I don’t need to tell you how bad the Braves’ starting rotation has been. Varsity Fried, the one consistently excellent starter over the course of this short season, is on the Injured List (they say he is healthy and ready to return—we will find out Friday-Shonah Tovah!). Young Ian Anderson has looked terrific in 3 of 4 starts, but he’s only made 4 big league starts, and he barely had any time in AAA. They are counting on the ghost of Cole Hamels to revivify in time for October, but that’s only a couple of weeks away. He’ll come out of the shadows to make his first appearance of the season tonight against the O’s.
They’ve become so desperate to find a starter that they went prowling around the hobo camp down at the Camden Railyards in search of a Boxcar Wino. Against all odds, the derelict they trotted out there to start Tuesday’s game was very effective. If Huascar Ynoa continues to pitch like he did on Tuesday, he can leave the hobo life and become a denizen of the luxury cabin on the Braves Express. (Ynoa is not actually a derelict, but in fact a 22 year old who just might have a promising future in the big leagues. For those puzzling over the reference, “Boxcar Wino” is his Braves Journal nickname.)
Ynoa pounded the strike zone with a mid to upper 90’s fastball, and he kept hitters off balance with a sharp breaking slider just off the plate and down in the zone. He went 4 scoreless innings, allowing only two hits, with five strikeouts and no walks. I’ll repeat that, with emphasis: NO WALKS! No walks—and only one three ball count. After four innings, Huascar had thrown only 49 pitches, 35 of which were strikes. Unfortunately, he left the game at that point with what appeared to be back spasms. Let’s hope that’s all it is, and that he is fine soon, because the Braves could definitely use more of what he offered last night.
As spotty as the rotation has been, the Braves’ offense and the bullpen are second to no one in baseball. They showed off both aspects again. Ynoa was followed on the mound by Digger O’Day, the two Grammy winners (Fresh Prince and Coldplay), Greene, and Melancon. Each was sharp, although Melancon did give up a run on one hit in the ninth. Finals pitching line on the night: 9 innings, 4 hits, 1 run, 9 K’s, and NO WALKS.
The offense, after a bump in the road on Monday, came back strong, scoring 5 runs on 13 hits, and breaking open a close game with 3 runs in the 9th. Freeman extended his on base streak to 31 games with 3 more hits including two doubles. His OPS for the season is up to 1.118 (and remember he had a poor first two weeks of this short season). Duvall homered again, his 15th on the season, tying him for the league lead. It was also his 10th in September, which ties him with Murph and Chipper for the ATL record for most dingers in September, and there are still ten games to play. The Mime had two more hits, extending his on base streak to 17 games. Four players in the National League have at least six home runs in September, and they are all on the Braves.
Everyone in the starting lineup had at least one hit except RAJ, and he walked twice and scored on a mad dash from first on a Freeman double that did not reach the wall. Acuña has had a weak road trip at the plate, but his OPS is still .992. As several have noted, his improved plate discipline has him in position to go to a level even beyond his first two marvelous seasons. And watching Ronald and Ozzie fly around the bases is a joy. Speaking of Albies, he legged out a double, helmet flying, evading the tag with a swim slide.
Let’s talk for a moment about how excellent and deep this bullpen is. O’Day in 16 innings has a WHIP of 0.79 and and ERA of 0.64, with only ONE WALK. Chris Martin in 15 innings has a WHIP of 0.40 and an ERA of 0.60, with with only ONE WALK. Shane Greene in 23.2 innings has a WHIP of 0.85 and an ERA of 1.14. Melancon is not a dominant closer, but he’s steady as a rock. He’ll give up some contact, but his WHIP is a still excellent 1.02. Will Smith has struggled with solo homers, but he will be fine; his WHIP is 1.00. I predict he will be a very valuable weapon in the playoffs.
That’s five of the solid arms in the bullpen. Don’t forget a couple of guys who didn’t pitch last night. A.J. Minter in 17.2 innings has an ERA of 0.51, and Tyler Matzek has been very good.
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We learned yesterday that through the first three rounds of the playoffs (that is, up to the World Series), there will be no off days within a series. That arguably puts a premium on starting pitcher depth, especially if you advance to the best of five game LDS and the best of seven LCS. Even if you bring back a pitcher on three days rest, you’ve got to have at least 4 starters, and if your starters need the usual 4 days rest, it will take 5 starting pitchers. In other words, you really can’t make it with just three starters as the Nats did last October.
Five starting pitchers?! It’s still not at all clear who will start playoff games for the Braves beyond Fried and Anderson. The announcers last night acted as if Hamels is a given as the third starter. I’m a glass half full kind of guy, but he hasn’t yet faced a batter in a real game. His well-used 36 year old arm seems like a thin reed to rely on. Wright looked good in his last start, and with a couple more like that down the stretch he will get a shot to start in October. But what if his next couple of starts are more like his first 7 or 8? Do you want him starting in the playoffs? (That’s a rhetorical question; no need to answer.)
I assume young Mr. Ynoa, who up until now has been a stopgap used out of dire necessity, has earned the right to another start, assuming the apparent back injury is not serious. If he can come close to replicating last night’s performance, he just might find himself in the playoff rotation. That’s no doubt a frightening thought to many here. But with this offense and this bullpen, I wouldn’t count our Hammers out of any series against any team.
Wednesday night we will see just what Cole Hamels has left in his tank as the Braves face the Orioles in the rubber game of the series. Let’s hope he parties like it’s 2008.