AAA Baseball

Yesterday I went to my first AAA game at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The Paw Sox took on the Gwinnett Braves and Jason Heyward, who is nearing the end of his rehab assignment. The Boston affiliate won the game, 5-3.

First of all, this game was a great deal. I don’t know what the ticket prices are in other AAA stadiums, but a front row seat there is only $14. The stadium was clean, comfortable, and there wasn’t a bad seat in the house.

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I wish Heyward was with the Braves the whole season, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy about getting the chance to see him play again. He had a good game all around and looks ready to come back. He went 2-3 in his four plate appearances, including a 2 RBI single in the seventh to bring Gwinnett back within one run. Heyward even stole a base very easily in the first inning. He looked great in the outfield, too. No Pawtucket baserunner dared to advance when the ball was hit to right field.

Gwinnett left fielder Brandon Boggs hit the only home run of the game. It was a solo shot over the signs in right field, clear out of the stadium. Boggs finished the day 1-4.

Catcher Matt Pagnozzi played great behind the plate. He threw out two baserunners trying to steal second rather easily. It should have been three, because I think the umpire messed up a call when a runner was stealing third. Pagnozzi was one of two Gwinnett players who were hit by a pitch during the game. I thought it was funny that the umpire gave warnings to both benches after Pagnozzi was hit, because it was clearly just an accident. There did not appear to be any bad blood between the two teams, and on at least one occasion there were already two strikes on the batter.

The most impressive thing about this game was the high level of defense. The most notable defensive performance came from Paw Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias. He made some impressive stops and great throws over to first. Every time the ball came his way he made a beautiful play and made it look like he wasn’t even trying.

Even if Gwinnett is not in town I would definitely go back there to see some future pros. The high level of talent at such a reasonable price will surely compel me to go back soon. If there is a AAA team near you, I’d recommend going if you just want to see a good baseball game.

McCann Red-y to Play

As the terrible pun says, Brian McCann will be with the Braves when they travel to Cincinnatti to play the Reds in the first game of a 10 game road trip.   McCann will add more offensive power into an already nightmarish lineup.  His presence on the lineup means players have to be moved around.  Infielder Tyler Pastornicky  is being sent down to AAA Gwinnett to make room for McCann on the 40-man roster, but who will come off the starting lineup?

The obvious answer would be rookie catcher Evan Gattis if he wasn’t hitting so well.  The Braves would have to be crazy to take him out of the lineup with the way he has been hitting.  The National League Rookie of the Month has contributed to the Braves in a much bigger way than anyone could have imagined.  Gattis can play other positions, so it’s not like the Braves have to make a choice bewtween one or the other.  He played games at first base during Freddie Freeman’s time on the disabled list, and could also play in the outfield.  Now that Freeman is back the safest bet is to assume that Gattis would play either left or right field, at least until Jason Heyward recovers from his appendectomy.

Gattis will still see some time behind the plate this season.  I could easily see a situation where Gattis gives McCann a break mabye one or two games a week.  McCann would be able to pinch hit in those games, and his All-Star bat could deliver some big hits in tricky situations.

This is nothing but a good situation for the Braves.  I don’t think any of the other 29 teams can say they are trying to figure out what they should do with their surplus of good hitters.  It will be very interesting to see how this plays out over the next couple weeks while Heyward is still recovering.  The competition between the sensational rookie and the All-Star veteran in his contract year is just one of the many great stories surrounding the Braves this season.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot that the Braves still have Gerald Laird on their roster, too.

How will this scenario play out?  Will the Braves re-sign McCann?  Will they trade him before he can explore free agency? Who would you rather see catching for the Braves this season, and next season?

After a month of games, the teams are starting to differentiate between good and bad.  The Braves look really good, and I hope to continue talking about their season all the way through October.

Back on Track

Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

The Braves got a much needed win last night against division rival Washington.  This could not have come at a better time after being swept by the Tigers in Detroit.  Maybe the Braves were just home sick.  Yesterday’s game was their first at home in nearly two weeks.  During the road trip the Braves went a disappointing 3-7 that included two shutouts.  The win last night added to their still-undefeated divisional record, which now sits at 7-0.

