The Reds (18-14) return home after a successful (given Cincinnati’s struggles on the road, I’ll call a .500 road trip “successful”) road trip to face the NL East’s first place club, the Atlanta Braves (18-12).
Permit me to digress a moment, and talk about the Atlanta National League Baseball Club. As longtime readers may remember, I have three younger brothers. Two of those brothers (both of whom actually live in China, of all places) are die-hard fans of the Cincinnati Reds. One brother, however — the brother who is closest in age to me — well, he is a Braves fan.
Yes, I’m admitting this to you here in this public forum. I’m not proud of it, but there you are. My brother is a Braves fan. To his credit, he didn’t choose to follow the Braves during their stretch of division-winning excellence. No, he became a Braves fan back when they were led by Dale Murphy and Bob Horner and a bunch of nobodies. He pulled for Pascual Perez and Rafael Ramirez and Rick Camp and that fat tub of goo, Terry Forster. He cheered for Rick Mahler before Mahler became a good guy. He was actually happy to get Bruce Benedict’s autograph. He loved Claudell Washington and Glenn Hubbard. We played one-on-one wiffle ball in the back yard, in which I was Mario Soto facing Dale Murphy. Sheesh, this is embarrassing.
Well, as we know, the Braves have been pretty good for the last couple of decades. In 2013, a year in which the Washington Nationals were expected to run away with the NL East, the Braves have jumped out to a two-game lead by winning 12 of their first 13 games, and beating the Nats in five of seven.
I really need the Reds to win this series, if only to keep my brother from acquiring some bragging rights.
Thus far, the Reds are second in the National League in runs scored, while the Braves rank ninth. Cincinnati (.242/.329/.377) has gotten on base a little more, Atlanta (.241/.316/.413) has hit with a bit more power. Atlanta has relied heavily on the contributions of new acquisition Justin Upton, who is hitting .278/.380/.657 with a league-leading 12 homers.
Below is the Braves’ ordinary batting order, but there are a couple of big caveats here. First, it appears that Brian McCann, Atlanta’s all-star catcher, is going to be activated from the DL for this series. His replacement, Evan Gattis, has been spectacular in McCann’s absence, and this isn’t 2008 McCann, so it remains to be seen how manager Fredi Gonzalez will apportion the playing time behind the plate. Secondly, Gonzalez changes his lineup significantly nearly every day, so this is just an educated guess.
Jordan Schafer RF (.257/.435/.286)
Andrelton Simmons SS (.233/.289/.330)
Justin Upton LF (.278/.380/.657)
Freddie Freeman 1B (.313/.380/.453)
Chris Johnson 3B (.337/.365/.478)
Evan Gattis C (.261/.307/.565)
Dan Uggla 2B (.184/.304/.367)
BJ Upton CF (.154/.233/.279)
Atlanta is having a difficult time replacing RF Jason Heyward, who is out after undergoing an appendectomy, and will not play in this series (they hope he’ll be able to go on a rehab assignment soon). Schafer is getting plenty of playing time, but Reed Johnson (.250/.289/.361) sees the lineup often.
Braves fans shudder to think where the team would be without the contributions of Gattis and Chris Johnson, both of whom have hit exceptionally well. With McCann back, you’d expect Gattis’ playing time to dip a bit. Johnson has split time at 3B with our old friend Juan Francisco, who is hitting a respectable .294/.324/.485 with four homers. At the bottom of the lineup, older brother BJ Upton and the guy who started the All-Star Game instead of Brandon Phillips, Dan Uggla, are suffering through miserable seasons.
In the end, this offense is extremely reliant on Justin Upton, who leads the league in homers and is top-three in OPS. One might say that the offense is over-reliant on Upton, given the absence of Heyward and the unexpected contributions of a couple of other guys. One might say that. In fact, I just did.
ATLANTA’S STARTING PITCHING
Atlanta’s starting staff has been among the best in the National League in 2013 so far. Their 3.23 ERA as a staff ranks second in the league (Cincinnati ranks third, at 3.39). The Braves will send out three pitchers in this series that are having nice seasons.
–Monday, 7:00 pm: Bronson Arroyo vs. Paul Maholm (3-3, 3.08 ERA)
–Tuesday, 7:10 pm; Homer Bailey vs. Kris Medlen (1-4, 3.38)
–Wednesday, 12:35 pm; Mike Leake vs. Mike Minor (3-2, 3.26)
In tonight’s series opener, the Braves will send Paul Maholm to the mound. After escaping the dreadful environs of Chicago and Pittsburgh, Maholm has thrived as an Atlanta Brave. This season, the 30-year-old lefty has been nothing short of dominant; he’s only surrendered 13 earned runs all season and 8 of those came in one start, against the Tigers!
Tuesday’s starter, Kris Medlen is a 27-year-old right-hander who pitched brilliantly last year after emerging from the bullpen to take his rightful spot in the Braves rotation. This season, his strikeout rate is down and he hasn’t been quite as good as last year. Still, this is a talented pitcher.
The scheduled starter in Wednesday’s finale is Mike Minor, a 25-year-old lefty who has been much-maligned in his Braves career. Since July 1 of last season, however, Minor has finally come into his own, and there is a case to be made that he has been the best of the Atlanta starting staff in 2013.
Overall, this is a very good Atlanta rotation, even without the injured Brandon Beachy. Cincinnati will have their hands full.
The Atlanta bullpen has been nothing short of brilliant. You already know about their closer, Craig Kimbrel, the only guy in the league who was more effective out of the ‘pen than Aroldis Chapman last year. This year, Kimbrel has nine saves with a 2.31 ERA. This guy is good.
Also effective this year has been Cory Gearrin, a 27-year-old righty from Chattanooga. Gearrin has posted a 1.32 ERA in 17 appearances. He joins Eric O’Flaherty (2.08 ERA, 14 appearances) and Anthony Varvaro (1.15 ERA, 9 appearances) to make up a tough relief corp. This group has been next to unhittable, even without the disabled Jonny Venters, and they have been a huge reason for Atlanta’s early success in 2013.
This Braves team has been good, and there is no reason to believe that they won’t be a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of 2013. The pitching has been outstanding, both in the rotation and the bullpen; whether the offense will continue to produce is the biggest question mark facing Braves fans. Justin Upton is unlikely to continue hitting at this pace, and the Braves will need a healthy Jason Heyward and more production from CF, SS, and 2B to keep pace with the Nationals talented roster.
Another huge question mark is in the dugout. I know we all like to complain about Dusty Baker, but in my opinion, there is not a worse manager in all of baseball than Atlanta’s Fredi Gonzalez. This guy makes lineup choices and in-game decisions that will make your head hurt. Watch Gonzalez manage for a couple of weeks, and you’ll be happy that the Reds have Dusty at the helm. No, I’m not kidding about that.
You guys and gals know what I think of Dusty’s managerial ability, so you should know that I’m not making this claim lightly. Fredi Gonzalez is awful.
At any rate, this series should be a good matchup between two of the National League’s better teams. Let’s hope the Reds will go. Go Reds.