Rotten start to key stretch for Braves

By Bud L. Ellis

— OK, so the weekend starts with Sidney Crosby hoisting the Stanley Cup and
concludes with Kobe Bryant celebrating the NBA championship.

Yeah, not exactly a dream sports weekend for me. Not a big
fan of either Sid the Kid or Kobe.
Just not.

So it’s only fitting that the Braves would add to my weekend
misery, turning the easiest of the three stops on their three-city road swing
into a house of horrors.

Saturday, one bad inning led to an ugly 8-4 loss at Baltimore that only
served as a prelude to the embarrassing debacle of a performance we were
subjected to Sunday.

Derek Lowe couldn’t throw a strike, Yunel Escobar looked
like he’d never been on a baseball field before, and the Atlanta offense was shut down by a rookie in
an 11-2 loss that, honestly, wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate.

Yeah fellas, nice way to start a three-week stretch that’s
going to define your season. If this is the way you’re going to play against
the Reds, Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees and Phils between now and July 2, we might as
well just move ahead to other pursuits because the Braves will be 12 games out
by then.

Not exactly what the Braves needed to open the trip, for
sure. After a good performance Friday night, all hell broke loose in the
seventh inning on Saturday. Consider that the Braves gave up 17 runs in their
final 10 innings in Baltimore.

Lowe, who’s churned out quality start after quality start,
looked like anything but an ace on this day – eight hits, seven runs, three walks
in 2 1/3 innings. Of course, it didn’t matter because Baltimore
rookie Brad Bergesen had the Braves on lockdown – Atlanta mustering just five hits.

Then there was Escobar, who botched two plays early in the
game and found himself on the bench in the third inning. As talented as he is,
the mental lapses by Esco are getting a bit tiresome.

So, too, is the lackluster play of this team. Nothing like
opening a critical road trip by getting blasted twice in a row by a team that
had lost seven of its past eight games. Nothing like opening said critical trip
by falling into four place, 6 ½ games out of first.

If the Braves don’t play better than this, there won’t be
any need to worry about the rest of the season … because we’ll all be looking
to 2010.



Positives aplenty as Braves open road trip with W

By Bud L. Ellis

— Doesn’t this almost always seem to happen? Just when you’re ready to give up
on the Atlanta Braves, throw in the towel and start counting down the days
until the Falcons open training camp, this happens:

The Braves give you reason to believe.

I know, it’s a 162-game season, and I’ve been around through
many a campaign. But my frustration level was at a season high following
back-to-back losses Wednesday and Thursday to the Pirates to end the homestand.

Starting a nine-game road trip that also begins what likely
will be a season-defining four-week stretch, the Braves responded with plenty
of offense and a grind-it-out performance from a guy making his second
big-league start, downing Baltimore 7-2.

Consider Friday’s positive signs:

  • Yunel Escobar gave the Braves a first-inning lead with a
    two-run homer and scored three times.
  • Brian McCann went 4-for-4 with a walk and two RBIs, raising
    his average to .331.
  • Garret Anderson
    drew a walk with the bases loaded.
  • Martin Prado returned to the lineup with a solo homer.
  • Rookie Barbaro Canizares went 2-for-5.

It was enough for Tommy Hanson, the super prospect who in
his second start didn’t have the electric stuff that he displayed in his
major-league debut. But Hanson showed his grit and determination, grinding
through 5 2/3 innings and dodging nine hits and five walks to secure his first
big-league win.

The bullpen locked it up from there with 3 1/3 scoreless
innings, although one must wonder with a five-run lead, why in the world Bobby
Cox felt compelled to pitch both Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez?

Alas, no complains about a win that came on a night the Mets
lose to the Yanks (Luis Castillo, meet Kelly Johnson) and the Phillies lose to
the Red Sox. Now the Braves sit 5 ½ back in the NL East and just two games back
in the wild-card race.

The win also came on a night where the Padres announced ace
Jake Peavy – who nearly was traded to the Braves for a deal widely believed to
include Escobar, a deal in which San Diego pushed hard for Hanson’s inclusion –
went on the DL with an ankle injury that will sideline Peavy for a month.

All in all, a pretty good kickoff to the road trip. But
these are the Braves … let’s see what today brings.


After stumble at home, Braves hit the road

By Bud L. Ellis

ATLANTA — Going to keep this short, as we’re now nearly 24
hours clear of Thursday’s offensive (and umpiring) debacle against the Pirates at Turner Field, and
a few hours away from the start of the road trip.

