are three observations from Sunday at Citizens Bank Park:
From an offensive standpoint, the younger Upton was in the midst of one of his trademark tears before Sunday ended a seven-game hit streak. After managing a combined three hits in seven games from June 13-June 21, he was 10 for 32 over the last eight before going 0- for 3 in the finale in Philly.
That stretch included four extra-base hits, a pair of home runs, two doubles and 10 RBI. It also saw the left fielder deliver some impressive outfield play for a guy with a track record for being a well below replacement level defensive player.
Upton tracked down Chase Utley’s opposite-field drive — which looked as though it would careen off the wall for extra bases — and made a diving catch. That came a day after an impressive running catch on a hard hit Cody Asche liner during Saturday’s double-header.
They were the stuff of highlights, but are they proof that Upton doesn’t get the credit he should for his glove work?
On the season, Upton has a minus-4.5 defensive WAR, a figure that doesn’t stack up well against Atlanta’s other everyday outfielders as right fielder Jason Heyward is at 14.2 and center fielder B.J. Upton at 4.0. But it looks to be serious improvement considering Justin Upton had a minus-16.3 WAR in ’13 and minus-9.7 in ’12, and that his cumulative WAR of minus-26.1 since 2007 ranks as the 15th worst among all outfielders in that span and only 36 players overall have been worse. Upton’s 50 errors in the last eight seasons also stand as the most of any outfielder.
To be fair, there was certain to be a learning curve with Upton in left. He had never played the position in the majors before last season, playing right in 769 games with the Diamondbacks. Reads, reaction time and all that goes into playing a position on an everyday basis were going to take some time.
A leap into plus-defender category isn’t likely to happen, even with 180-plus games in left under his belt. Upton’s defense may just be what it is: statistically below average with the occasional play that makes you wonder how the sabermetrics can be so wrong. Case in point: the eye-opening plays of the past two games in Philadelphia.
The last time he faced Philadelphia’s lineup, Aaron Harang was tagged for his second-worst outing as a Brave, giving up nine runs (eight earned) and a season-high 13 hits. And just like he did in response to his worst start of the year, Harang bounced back.
The 36-year-old allowed two runs on 11 hits in seven innings, striking out four and walking two. It’s similar to what he did after giving up nine runs and 10 hits in 4 2/3 vs. the Marlins on April 30, then proceeded to let just two runs cross in 6 2/3 on June 1.
It wasn’t exactly dominating, as both of the runs he yielded Sunday came on solo home runs by Marlon Byrd. He nearly gave up a couple more, not surprising for a guy with a 41.1 fly ball rate, which is 12th highest in the majors. That he’s maintained that percentage while giving up just 0.5 home runs per nine innings is stunning, and games like Sunday are going to happen.
The Phillies threatened in the fourth, following Byrd’s homer with back-to-back two-out singles, but Harang got David Buchanan go ground out to end the inning. The next frame, Philadelphia had Jimmy Rollins on third; the sixth, Philly put a man on second and in the seventh a runner reached third. Each time, Harang forced a ground out, punctuated by Ryan Howard hitting into an inning-ending double play in the seventh.
Over the last 18 innings, Harang has given up 31 hits and gone 2-1, and while he’s built a reputation of being been more bend than break, the end result was another quality start, his 14th on the season. Only the Reds’ Johnny Cueto and Harang’s Braves teammate Julio Teheran have more with 15.
With a .387 average over his first 17 games after being called up from Triple-A Gwinnett, Tommy La Stella looked more than prepared to live up to the expectations heaped upon him from a fan base starving for consistency at second base.
Then a 2 for 35 slump followed in which he had a .128 on-base percentage. It coincided with a major shift in the batting order as La Stella went from hitting fifth or lower (primarily seventh) to leadoff.
He managed just two hits in five games hitting first, then when dropped two second, La Stella went 0 for 10. But a move back to seventh has clearly resulted in a more comfortable setting, as he followed up Saturday’s 3 for 8, five-RBI showing by getting two hits in three at-bats, including a walk and a double, and he scored two of the Braves’ three runs.
The Braves second situation sets itself up for La Stella to work through his problems, and that manager Fredi Gonzalez offered just enough of a change of scenery, giving Dan Uggla the start Friday, and La Stella responded says a lot about a player in the majors for the first time.