The Braves have the best record in the major leagues at 15-6. However, manager Fredi Gonzalez is quick to say his team could be better. Not necessarily have a better recordâ€”a .714 winning percentage is hard to beat, mind youâ€”but playing better overall baseball.
â€œWeâ€™ve pitched extremely well, and weâ€™ve done a pretty good job of catching the ball,â€ Gonzalez said. â€œOffensively, weâ€™ve still been spotty. Weâ€™ve done some good things, but we havenâ€™t clicked on all cylinders. Weâ€™re not getting those little breaks you need to score some more runs, like that broken-bat hit that just goes over the infield or that pitch that goes back to the screen. Weâ€™re not hitting the way I know we can.â€
The Braves have allowed the fewest runs in the major leagues, an average of just 2.45 a game. Meanwhile, they are 11th in the majors in runs scored with 4.55 a game. However, left fielder Justin Upton has helped cover up many offensive warts by hitting .316/.402/.797 with a major-league best 11 home runs in just 89 plate appearances. Atlanta couldnâ€™t have asked for any more in the early going from Upton, who was acquired from Arizona in late January after invoking his no-trade clause to refuse being shipped to Seattle.
â€œI knew he was good, but heâ€™s even better than I thought now that Iâ€™ve been around him every day for a couple of months,â€ Gonzalez said. â€œThe numbers he has put up have been fantastic, but I am really impressed with his approach, which is very simple for such a young player. There arenâ€™t a lot of moving parts to the swing; itâ€™s very simple, and his approach is to go up to the plate, look for his pitch, and hit the ball hard. His hitting mechanics donâ€™t really get out of whack, and he hasnâ€™t really gotten himself out at the plate very often. He battles and doesnâ€™t beat himself.â€
Despite Upton finishing fourth in the National League Most Valuable Player voting in 2011, it seemed that general manager Kevin Towers was on a mission to trade his star outfielder from the time he was hired late in the 2010 season. Uptonâ€™s name was floated in trade rumors for more than two years before Towers finally pulled the trigger and sent him to the Braves for third baseman Martin Prado and four prospects.
â€œYou know, like everyone else, I wondered why the Diamondbacks wanted to trade Justin, and I heard and I read all the speculation that maybe he was a bad kid or a bad teammate, but he has not caused one bit of problem since he got here,â€ Gonzalez said. â€œBefore we traded for him, I asked around a lot. I talked to some of his former managers and coaches, some of his former teammates, and even some baseball writers who had been around him. They all said the same thing, they all said he is not a problem guy and he would fit in with our team, and thatâ€™s exactly the way it has turned out.â€
Justin Upton declined to talk about his Diamondbacks years. However, he readily admits that he likes being with a new team and especially the chance to play with his older brother, B.J., a center fielder, who signed a five-year, $75.25 million contract as a free agent in November.
â€œItâ€™s been fun,â€ Justin Upton said. â€œIâ€™ve been having a great time since the moment I got to spring training. Itâ€™s as much fun as Iâ€™ve ever had playing the game, going back to being a little kid.â€
B.J. Upton sees the joy in his brotherâ€™s game, too, and is having a blast himself, even though he is off to a poor start with .150/.225/.300 line in 89 plate appearances.
â€œI saw this on TV a lot with Justin,â€ B.J. Upton said. â€œMy game on the East Coast with Tampa Bay would get over and Iâ€™d get home in time to see most of his games on the West Coast. I know what he is capable of playing like this. I know what a great player he can be. Itâ€™s fun to see in person and be a part of it. Heâ€™s couldnâ€™t be happier, and neither could I. Itâ€™s really cool.â€
Itâ€™s meet the new closer, same as the old closer, with the Tigers. The organization saw enough of right-hander Jose Valverde during his stint at High-A Lakeland to sign him to a major-league contract Wednesday and name him the closer. Interestingly enough, the Tigers said they were bringing back their closer of the past three seasons on a day when they also recalled right-hander Bruce Rondon from Triple-A Toledo.
Rondonâ€™s presence caused the Tigers to decide not to re-sign Valverde, who had some spectacular meltdowns in the postseason. However, Rondon showed in spring training that he wasnâ€™t ready and the Tigers were left with little choice but to open the season with a closer-by-committee situation.
â€œThis whole situation was botched from day one,â€ said one front-office type. â€œHow do you have legitimate hopes of going back to the World Series and not have a closer on your roster? It was obvious (manager) Jim Leyland didnâ€™t want to start the season with a kid who had never even thrown a major-league pitch as his closer. Why (general manager) Dave Dombrowski didnâ€™t pursue a closer is beyond me. Why not just sign Valverde from the get-go and let him serve as the mentor to Rondon, which is exactly whatâ€™s going to happen now? Youâ€™d save yourself a whole lot of headaches.â€
Angels first baseman Albert Pujols has battled plantar fasciitis, the inflammation of tissue that spreads across the bottom of the foot, for a large part of his career. However, when Pujolsâ€”who never makes excusesâ€”tells reporters that he is â€œdying,â€ then the condition has become serious.
It is, indeed, a painful condition; unfortunately, I can attest from first-hand experience. It makes walking difficult, let alone playing a professional sport at the highest level. Now, it seems the plantar fasciitis may become too much for Pujols to bear.
â€œI think they need to do something with him, put him on the DL and let him have the surgeryâ€ said a scout who recently watched the Angels. â€œYou can see the pain on his face. Itâ€™s amazing that heâ€™s still able to help them at all right now. The guy must have an unbelievable pain threshold. I know he has played through it for a long time, but heâ€™s really hobbling now. You wonder how much better heâ€™d be if he had the surgery, even if it means sacrificing a good portion of this season.
There was more than a little bit of irony that Rockies right-hander Jhoulys Chacin was forced to leave his start last Friday with a mid-back strain on his 100th pitch of the game and landed on the disabled list. The Rockies had gone 117 games without a pitcher reaching 100 pitches, part of that due to the â€œpiggybackâ€ system they used for much of last season in which starters were limited to 70 pitches then followed by a designated reliever. It was a system so reviled by some internally that pitching coach Bob Apodaca asked to be reassigned within the organization and manager Jim Tracy resigned at the end of the season despite having one year and $1.4 million left on his contract.
â€œThatâ€™s a real indictment of an organization that weâ€™re near the end of April and their guys canâ€™t throw 100 pitches yet without getting hurt,â€ a front-office type said. â€œYou really wonder what goes on out there. I know playing at altitude presents different challenges than for the rest of the teams, but theyâ€™ve tried to reinvent the wheel so many times there now that itâ€™s become laughable. Iâ€™m just stunned that ownership there never makes a change in the front office.â€