No way in the world the Braves should’ve lost that game
yesterday. No way. I told myself when Matt Capps (who’s from my hometown, by
the way) fanned Brian McCann to seal Atlanta’s 3-2 loss that I would keep
myself off the blog for 24 hours, lest I rip apart the team from bow to stern.

Close enough to 24 hours, although I’m still seething about
the Braves blowing the absolute best start by an Atlanta hurler this season. Javier Vazquez
was dealing, folks. Total command of the strike zone. Could do anything he
wanted at any time. Even the homer he gave up wasn’t a bad pitch.

When your starter gives up two hits and one run in eight
innings with no walks and 12 strikeouts, you have to win that game. I don’t
care if you’re playing the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Pirates, or my kids’
Little League team, you have to win that game. The Braves managed to lose it,
and it hurts.

I understand it’s hard to sweep a four-game series, but the
Braves really needed to take care of the Pirates Wednesday and Thursday before
embarking on this roadie through Baltimore, Cincinnati and Boston.
The Orioles are struggling, yes, but the Reds have that great young pitching
(and the Braves never play well in the little bandbox along the banks of the Ohio), and we all know
what the Red Sox have been doing lately.

So here are the Braves, heading into tonight at Baltimore with Tommy
Hanson toeing the slab for his second career start. Save the fastballs that
were up in the zone in the middle innings Sunday, I don’t think the youngster
could’ve had a better debut. His stuff is electric. I love his makeup and
moxie. I don’t think pitching on the road will faze him one bit (and typically
I shudder when a rookie makes his first start away from home).

As we all know, the pitching hasn’t been the problem.
Vazquez’s effort yesterday was better than Derek Lowe’s season-opening gem in
Philly, better than Kenshin Kawakami’s duel with Roy Halladay. The Braves won
both of those games. They should’ve won yesterday.

But they didn’t. The season marches ahead. On to Baltimore … hopefully the
Braves packed their bats.


Time running out for Frenchy to turn things around

By Bud L. Ellis

— If the carnage on the side of the road, the smell of stink permeating the air,
the storm clouds on the horizon seems familiar, it’s because we’ve trudged down
this road before with Jeff Francoeur.

The path from Parkview High to Braves all-time great took a
disastrous turn in 2008, as the Golden One was anything but sterling. Coming
off a season in which he hit .239 with just 11 homers – and a Fourth of July
weekend sidetrip to Double-A Mississippi – Francoeur spent this offseason
reshaping his swing and rebuilding his confidence.

The results? All too familiar.

Following an 0-for-3 in Wednesday night’s 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh at Turner
Field, Frenchy is hitting .240. He has one home run since the second of May. In
his past 10 games, he has almost twice as many strikeouts (seven) as RBIs
(four) and sports a .160 average in June.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A strong April,
followed by a maddening downward spiral where Francoeur swings too early, too
often, and at too many pitches out of the strike zone.

Every time we’ve seen a glimmer of hope – his two-run
game-tying homer last Tuesday against the Cubs, for example – it’s been
followed by more struggles. As Francoeur’s average drops, the howls from Braves
Nation grow.

It’s already reached a deafening level. Given the injuries
to Casey Kotchman and Martin Prado, and the recent slumps of Kelly Johnson
(three hits in his past 24 at-bats) and Garret Anderson (four for his past 20),
the bottom half of the Atlanta
lineup has turned into a black hole where rallies go to die.

But Francoeur remains the flash point for Braves’ fans
criticism. After two and a half stellar seasons, we’ve seen a season and a
third of mostly offensive ineptitude from the right fielder.

So I ask: has the time come to do what was once unthinkable,
yet is mentioned over and over again on blogs and talk shows – trade Jeff
Francoeur? The sheer thought of even mouthing or writing those words in the
same sentence was laughable just 15 months ago. But now?

The Braves are in a tough spot. The offense is better with
Nate McLouth, but still could use one more consistent bat. Francoeur’s trade
value never has been lower. Despite his struggles the past two seasons, this is
still a player who won a Gold Glove, drove in 100 runs twice and hit 29 homers
one season.

Do the Braves deal Francoeur and risk seeing him blossom in
another team’s uniform, knowing they won’t get much in return? Given the way
the fan base has turned on him, it may be time for Atlanta to send the once-untouchable
player elsewhere, given him – and the team he grew up cheering for – a fresh

Staying the course, no matter how hopeful one may be of
emerging from the bewildering fall of Jeff Francoeur, may not be an option much


Another one-run win for Bravos

By Bud L. Ellis

— On the day where the Atlanta Braves made a Minor addition in the MLB Draft,
the team reached a major milestone that shows just how much better it is
compared to the 2008 version.