Craig Kimbrel earned his ninth save of the year.  Julio Teheran allowed both Nationals’ runs in his 5.1 innings pitched.  Jordan Walden got the win for his relief efforts.  Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton and Gerald Laird each contributed one RBI to win the game, 3-2.

Tonight Gio Gonzalez takes the mound for Washington against Tim Hudson, who will be seeking his 200th career victory tonight.

Steroids and the MLB

It’s going, going… gone!  No, it’s not a home run.  It’s my respect for everyone on this list.

For years steroid use has been one of the hottest topics surrounding the MLB.  In fact, I can’t remember a world where the MLB and steroids didn’t go hand in hand.  I grew up watching baseball during the height of the steroid era.  It was fun to watch the likes of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire blast home runs back and fourth, but the slow, continual leak of players linked to PEDs erased any positive feeling toward those players I may have had.

Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire dominated during the steroid era

Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire dominated during the steroid era

Without steroids these players could have been among the best of all time, or they could have been average players.  Obviously they were talented enough to make it as far as they did in their careers, but the fact of the matter is they cheated to put themselves ahead of the competition.  Just look at the all time home runs list.  Four players linked to PEDs injected their way into the top 10.  Six of the 25 players in the 500 home run club have been linked to PEDs, which I find very upsetting.

I finally got to breathe a sigh of relief earlier this year when many of these players faced the judgment of the Hall of Fame voters for the first time.  They made a statement by not allowing any of these players into the Hall.  Many of these big name players were actually overwhelmingly denied access by the voters (see the list in the middle of the article).  The Hall of Fame made a difficult, but necessary, decision to bar any of these players from achieving baseball immortality, at least by becoming a Hall of Famer.  However, keeping the Hall of Fame clean is already a lost cause.

Do you think any of these players should ever be allowed into the Hall of Fame?  If they do, should their plaque have a big asterisk?

Mile High Showdown

Well, the Braves have finally simmered down a bit after their red-hot start.  A three game skid to the Pirates leave the Braves in a tie for first place against their next opponent, the Colorado Rockies.  Coincidentally, these two teams also lead the league in home runs.  The Braves have smacked 29 so far with the Rockies trailing by just one.  Even though the game is in Colorado the Rockies don’t necessarily have an advantage home run - wise at home.  Despite playing an equal number of home and away games they have hit more home runs on the road (16) than at home (12).  Conversely, the Braves have hit more homers at home (16) than on the road (13).  Another interesting statistic is that the Braves are undefeated when anyone on their team hits a home run.  Neither team has a real advantage in the home run department in this series, but expect them to keep on coming.

The Braves’ first trip out west this year will be interesting and noteworthy.  The Rockies are the Braves’ fourth opponent in a row with a winning record.  The Braves have fared much better so far against weaker teams.  Through their first 18 games they are 8-1 against sub-.500 teams while only 5-4 against teams .500 or over.  This would be problematic down the stretch if the Braves can’t find ways to win against playoff caliber teams.  This series could prove that they are ready to jump into the top-tier of dominant teams this year, as well as stop the losing streak.  Luckily the Rockies have had slightly less success than the Braves against winning teams.  Their 4-5 record against winning clubs keeps them at a pretty level playing field.

Mike Minor aims for his third win of the season tonight

The Braves are one of the best road teams this early in the year.  Their 7-3 road record is second only to Boston’s 7-2 record.  The Rockies, however, have defended their home field better than any other team.  Of their nine home games their only loss came last night at the hands of the Diamondbacks in come-from-behind fashion.  This exciting series begins tonight with Mike Minor taking on Jeff Francis.

Can the Braves get back on track with a win tonight?  Will winning this series put them in a level above the rest of the league?

