The teams kick off the second half of their seasons Friday when they open a three-game series at Turner Field.
The Braves (47-42) won nine of their last 13 games heading into the break and ended the first half just two games behind the NL East-leading New York Mets. Last season, Atlanta was 40-49 at the break, and ended up missing the playoffs in a non-strike season for the first time since 1990.
“As long as we stay healthy and are able to put our nine guys out there everyday, I think we’ve got a pretty good chance of winning,” All-Star catcher Brian McCann told the team’s official Web site. “I know we’re going to swing the bats better in the second half. Our pitching has been awesome all year.”
The Braves are hoping center fielder Andruw Jones has finally shaken his slump. Jones, who hit 92 homers over the last two seasons, is hitting .211 with 15 home runs this year.
However, he went 6-for-11 with five RBIs in Atlanta’s final series of the first half against San Diego, including a 3-for-3 performance in Sunday’s 5-4 victory.
“Our guys are coming around, especially Andruw in that last series,” manager Bobby Cox said. “He had some great at-bats against San Diego, he hit some balls hard to right, pulled some balls hard and did everything good.”
The Braves are opening a 10-game homestand, though they are just 22-21 at Turner Field this season.
They are hoping Tim Hudson (8-5, 3.54 ERA) can regain his early season form in the series opener. He went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA in his first nine starts, but is 3-4 with a 5.63 ERA over his last 10.
Hudson was pounded for six runs and 10 hits in three innings in his last start, but escaped without a decision in the Braves’ 8-6 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 5. He had allowed two runs in his previous 14 innings, winning consecutive starts for the first time since May 10-15.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It was a bad night for me, but the guys really did a great job picking me up and scoring some runs,” he said.
Hudson is 2-3 with a 3.79 ERA in six career starts against the Pirates, but has lost three straight decisions since his last win against them on June 11, 2004, while with Oakland. He has not faced Pittsburgh this season.
Hudson will be squaring off against a Pirates team that also won nine of 13 heading into the break. At 40-48, Pittsburgh is on pace for a 15th consecutive losing season—one short of the major league record—but is also playing much better ball than last season, when it was 30-60 in the first half.
“If we can get a few guys hot and the way our pitching is going, it should be a fun second half,” left fielder Jason Bay said.
Bay homered and drove in four runs in the Pirates’ 6-2 win over the Chicago Cubs on Sunday, and like Jones, he hopes to be breaking out of a frustrating slump. He hit .173 in June and is batting .115 in July.
Former Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche, Pittsburgh’s major offseason acquisition, is showing signs of improvement as well. After struggling for most of the season, he has hit .425 with five homers in his last 10 games to boost his average from .211 to .239.
“The last couple of weeks have been very encouraging,” Tracy said. “The pitching will get better. The offense has been better. When you’re pitching with a three- or four-run lead, instead of living on the edge with every pitch you throw, you will be better.”
The Pirates will hand the ball to Ian Snell (7-5, 2.93), whose ERA ranks among the top 10 in the NL. However, Snell has historically struggled after the All-Star break, going 7-8 with a 4.86 ERA in 28 career second-half appearances, including 20 starts.
Snell beat NL Central-leading Milwaukee in his most recent start, going eight innings in last Wednesday’s 5-3 win. He allowed a three-run homer before recording an out, but did not give up any runs after that.
“To go through the next seven innings the way he did is another sign of who is he and what he’s becoming,” Tracy said.
Snell is 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA in four career outings, including three starts, against the Braves. He allowed two runs in seven innings of a 13-2 win against them on May 13 in Pittsburgh.