Yunel Escobar’s two-run single in the bottom of the seventh
vaulted the Braves into a one-run lead, and Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano
made it stand up in a 4-3 victory that gave Atlanta a three-game winning streak.

More importantly, the one-run win marked the 12th
time this season the Bravos have won a game by the slimmest of margins. Big
deal? You bet! Last season, en route to losing 90 games for the first time
since 1990, the Braves only won 11 one-run games all season.

Now 12-8 in one-run decisions, the Braves are tied with San Diego for the
third-most one-run wins this season (Seattle 15, L.A. Dodgers 14). And you know
what they say about good teams:

They win the close ones.

That’s something the Braves just couldn’t do last season,
going 11-30 in games decided by one run. Win just half of those 30 losses, and
the Braves would’ve finished 87-75. But – as we said often last week in regards
to the Tom Glavine situation – that was then and this is now.

And the now is starting to show the promise many of us
believed in coming out of Lake
Buena Vista in late

The Braves once again showed some late-game resiliency,
getting the clutch hit from Escobar after both Kelly Johnson (bunt single) and
Gregor Blanco (sacrifice bunt) executed the fundamentals perfectly. On a night
where third-string first baseman Greg Norton had to start, on a night following
a 15-inning marathon that exhausted the bullpen, on a night where staff ace
Derek Lowe didn’t have his sharpest stuff early – yet managed to keep Atlanta
in the game – the Braves grinded out the type of victory that good teams find a
way to get.

In case you’ve missed it, the Braves are a perfect 3-0 since
Nate McLouth was moved to the top of the lineup. The new center fielder is
5-for-14 with five runs scored in those three games. Escobar, batting second
between McLouth and Chipper Jones, is 7-for-16 with four runs scored, four RBIs
and a pair of three-hit games during the winning streak.

And it is just that, a winning streak, albeit a small one.
The Braves need to continue to build on the momentum of the three victories –
two come-from-behind efforts and the grueling 15-inning win – during the final
two games of the homestand.

Minor pick: On first blush, I can’t say I’m overly impressed
with Mike Minor, the southpaw lad from Vanderbilt University
selected by the Braves with the seventh overall pick in last year’s draft.

But after watching some video last night, I might be
changing my mind.

The stat line for the 21-year-old’s junior season at Vandy
isn’t all that eye-popping: 6-6 with a 3.90 ERA. But his strong performance for
Team USA
last summer was enough for the Braves to believe the kid can make an impact in
the near future.

How near? Well, not as near as the last college hurler the
Braves selected with their first pitch. You recall Joey Devine’s not-so-devine
rise through the ranks after Atlanta
tabbed him in the 2005 draft. Don’t look for Minor to be in the majors this
season or even next year, but the Braves are confident he could be with the
big-league club soon after that.

He doesn’t throw particularly hard, but looks like he knows
how to work the corners. And he’s a tough guy who’s pitched in some big-time
games against international competition. And the SEC is a good baseball
conference. Time will tell, as always is the case when dipping into the draft


Great win for Braves, but difficult schedule looms large

By Bud L. Ellis

— Six extra innings of angst and teeth-grinding tension in the books. As we
wipe the sleep from our eyes on this sunny Tuesday morning, let us ponder: was
it a statement game or one that just delays the inevitable for the Atlanta

There are a lot of fun things that result in winning an
extra-inning contest in walk-off fashion in front of the home fans — albeit
many of those folks hit the Downtown Connector well before David Ross’ grounder
in the hole chased home Jeff Francoeur with the game-winning run in the 15th
inning late Monday night (or was it early Tuesday morning?).

Regardless of what the clock said at the finish, it’s a win
the Braves desperately needed to get, after squandering a 5-1 lead in the
opener of a four-game series against the struggling Pirates. Oh sure, you’ve
heard about Pittsburgh,
Braves Nation. You now employ their former center fielder, the popular and
talented Nate McLouth, whose move into the leadoff spot in Bobby Cox’s lineup
has helped spark Atlanta’s
moribund offense to 15 runs in the past two games.

These are the types of games, the types of series, the
Braves absolutely must win if they hope to stay afloat in a June where the
schedule-makers did Atlanta
no favors. By now, certainly you’ve cast an eye at the calendar, which includes
three at Cincinnati, three at Boston, a make-up game with the Cubs at home,
three in Atlanta against the Yankees, a three-game series at home with Boston,
and (whew!) three more at home with Philly.

Yeah, survive that, and the Braves are squarely in the race,
figure to make a big move before the July 31 trade deadline (right fielder,
anyone?), and look to ride their strong starting pitching and (for the moment)
revived offense into the heat of a pennant race.

Or, if they don’t survive that, the focus turns to 2010.
Simple as that.

