Kevin Price commentary: Atlanta Braves' chances to make playoffs will come down to pitching, especially starting pitching

kprice@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 7, 2012 

If you are only a casual baseball fan and take a look at the National League Eastern Division standings in the paper this morning, you might wonder if they were printed upside down.

The Philadelphia Phillies are in last place with the Miami Marlins just ahead of them. Atop the standings are the surprising Washington Nationals, and the New York Mets are in second.

That leaves third for the Atlanta Braves, who began Saturday's games five games behind the Nationals but only a half-game behind the Mets.

If the season ended today, the Braves would be on the outside looking in on the expanded playoffs. The Giants and the Mets would be the NL wild-card teams.

If the Braves are going to catch the Nationals in the second half of the season, it is going to come down to pitching, especially starting pitching.

The Nationals have the best starting staff in the NL with an ERA of 3.30. The Braves are 12th at 4.12.

Only the Diamondbacks, Cubs, Astros and Rockies are worse.

It is a wonder the Braves are still in the playoff hunt at this point.

The Nationals' starters are Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson (Shaw High) and Ross Detwiler.

All five are pitching well as the highest ERA of those five is Jackson's 3.73.

One of the biggest questions of

the second half will be: Will the Nationals shut down Strasburg when he reaches the 160-inning limit they set for him at the beginning of the season?

Strasburg is one of the best pitchers in the game with a 9-4 record, a 2.82 ERA and 128 strikeouts in 99 innings.

But he has been injury prone since the Nationals drafted him No. 1 in 2009. He already has had Tommy John surgery. He also has missed time in the majors with a shoulder problem. Strasburg even missed time with a knee injury in the Arizona Fall League in 2009.

Strasburg should reach that limit sometime in mid-September unless the Nationals start skipping him in the rotation or do something else to alter his routine of starting every fifth game.

If Strasburg is sent to the season-ending showers by the Nationals before the season ends, do they have enough to win the division without him?

Meanwhile, the Braves have only two consistent quality starters in former Glenwood, CVCC and Auburn standout Tim Hudson (7-4, 3.56) and Tommy Hanson (9-5, 3.70).

So far, Jair Jurrjens (2-2, 5.19), Randall Delgado (4-9, 4.52) and Mike Minor (5-6, 5.97) have not shown they can be counted on.

Atlanta recently signed Ben Sheets to a minor-league deal, and the former All-Star has had one five-inning start at Class AA Mississippi.

Unless he completely falls apart in his next two outings at Mississippi, you can expect the Braves to bring him up shortly to replace either Delgado or Minor.

But Sheets won't be enough.

General manager Frank Wren will need to go out and get another quality starter. Milwaukee right-hander Zach Grienke's name has been speculated as someone that could be available. Grienke was 9-2 with a 3.08 ERA before Saturday's start against the Astros.

Kevin Price, kprice@ledger-enquirer.com,706-320-4493

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