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April 15, 2013

What You Need to Know

Braving the East

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
B.J. Upton is 7-for-43. Jason Heyward is 4-for-39. Brandon Beachy, Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann, and Jonny Venters are on the disabled list. And Kris Medlen, whose stunning 120-to-23 K:BB effort last summer deflected questions about Atlanta’s rotation depth, issued six walks and notched only four strikeouts in his first two starts of the year.

So, the Braves are sinking, watching their playoff odds erode as the Nationals fortify an early National League East lead, right? Not exactly.

Not exactly, because Justin Upton has emerged as a Most Valuable Player frontrunner with a league-high seven home runs and a .348/.415/.891 triple-slash line. Not exactly, because rookie Evan Gattis—defensive shortcomings aside—has more than compensated for McCann’s absence by compiling six extra-base hits in 34 at-bats in his stead. Not exactly, because, through 19 2/3 innings over three starts, Paul Maholm has yet to allow a run.

The Braves’ 9-0 blanking of the Nats in Washington, D.C., yesterday capped off a three-game sweep, during which the visitors outscored their hosts by a total of 18-5. Davey Johnson’s team, with the exception of Danny Espinosa—who is playing through a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder and left Sunday’s game after taking a pitch off his hand—is healthy. Fredi Gonzalez’s team is not. And yet, it is the Braves, not the Nationals, that are 11-1 and have raced out to a 3 ½-game division lead while winning a National League-high nine games in a row.

Gattis won’t finish the year with a .735 slugging percentage. Maholm’s ERA won’t be flawless for long. And the injury bug may not be done biting. But the Braves’ depth gives them staying power, and after favoring the Nats on Opening Day, PECOTA now projects the East division crown to land in Atlanta for the first time since 2005.

Matchup of the Day
Domonic Brown set out this April to prove himself worthy of the everyday outfield job finally bestowed upon him by the Phillies. So far, the results have been mixed.

The 25-year-old has shown off his power, smacking a double and a pair of home runs, but his .244/.292/.400 triple-slash line also contains evidence of a still-unpolished approach. Brown struck out at least once in eight consecutive games spanning April 5-13, before snapping that streak in yesterday’s win, during which he went 0-for-3 with a walk. He has drawn only three walks to go with his nine strikeouts, a ratio that must improve for him to develop into an offensive asset.

Tonight, Brown and the Phillies travel to the hitter-friendly confines of Great American Ball Park, where they will lock horns with the Reds, whose starter, Bronson Arroyo, has been kind to Brown in their first handful of encounters. Brown has collected three hits in his first six career at-bats against Arroyo, each of which has gone for extra bases (two doubles, one homer).

Perhaps even more encouraging than the small-sample .500 batting average is the fact that Brown amassed it by solving each of Arroyo’s three primary offerings. His double on May 23, 2011, came on a changeup. His home run, delivered on the first pitch of his second at-bat on August 22, 2012, came on a fastball. And his second two-bagger, in his third trip to the box that day, came on a curveball.

Brown was just about the only Phillie that proved capable of doing anything against Arroyo in that Wednesday night game last summer, as the 36-year-old right-hander permitted only three hits in eight innings of two-run work. Brown finished the evening with six total bases, while his teammates combined for only two, in the eventual 3-2 Reds victory.

With little firsthand success to lean on, Arroyo will either need to devise a new approach to test on Brown or establish and pitch off of the hard stuff, as he did in Brown’s first at-bat last August 22, when a fastball-fastball-fastball sequence induced a popup. If Arroyo does opt to attack Brown with his four-seamer, he’d be wise to keep it away from the inner edge.

What to Watch for on Jackie Robinson Day

  • After one year with the Marlins, Mark Buehrle was shipped off to his third professional organization, the Blue Jays, and he will now take on his first, the White Sox, for the first time since leaving in free agency two offseasons ago. Buehrle has not made a strong first impression north of the border, getting shelled to the tune of 12 runs (11 earned) on 14 hits in 9 2/3 innings, but Toronto has actually managed to win both of those contests. The veteran southpaw will look to do his part this time, and he has enjoyed plenty of success against Alex Rios (3-for-23), Chicago’s hottest hitter to date (7:07 p.m. ET).
  • Last year, it took 18 starts for Cliff Lee to pick up his second win; this season, he needed only two. The 34-year-old left-hander worked eight shutout innings to defeat the Braves on April 4 and eight innings of three-run (two earned) ball to top the Mets on April 9, fanning 14 batters without issuing a walk along the way. Lee and the Phillies now travel to Great American Ball Park, a house of horrors for many pitchers, but one that he has handled fairly well. Lee owns a 3.91 ERA in 11 career starts in Cincinnati, though he’ll need to be careful with trade-mate Brandon Phillips, who is 8-for-26 lifetime against him with three doubles, a home run, and only one strikeout (7:10 p.m. ET).
     
  • Mets catcher John Buck has already authored more long balls this season than all of Terry Collins’ backstops did in 2012, but after smacking one in four consecutive games, the 32-year-old went 0-for-4 on Saturday, as Scott Diamond and the Twins put an end to his run. Rain washed away Sunday’s scheduled series finale, but Buck will have an opportunity to resume his power surge at Coors Field, where the Mets will open up a four-game tilt with the Rockies this evening. Rockies starter Juan Nicasio is set to take the mound at home for the first time since last June, when a season-ending knee injury thwarted his remarkable comeback from neck surgery.
     
  • Carlos Quentin won’t be on the field for the series opener—or, any of the games in the series, for that matter—because of his eight-game suspension for charging the mound after what he perceived to be an intentional beaning by Zack Greinke. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether the Dodgers choose to retaliate by plunking one of Quentin’s teammates, either in this game or later in the series (given the significance of this day). The ball will be in Chad Billingsley’s hands tonight, as the right-hander makes his second start since coming off the disabled list. Billingsley held the Padres to one run over six innings on April 10 (10:10 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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