COMMENTARY | The Atlanta Braves are still miraculously clinging to a two-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers for home-field advantage in the National League playoffs despite recently being smacked in the face by a four-game reality check.
After dropping the final game of their three-game set to the New York Mets on Sept. 4, the Braves followed up their 5-2 loss by drawing the short stick in three straight games against the Philadelphia Phillies. Luckily for the Braves, the Dodgers are mirroring their shoddy play with their own four-game skid, but Atlanta can't rely on the bad play of L.A. forever.
When it comes to blame, fingers will be pointed here and there, but, ultimately, fans know that most of Atlanta's problems begin and end with B.J. Upton.
Leading the Braves Straight Off a Cliff
The Braves looked everywhere for a leadoff hitter. They checked at shortstop, they flipped the couch cushions in the Braves' clubhouse, and they even sent an invitation to Willie Mays Hayes, but it turned out he was just a fictional character from a movie. Finally, the Braves found their man in right field -- always the last place you look.
Jason Heyward turned his season around after he was installed at No. 1. The former All-Star hit .341 in 88 at-bats in the role and had the Braves poised to run away and hide with the best record in baseball. But as the old saying goes: "The Lord giveth and Jon Niese taketh away."
Taking a 90-mph fastball to the jaw has Heyward's mangled mandible keeping him on the shelf for the rest of the regular season. The Braves have been forced to re-scour the bottom of their leadoff barrel to find anyone who can consistently give them something at the top of the order.
The current man up for manager Fredi Gonzalez is B.J. Upton -- because apparently the .188 he hit in the same spot earlier this year wasn't enough to indicate a terrible plan in the making.
For some reason, Upton has been granted sanctuary in the No. 1 spot for the last five games, during which time the Braves are 1-4. The Braves' high-priced center fielder has gone 2-for-18 with eight strikeouts and his currently mired in a 0-for-14 slump.
To be fair, the rest of the team hasn't exactly been hitting the cover off the ball these last few games, either, but Upton's inability to get on base ahead of the heart of the order gets amplified when would-be RBI chances and solo home runs get wasted with no one on base.
If Only There Was a Better Option Collecting Dust on the Bench
Jordan Schafer is hitting .273 with an on-base percentage of .355 when given the opportunity to be Atlanta's leadoff hitter this season.
The last time Schafer started in the leadoff spot he went 4-for-5 and stole three bases. He was scratched from the next start after fouling a ball off his right quadriceps. The Thursday off-day made Schafer available again, but his only nod in the last five games has been once as a pinch-hitter.
All indications are that Schafer is healthy enough to play and that his lack of playing time is a coach's decision.
Per a report by Carrol Rogers of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, '"I think Schafer is a valuable piece and a valuable player and if we play him like we did April May and half of June, I think he'll be fine," said Gonzalez, referring to a time when Schafer was in more of a part-time role.'
When Upton returned from his own injury in early-August, Gonzalez elected to platoon him with Schafer in center, having Upton play against lefties and Schafer swing the stick against righties. Both players seemed to be thriving in this setup, with Upton even raising his average from .177 to .200, but since being given the everyday center field and leadoff jobs, Upton is back to being the uninspired strikeout machine he had been for much of the season.
I am all for trying to get Upton jump-started for a playoff run, but at what point does his everyday inclusion start hurting the team? Home-field advantage is a big deal, and could likely be the difference in how far Atlanta is able to go this postseason. The Braves have the best home record in baseball (51-20) but are only (34-37) on the road.
As it stands, Schafer, Evan Gattis and Justin Upton seem to be the best combination of outfielders the Braves currently have at their disposal.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter who has been following the Atlanta Braves for over 20 years. He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
- Sports & Recreation
- Atlanta Braves