Guerry Clegg: Atlanta Braves must play better in second half

sports@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 1, 2014 

Upon sweeping a doubleheader from Philadelphia Saturday night, the Braves finished the first half of the season at 43-38 and tied for first with Washington in the National League East.

That's a pace of 86 wins. But in all likelihood, the second half will not be identical to the first half. If they play just a little better, they will win 90-plus games, which would probably be good enough to win the division. But if they play just a little worse, they might not finish .500. Such is the thin margin between success and failure in baseball.

Go back to that bleak spring training day when the Braves lost pitcher Brandon Beachy for the season right after losing Kris Medlen. Who would have thought then that losing Medlen and Beachy would be the least of their problems?

Their replacements, Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana, are a combined 13-11. It's hard to imagine that Medlen and Beachy would be appreciably better than that.

If the Braves are going to play better in the second half, they need improvement in three areas:

• Bullpen. The Braves still have one of the better bullpens in baseball. But it's no longer the lights-out bullpen it has been in recent years. The Braves' bullpen ranks 10th in ERA and tied for 13th in holds.

Craig Kimbrel, Shae Simmons, Anthony Varvaro and Jordan Walden have a combined 2.26 earned run average.

Luis Avilan and David Carpenter have been inconsistent. Avilan's statistics are a little skewed. His overall ERA is 4.28. But take away one disastrous inning in April against Philadelphia when he gave up five earned runs and his ERA is 2.73. Still, opponents hit .265 against him in June, so he's still not as dominant as he was last season.

Carpenter has been a mess. On May 11, his ERA was 1.69. Since then, his ERA is 7.71. It's unclear how much his strained biceps muscle contributed to his poor performance.

A healthy and effective Carpenter could return the bullpen to lights-out status.

• Mike Minor. After establishing himself as one of the better mid-rotation starters in baseball when he won 13 games, Minor has regressed. It began when he missed almost all of spring training with shoulder stiffness. He's had a few good starts but has also been hit hard at times.

He pitched seven innings only once in his last four starts before Tuesday night's game against the Mets.

Whether it's simply a matter of mechanics or he's feeling some arm fatigue is not clear. What is clear is the Braves need him to have a stronger second half or they might face a tough decision whether to stick with him every fifth day or give David Hale some starts.

• The anemic offense. It's repetitious to go into too many of the stats. But the bottom line is the offense is prone to slumps, which explains how they can get swept by three teams -- Boston, Philadelphia and Miami -- with losing records.

Moving BJ Upton up to the leadoff spot defies logic. His .271 on-base percentage is fifth-worst in baseball among players with enough plate appearances to qualify. Yet, the early results show that this might be the move that finally sparks the lineup.

Losing Evan Gattis for at least two weeks with a back injury doesn't help the run production. But if Christian Bethancourt hits, then they might be more willing to give Gattis some starts in left field.

The Braves are not likely to match last season's 96 wins. But the good news is, they won't have to in order to win the division. They just have to play a little better.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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