Sitting at 28-28 on the season at 5½ games out of first
place this morning, the Braves know what’s facing them. They know games like
Monday, where they’re playing a team publicly reeling and questioning their own
management (the Pirates lit a candle for McLouth in their locker room the day
after the trade … a bit extreme, don’t you think?), are games that have to end
on the left side of the ledger.

Still, these are the Braves we’re talking about, the Braves
of this era, who more often than not rise up and play inspired against the best
teams in baseball, and who more often than not stumble against the Nationals
and Pirates of the world.

Can’t have that happen. Not now. The direction of this
season will be determined during the next four weeks. I’m sure Frank Wren knows
that as well, which is why the Braves’ front office catapulted the franchise
through a dizzying journey on the transaction wire last week. Perhaps you’ve
heard: Jordan Schafer got demoted and Tom Glavine got released and Tommy Hanson
got promoted and McLouth got acquired.

A vast swath of moves, all designed to jump-start a team
that – on paper – should be north of .500. Addressing the fifth starter’s spot,
addressing the lack of power and speed in the outfield, Wren moved with broad,
sweeping strokes.

And now, it’s up to the Braves to make it happen on the
field. Victories Sunday and Monday, albeit earned in longer and more winding
fashion that one would hope, are a good start. But two wins do not a season
make. There are more games to be played, tough games, and with 5½ games
separating Atlanta
from the top of the NL East, there is no time to dawdle.


Legends better served by being quiet and moving forward

By Bud L. Ellis

— It’s time for Tom Glavine and John Smoltz to take the high road.

Yes, I know it’s hard when you’ve performed at the very top
of your field for the past 20 years. Yes, I know it’s difficult when the employer for whom you’ve plied your craft for most, if not all, of those two decades doesn’t believe
it in their best interest to employ your services.

But the words coming from the mouths of Glavine and Smoltz –
two future Hall of Famers who were foundational pillars of the Braves’
unprecedented run of division titles through the 1990s and the first part of
this decade – only make the breaking up even harder to do.

Smoltz, who signed with Boston as a free agent in January, criticized
the Braves for not offering more guaranteed money when he left. Glavine, who the Braves
released Wednesday after deciding the results of the lefty’s minor-league rehab
outings weren’t good enough to warrant placement on the 25-man roster, came out
today on an Atlanta radio station and criticized the Braves for their decision.

Smoltz chimed in shortly after news broke of Glavine’s
release Wednesday, once again taking shots at Atlanta
for its treatment of both players. Braves Nation has swayed with
mixed emotions the past 48 hours, ranging from rage at the thought of these franchise icons
toeing the slab for somebody else, to those who believe time has passed by both
star hurlers.

Enough, already.

Look, nobody can refute the importance of Smoltz and Glavine
to the Braves during the salad days. But this is 2009, and we’re talking about
pitchers on the other side of 40 who are coming off surgery, pitchers who
combined to pitch in just 19 games last season.

Nobody can deny the work done by Glavine and Smoltz in an Atlanta uniform will
resonate as long as anybody talks about elite pitching, or baseball in this
city. But again, that was then, and this is now.

And the harsh reality of now is, the Braves are better
served without the services of either former Cy Young winner.

Frank Wren watched Glavine, Smoltz, Mike Hampton and Tim
Hudson take up extended residence on the disabled list in 2008. Hell-bent on
not having that happen again, the Braves’ GM reconstructed the starting
rotation this offseason, landing Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin
Kawakami to join emerging star Jair Jurrjens. Smoltz was offered a contract
that hinged mostly on incentive money, a fair offer for a pitcher who wasn’t
going to be ready at the start of the season (and still hasn’t thrown a
major-league pitch through the first nine weeks of the season).

Glavine was signed in Feburary as an insurance policy. If
healthy, he would be the fifth starter. But he wasn’t. And after a setback in
early April, followed by several rehab starts in recent weeks, the Braves brass
decided Tommy Hanson’s 22-year-old arm and 99-mph fastball would better fill
the fifth spot than Glavine’s sheer will to compete.

And that’s what all of this really comes down to, doesn’t
it? The competitive nature that drives an athlete to great heights, to the very
stratosphere of his sport. It’s not easy to shut that off if one believes he
still can perform. I can totally appreciate and respect that. I don’t blame
Glavine or Smoltz one bit for trying to pitch, if they are able.

But I do blame them for the whining and belly-aching about not
being able to pitch here. The Braves have made it crystal clear: they no longer
wish to employ either Tom Glavine or John Smoltz.

At the end of the day, both legends would be better served
by accepting that reality and moving on with their careers and their lives.