Memorable Games

Wow, that was a great game last night.  The Braves made a strong statement to rival Washington, and the rest of the league, in their come from behind road victory.  Scoring four runs in the last three innings to tie up a previously shutout game does not happen very often.  Taking care of business in the first extra inning was just the icing on the cake of an amazing six run turnaround.  I wish I could have watched it as it happened instead of just reading score updates.  Better yet, I wish I could have been there to see it.  Going to the ballpark to watch the game is always a better experience.  That got me thinking about some of the memorable games I was lucky enough to experience in person.

It wasn’t the first game I went to, but the earliest one I remember was a game between the Red Sox and Orioles in 2001.  The game wouldn’t have been anything special had it not been Cal Ripken Jr.’s last game at Fenway Park.  I can still hear the cheers that filled the stadium that seemed to get louder each time he stepped into the batter’s box.

The first Braves game I went to was memorable only for that reason.  They were in Boston for an Interleague series.  Chipper and Andruw Jones both flied out to left to end the game with a score of 3-2.  That was the only time I’ve walked out of Fenway mad about the Red Sox winning.

The only other Interleague game I’ve been to was between the Red Sox and Marlins in 2003.  The Red Sox set a record of scoring 10 runs before getting a single out in the first inning, which still stands today.  They got 4 more in the first inning of an easy victory that ended at a score of 25-8.  This was the single most memorable game I got to experince in person.  What made that record so much cooler for me is that the Marlins won the World Series that year.

The first National League game I went to was the Cubs against the Expos in their last year in Montreal.  Olympic Stadium was overwhelming, and I’m very glad it’s still standing.  I was jealous of the Expos fans at first because when I gave them my ticket at the gate they returned it with a jersey card of a current Expos player.  I wondered why they didn’t do that at Fenway, but figured it out pretty quickly after I saw that the majority of the seats were empty.  The game wasn’t a blowout but the Expos never had a chance.  I was fortunate enough to go on the day Greg Maddux was pitching for the Cubs, and he was spot on.  My family and I were put on the big screen in center field in between innings, which was one of the cooler things I’ve ever experienced at any professional sporting event.

The next game I went to was between the Mets and Nationals the following year.  We were driving back from a family vacation in South Carolina on my birthday.  My parents, being the good people that they are, didn’t want me to have to sit in the car all day on my birthday so we took a detour to watch the game.  I got to see the Mets lose, which always brightens my day a little bit even if they’re not a threat.  The Nationals scored 6 runs in the first inning of a 7-4 victory.

Somehow, I’ve been lucky enough to watch two games from the Green Monster.  The first was the Red Sox against the Devil Rays.  It was one heck of a pitcher’s matchup; Daisuke Matsuzaka in his rookie year vs. Scott Kazmir in his prime.  The most memorable part of the game for me actually came before the game.  My brother and I were sitting on the lowest level of the Moster before the game started.  We both had our gloves on in the hopes of catching a home run ball in batting practice.  Suddenly a Delmon Young shot came flying toward left field.  I turned to the people next to me to see if they were looking, but they were deep in conversation.  I stuck my glove in front of the woman’s face right before the ball gave her a nasty bruise.  Catching that ball felt almost like hitting a ball right in the bat’s sweet spot.  The man thanked me profusely for catching the ball because he said she would never had let him hear the end of that.  He even offered me a beer to thank me, but I said I couldn’t have one because I was only 14.

The second time I watched a game on the Monster was against the Yankees.  I can’t remember what year it was for the life of me, but I think it was either 2007 or 2008.  I know Curt Schilling was on the mound for the Sox but I can’t remember who was pitching in pinstripes.  The one thing I remember clear as day was a drunk fan running on the field in the middle of the 5th inning.  He ran right up to Robinson Cano and stole his hat.  After running around with Cano’s hat on for a few seconds park security tackled him into the Green Monster.

