This is the first status report since mid-August, as I was busy celebrating the Braves win over the Cubs in Chicago this time last week. All the team did over the past two weeks was go 8-3 with series victories over the Diamondbacks, Cubs and Nats, with a Hurricane Irene shortened trip to Citi Field in Queens mixed in. The Braves did it in "mid-season" form, as well, with an average-at-best (and home run dependent) offense and impressive pitching.
As the calendar turned to September, Frank Wren began preparing the team for the playoffs. Atlanta owns a 8.5 game lead over the St. Louis in the Wild Card race with twenty-six games remaining (twenty-five for the Cardinals). Just to put it in perspective, if the Braves go 13-13 to close the season, the Cards would have to go 22-3 to overcome them. With that in mind, the Braves solidified their bench by acquiring both Matt Diaz (from PIT) and Jack Wilson (from SEA) on August 31st. Diaz will serve as an OF/bench bat against LHP, while Wilson becomes the main bench INF glove. The Wilson move also allows Fredi to pinch-hit for offensively-challenged Alex Gonzalez in close late game situations without having to worry about sacrificing much defense. Catcher JC Boscan and RHP Anthony Varvaro were called up from Gwinnett Thursday with roster expansion, giving the team more flexibility, and we can expect to see Peter Moylan, Julio Teheran, and Randall Delgado soon. Don't be surprised if Wilkin Ramirez and/or Brandon Hicks also get the call.
As Atlanta welcomes the Dodgers for the three-game series at Turner beginning Friday, followed by three games against the the Phillies and a double-header Thursday at the Mets, starting pitching remains the concern. Tommy Hanson was diagnosed with a small rotator cuff tear, which was then described as normal 'wear and tear.' The Braves hope he'll be back for the playoffs, but who knows. Jair Jurrjens was diagnosed with a bone bruise in his knee Thursday and prospects for his return looks slim. Atlanta has plenty of talented options to fill-in with Minor, Teheran and Delgado, but the three have made just fourteen starts this season (Minor having ten of them).
Now on to what you've all been waiting for (right?...right?), this past two week's 'cheers' and 'jeers'...
Chipper Jones - The 39-year-old future Hall of Famer confirmed to the Braves, media and fans that he would return to play in 2012. Whether that's allowed him to play a little bit looser or it's just a coincidence, Chipper has been playing like it was ten years ago these past couple weeks. No longer the main focus of the offense while hitting mostly fifth or sixth in the order, he went 11-34 with 4 HR, 5 RBI and 6 R. He's remained healthy, gotten the occasional day off, played solid enough defense and has a smooth and comfortable-looking swing. Keep it up for the next six to eight weeks and the team should be in good shape.
Beachy/Hudson/Lowe - The healthy part of the Braves starting rotation did much to carry the team over the past two weeks. The trio made eight starts, putting up a combined line of 6-2, 49.1 IP, 2.01 ERA, 40 H, 50 K and 17 BB. With the possibility that both Hanson and Jurrjens could be on the shelf for the rest of the year, it's beginning to look more and more likely that these three will be the team's starters going into the playoffs. If they continue to pitch like they have recently, they should prove to be solid arms to compete with.
Craig Kimbrel - It was an historic past two weeks for Kimbrel. The rookie closer's scoreless appearance streak continues, as he threw six shutout innings over six games. The performance came with just four hits allowed, to go along with a fourteen (!!!) strikeouts against only two walks. Most notably, his save against the Nationals on Wednesday was his forty-first of the season, breaking Neftali Feliz's record for saves by a rookie. With twenty-six regular season games remaining, he's on pace for fifty saves and is almost-assuredly putting the finishing touches on a Rookie of the Year season.
Honorable Mention: Freddie Freeman (9-32, 2 HR, 4 RBI); Dan Uggla (10-35, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 7 BB); Eric O'Flaherty (5 G, 4.2 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 5 K, 0 BB)
Jose Constanza - For how 'hot' Constanza was during the first few weeks after his call-up from Gwinnett, he's been that 'cold' since. Over the past two weeks, Jose has just three hits in twenty-four at-bats, no extra-base hits and three strikeouts. While he had knack for beating out infield hits to start his career with the big league club, those grounders that had been chopping off the plate and finding holes have turned into comebackers to the pitcher and lazy fly balls to to shallow-playing outfielders. It was exciting to watch him for the first dozen and a half games, but it's past time for him to serve almost-solely as a pinch-runner off the bench.
Alex Gonzalez - I think as Gonzo's defense gets better, his offense gets worse. In thirty-six at-bats for the veteran shortstop, only six resulted in hits (3 XBH) while six ended by way of the strikeout. He doesn't hit for average, doesn't walk, pops up way too often and has average-at-best power. Jack Wilson isn't much better offensively, but it shouldn't be surprising to see him make an occasional start in Gonzo's place.
Jair Jurrjens - The All-Star's disaster of a second-half continues. He made two starts over the past two weeks and looked decent in one, but surrendered six earned in twelve and a third innings. The resulting 4.38 ERA isn't awful, but the 16 H, 3 HR, 4 K and 7 BB are. Frank Wren's in-booth interview Thursday did not sound encouraging for his return in time for the playoffs. With Jurrjens a possible trade candidate this off-season (though his injuries this season certainly decreases his market value), there's a small chance that Jair may have made his last start as a Brave.
Dishonorable Mention: Martin Prado (6-34, 4 XBH, 3 K)