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August 17, 2012

What You Need to Know

Friday, August 17

by Daniel Rathman

The Thursday Takeaway
When Tommy Hanson returns from the disabled list to pitch tonight’s series opener against the Dodgers, he will complete the Braves’ six-man rotation, an approach manager Fredi Gonzalez intends to employ for the rest of the month in an effort to foster both health and competition among his starters. Come September, one member of the sextet will be relegated to the bullpen—but don’t necessarily expect it to be the one who began the season there.

Kris Medlen appeared in only two major-league games last year, after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2010, but he returned in top form this spring and rose up the ranks in the Braves’ relief corps by posting a 2.95 ERA in 31 appearances before the All-Star break. The right-hander pitched three innings in relief of Hanson on July 25 and joined the rotation six days later, immediately after Hanson hit the shelf with a lower-back strain. Now, Medlen might be Gonzalez’s most trustworthy starter.

With 18 big-league starts under his belt, Medlen wasn’t exactly a novice when he switched roles last month, but he had only pitched into the eighth inning twice, most recently on June 13, 2010. He did not complete the seventh in any of his first three starts this year, mostly because Gonzalez was wary of stretching him out too quickly. On Thursday, the kid gloves came off, and Medlen—backed by Chipper Jonesfirst multi-homer game since June 7, 2009—needed only 106 pitches to finish a 6-0 blanking of the Padres, the first complete-game shutout of his career.

That, and the fact that Medlen has compiled a 2.46 FIP (22-to-4 K/BB, one home run allowed) to go with a 1.05 ERA since moving into the rotation, is the good news. So, what’s the caveat?

Perhaps by design, or perhaps by luck of the draw, Medlen’s first four starts have come against some of the feeblest offenses in the National League. He made his 2012 rotation debut against the Marlins, who had just traded Hanley Ramirez and were still without Giancarlo Stanton, then hosted the Astros, who are currently a league-worst 12-48 on the road. The Mets offered a stiffer test, and the Padres entered yesterday’s game with a league-average 704 team OPS away from Petco Park, but Medlen still has not taken on a team within 15 games of first place.

With two weeks left until the Braves move back to a five-man rotation on August 31, Gonzalez essentially has two more starts on which to evaluate Medlen against Hanson, Ben Sheets—who “was like Bernie” from Weekend at Bernie’s after his most recent outing—and Mike Minor, who has recovered from a rough first half to log a 2.39 ERA since the break. Assuming no further changes are made to the pitching schedule, Medlen’s remaining assignments this month will come at Washington on August 22 and at San Diego on August 28. Thus, he will face only one contender in six trips before Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren are forced to render a verdict.

The Braves, who came into the season with as much pitching depth as any team in the league, have witnessed firsthand how quickly it can evaporate. Wren fortified his staff by acquiring Paul Maholm from the Cubs at the trade deadline, and that move, coupled with Medlen’s successful transition, has restored a good deal of the depth lost when Brandon Beachy, Jair Jurrjens, Randall Delgado, and Julio Teheran—because of injuries or ineffectiveness—could not keep their spots in the rotation.

Only time will tell if Medlen’s impressive run is a sign of things to come or a figment of his cakewalk schedule. But as the 69-49 Braves attempt to chase down the first-place Nationals, who sit four games ahead at a league-best 73-45, his performance down the stretch could make or break their chances of notching the organization’s first division title since 2005.

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • The Yankees made a statement by taking three of four from the Rangers and regaining the American League’s best record at 70-48, and now they will welcome the Red Sox, who are 58-61 following a series loss in Baltimore. Boston’s offense figures to pose a challenge for Phil Hughes, who was shelled for 11 runs on 17 hits over 8 1/3 innings in his last two starts, both of which came on the road. The long ball has been Hughes’ Achilles heel at Yankee Stadium, but David Ortiz—who has gone 9-for-20 with two homers in their past meetings—remains on the disabled list with, fittingly, an Achilles strain. Bobby Valentine will counter with Franklin Morales in the series opener (Friday, 7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Speaking of the Orioles, after dumping the Red Sox down to six back in the wild-card standings, they are heading to Detroit to try to fend off the Tigers, who are just a game behind. It won’t be easy, as the home team will send Justin Verlander—who held the potent Yankees and Rangers offenses to just one combined earned run while logging a 22-to-1 K/BB in 15 innings over his last two trips—to the mound in game one. Verlander is 7-0 with a 2.71 ERA in 10 career starts versus Baltimore. Then again, his opponent, Tommy Hunter, has allowed only one run in 14 career innings versus Detroit (Friday, 7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Falling 2 ½ games behind in the wild-card race, as the Angels did by losing 7-0 to the Rays last night, is worrisome enough. For now, though, Mike Scioscia’s squad might as well concern itself with the little things—like, say, scoring a run against Rays pitching, which it has not done in the last 32 innings of play between the teams. Meanwhile, James Shields, who was one of the Angels’ deadline targets before they landed Zack Greinke, appears to be cured of his July malaise, having surrendered only three earned runs over his last three starts. The 30-year-old righty is 5-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 11 career tries against the Halos, including two complete games and one shutout. If the Angels can get to Shields, they’ll have an excellent chance to even the four-game series behind Jered Weaver, who owns a 1.23 ERA at the Big ‘A’ this season (Friday, 10:05 p.m. ET).
  • After dropping three straight games, the Athletics badly needed a win in Thursday’s series finale at Kauffman Stadium, and they got it in shutout fashion behind rookie Daniel Straily. Fellow first-year Yoenis Cespedes, who had not chipped in an extra-base hit since July 28, delivered a solo shot in the seventh inning, and Oakland will need him to stay hot on the upcoming homestand, during which the team will commemorate its 20-game winning streak from 10 years ago. The first 15,000 fans through the gates for the middle match will receive this Scott Hatteberg bobblehead, which may rank among the best giveaways of the year (Saturday, 9:05 p.m. ET).
  • The Dodgers lost the series finale in Pittsburgh, 10-6, but they now enjoy a half-game lead over the Giants in the National League West, and after this weekend’s three-game set in Atlanta, they will only have to traverse the Rocky Mountains one more time before the end of the regular season. Chad Billingsley has earned a win in each of his past five starts, after losing each of the previous five, and the big northpaw will try to keep the ball rolling in the series finale. Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla are a combined 2-for-24 lifetime against Billingsley, who has not served up a home run in 24 1/3 career innings (four starts) at Turner Field (Sunday, 1:35 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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