The first (and only) time I saw a Braves home game was in 2010.  My high school graduation present was a weekend in Atlanta to see the Braves play the Marlins during the Fourth of July weekend.   The original plan was to see a game on Friday, explore the city Saturday and watch the game Sunday on the Fourth.  Halfway through the first game we decided to just find some cheap tickets for the next game and watch the entire series.  As much as I would liked to have seen more of the city, I don’t regret going to all three games.  The first game ended in the 11th inning because of an Omar Infante walk-off single, and was the first time I saw the Braves win in person.  The second game, another Braves win, was not as memorable just becasue of the games that sandwiched it.  Unfourtunately the Braves could not complete the sweep and lost a close game on the Fourth of July.  Before the game my dad surprised me with passes to go on the field during batting practice.  Being on the field and seeing it as the players see it was unforgettable.  I even got an autograph from Infante and former Marlins star Hanley Ramirez.  If the Red Sox vs Marlins game was the best single experience I had, this was the best overall baseball experience I’ve had.

The final game on this trip down memory lane was this past season.  My dad, brother and I decided to take a road trip to New York to watch the Braves beat on the Mets and hopefully see Chipper play one last time.  We didn’t know if he was going to be in the lineup or not until we got to the game.  Luck was on my side, and I got to see my favorite player play one last time.  He sat after they returned from a rain delay, but they had the game won at that point anyway.  It was a good thing we chose that day to go because he was not in the lineup the next day, which was the final game of the series.

I applaud you if you stuck around until the end.  I just realized how long this was, but I had a lot to say about these games.  I’ve been to even more, but these were the most memorable.  My mission now is to go to a “new-look Braves’ game, as well as seeing all the other teams I haven’t seen yet.  What was the best game you’ve ever been to?  Is there any team you’re dying to see?

The Orioles trade Luis Ayala to the Braves

Originally posted on HardballTalk:

Wait … he’s not an Upton. I don’t understand:

Apparently the impetus for this is that the Orioles need to free up roster space for Chris Dickerson or some such. Good for them. The Braves, though, are getting a more-than-servicable bullpen arm in Ayala. He posted a 2.64 ERA and 51/15 K/BB ratio over 75 innings last season and will help with depth due to the Braves losing Jonny Venters for seemingly ever.

Chris Jones has had some good years in the lower levels, but usually after repeating them. He’s in his second year in Double-A, but he’s organizational depth at best at the moment.

Oh well. Viva roster space.

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Gattis Here to Stay?

Evan Gattis has been causing problems for the Braves since making his Major League debut just a week ago.  His unexpected, yet welcome, performance in just five games has been enough to attract a lot of attention to the young catcher.  The problem this causes is that he is forcing the Braves to start considering their future options at catcher long before they planned to do so.

The original plan during Brian McCann’s absence was to have Gerald Laird protect the plate.  Then Gattis came along and put up good enough numbers during Spring Training to earn a spot on the roster.  If he keeps playing as well as he has been he might even end up starting some games after McCann’s return.

Gattis’ journey to the MLB is something right out of the movies.  The formerly troubled catcher worked very hard to get to where he is right now.  It’s a story not too dissimilar to that of Josh Hamilton.  What’s most surprising is that Gattis is managing to stand out in a Braves lineup that is stacked from head to toe.  Letting McCann walk away to become a free agent could become a much easier decision for the Braves to make if Gattis keeps showing the signs of a future superstar.

 

Player of the Week

The first week of the regular season is in the books.  After completing the sweep of the Cubs yesterday the Braves have a one game division lead in this young season.  They were fortunate enough to open the season at home for a week, but the remainder of April will be spent mainly on the road.  While the road ahead is uncertain, we now know that the Braves know how to put on a show at home.  We’ve already seen it all in just six games: close games, a blowout, and even a come-from-behind victory.  But who was the main contributor to the Braves’ success this week?  I think that goes without saying…

#8 Justin Upton LF

justin upton 2

Justin Upton’s debut with the Braves has been better than anyone could have expected.  His brother, on the other hand, is not enjoying as much success.  While everyone was busy talking about the Orioles’ designated hitter Chris Davis’s home run streak earlier in the week, Justin was putting together a similar feat.  He did not hit a home run in each his first four games, but he does have a league-leading five home runs after six games.

