COMMENTARY | Is the honeymoon officially over?
After starting the season 12-1, the Atlanta Braves have come crashing back down to Earth. That loud thud you heard was the Braves dropping four of their last five games. At 13-5, Atlanta is still tied with the Colorado Rockies for the best record in baseball, but many are now concerned that the trends emerging from their current rough patch could be systemic of a more long-term problem that Atlanta will have to deal with throughout the rest of the season.
Like a sharp-shooting NBA team that lives by the three and dies by the three, the Atlanta Braves' fate has been irreparably tied to the long ball this season. Despite leading the entire league in big flies (29), the Braves have been held homerless on their current three-game skid.
In possibly one of the most telling statistics of the young season, the Atlanta Braves are 13-0 when they hit a home run and 0-5 when their hitters are kept in the yard. If Atlanta does not figure out a way to consistently manufacture small-ball runs without the benefit of a "yicketty" (Chipper Jones' word for a home run) then the Braves might see a lot of their winning streaks get followed by long bouts of losing.
Someone Please Pick Me Up
On which would someone have a better chance of making it home: a deserted island or the Atlanta Braves' base paths? Unfortunately, that question is not so easy to answer right now. In their four-game series with the Pirates, the Braves hit .130 (3-for-23) with runners in scoring position.
In no situation was their lack of contact more apparent than in the second inning of Game 3. The Braves loaded the bases with no one out against Pirates' starter James McDonald and then proceeded to strikeout three times. McDonald walked in one run, which accounted for the only Braves' score of the game in a 3-1 loss.
"We're just not capitalizing on our opportunities offensively," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We're not getting that big hit when we need it. We're not catching any breaks either, like a broken-bat hit or a pitch going to the backstop. It'll turn around, though. We're playing good baseball."
Discussing the strikeout problem feels a little like beating a dead horse, but given how the Braves' hitters have been hacking at nothing but air early this season, it would probably take them six or seven tries to make contact with that deceased Clydesdale anyway.
In victories, the Braves are averaging eight strikeouts per game. However, in Atlanta's five loses, the Braves are going done swinging 11 times a contest. The equation for the Braves' season so far has been simple: increased strikeouts plus no home runs equals another loss in the standings.
All the negative focus on what the Braves have done wrong can overshadow what they have done right so far. With the Braves starting the season with a league-best record of 13-5, every other team in baseball would gladly exchange their problems for Atlanta's. The Braves' pitching has been phenomenal. The staff has a league-leading 2.33 ERA, and they have been winning despite having Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla all batting under .170, Freddie Freeman missing all but five games, and Brian McCann having yet to start his season. The Braves are far from playing up to their full potential, which should terrify the rest of the league.
Atlanta started their current 10-game road trip by dropping three of four to the Pittsburgh Pirates. With six more road games left before they can return to Turner Field for three games with the Washington Nationals, the Braves must first travel to the Mile High City to play the Colorado Rockies and then it's off to Michigan for a potential World Series preview with the Detroit Tigers. These next nine games could be a very accurate barometer for exactly how good the Braves can be this season.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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