upton brothers

B.J. (left) and Justin Upton (right) celebrate as new teammates

The only other player with offensive stats that could rival Justin on the Braves is Freddie Freeman.  The two have an equal number of hits (7), doubles (1), RBIs (7) and walks (2).  Freeman’s average is better (.412 vs .318) but this difference could be attributed to Freeman playing one less game because of his injury.  The game Freeman missed happened to be Justin’s worst, in which he went 0-4 with four strikeouts.  That brought his strikeout total up to a team-leading 11, which accounts for just over one-fifth of the strikeouts by Braves starters.  This seems worrisome, but one bad game can’t ruin what someone did over the course of an entire week.

Chicago Cubs v Atlanta Braves

The most memorable moment of the week came at the end of the second game against the Cubs on April 6th.  After scoring three runs in the 8th, the Braves entered the 9th inning down by one.  Luckily for the Braves struggling pitcher Carlos Marmol was on the mound to close out the game.  The Braves were about to enter the meat of their lineup, but had to wait for the ice-cold B.J. Upton to take his licks.  Out of nowhere he hit a blast to center field.  His first home run of the year tied a ballgame that the Braves were losing from the start, and gave his brother a chance to win the game for them.  After a Jason Heyward pop out it was Justin’s time to shine once again.  And, man, did he deliver.

This was a moment in baseball history.  It was the first time two brothers hit a game-tying and walk-off home run in the same inning.  The Braves season could be jam-packed with storybook moments like this, but that was something special.  Because of that game and his overall performance this week, Justin Upton rightfully earns the title of Player of the Week.

For those interested, here is a quick video recap of the April 6th game which includes both B.J. and Justin’s home runs.

Replacing a Legend – Part 7

#5 Freddie Freeman 1B

Freddie Freeman has quietly been one of the best first basemen over the first two full years of his career.  Sure, he was the Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2011, but who ever remembers second place?  Now that the Braves have so many big name players on their roster it would be easy for Freeman to slip under the radar even further as just another roster spot; that is, if you haven’t been paying attention to him.  This year Freeman should explode on to the baseball scene as one of the best players on his team, if not the whole league.

freeman

Freeman’s offensive numbers during his career have been good, and are only going to get better.  In two full seasons he hit over 300 hits, including 65 doubles and 45 home runs.  This helped contribute to his 170 RBIs over that period.  If there can be only one complaint about Freddie Freeman it is that he strikes out a bit too much.  He struck out 142 times in 2011 and 129 times last season, in which he played in 10 fewer games.  His high strikeout rate has come dangerously close to equalling his hit total in both of those seasons.  Freeman’s career batting average is still a respectable .271, but hopefully he can raise that by striking out less.

At least until Brian McCann returns from his injury Freeman is batting in the cleanup spot.  This puts him behind Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, and Justin Upton, one of the hottest hitters in the game right now.  Having that much talent in front of him will give Freeman many chances to produce runs over the course of this season.  That is, if Justin Upton doesn’t keep hitting home runs before he can even take a swing.

The icing on the cake for Freeman is his fielding ability.  He has only been credited for a total of 18 errors for a career fielding percentage of .994.  Having a defensive presence like that will only benefit the Braves even more.

Can Freddie make a big enough splash to emerge as an elite player this year? Will he be overshadowed by his new teammates?

*Between the time of writing and posting, Freeman has been placed on the 15 day DL and is apparently unhappy about it.*

Now that the season has started, “Replacing a Legend” is over.  It’s time for the Braves to try to get back to the playoffs.  But who will lead the way this year?  Will this season establish a new face of the franchise?  Only time will tell.

Part 1: Jason Heyward

Part 2: Brian McCann

Part 3: B.J. Upton

Part 4: Dan Uggla

Part 5: Andrelton Simmons

Part 6: Justin Upton

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