2013 Braves: Waiting for the fall

Mack Jones

Mack Jones was the centerfielder on the first Braves team in his hometown Atlanta (1966), and the cleanup batter in the Montreal Expos’ first lineup (1969: the Expos beat the Mets 11-10 as Jones doubled twice, once off Tom Seaver, but those Mets did pretty well over the next 161 games and postseason). Jones, unimaginatively nicknamed Mack The Knife as somewhere Bobby Darin winced, hit 133 home runs in a 10-year career. His high was 31 in 1965 in the Braves’ last season in Milwaukee and he followed that with 23 in 1966. The first Atlanta Braves’ team got at least 15 home runs from every regular but second baseman Woody Woodward, who balanced by hitting none. Jones was fourth behind Hank Aaron (44), catcher Joe Torre (36) and first baseman Felipe Alou (31). Jones was traded to the Reds in a package for Deron Johnson in 1968 and was taken by the Expos in the expansion draft. In Montreal, Jones hit 22 home runs and became a fan favorite — the left-field stands at Jarry Park became known as “Jonesvile.” Jones was an Expo for three years before the Expos exiled him from “Jonesville”‘ by releasing him in 1971. Jones died in 2004 at age 65. His final numbers: a .252 average, 133 homers, .444 slugging, .790 OPS, 65 steals (and 40 caught stealings), a 20.6 WAR.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: The Braves aren’t desperate for more young pitching — Mike Minor, 25, and Julio Teheran, 22, are in the rotation — but they’ve got it. Sean Gilmartin, 22, is a finesse lefty at AAA; Mauricio Cabrera, 19, has been hard to hit at Low A (26.2 innings/17 hits); J.R. Graham, 23, has a career 2.55 ERA and won’t be at AA long. But the best of the next batch may be University of Georgia lefty Alex Wood, 22, who’s thrown just 18 minor-league games so far. Wood has a career 1.69 ERA and just an 0.67 ERA in five AA starts this year after jumping from Low A. In 27 innings, Wood has allowed 19 hits and five walks and fanned 31.

What is this man doing here? Backup infielder Blake DeWitt is on the disabled list with a bad back, which he might want to nurse awhile. It’s probably the only thing keeping him on a big-league contract. This is DeWitt’s third team and sixth big-league season, and he hasn’t done much to make any of them better. DeWitt has an ordinary career slash: .257/.324/.381, and most of his 2.0 WAR was compiled with his 1.6 rookie season. In the last four years, he’s -0.1. DeWitt’s best case to stick? His competition is Ramiro Pena.

What he said: Second baseman Dan Uggla after the Braves struck out 17 times vs. Anibal Sanchez Friday: “If people want to worry about strikeouts, they can worry abut strikeouts. We’re not worried about strikeouts.” What he meant: “I’m more worried about that .167 average I’m carrying. Can you imagine the indignity of being benched for Ramiro Pena?”

Outlook: The Braves got everything they needed for 2013: two Uptons, two third basemen to replace the retired Chipper Jones and one healthy Kris Medlen.

Let’s hope they didn’t forget a rulebook.

The Braves were eliminated in the very first wild-card playoff game last October when umpire Sam Holbrook extended the infield fly rule farther than Ramiro Pena can hit a baseball. Holbrook’s reward is to join a legacy: famous October umps who got it wrong — Bruce Froemming calling Davey Lopes safe when he was out (1977 NLCS, Game 3); Don Denkinger calling Jorge Orta safe when he was out (1985 World Series, Game 6); Phil Cuzzi calling Joe Mauer’s fly ball double foul when it was fair (2009 ALDS, Game 2). We won’t even mention Rich Garcia and Jeffrey Maier in the 1996 ALCS, or Reggie Jackson’s swivel and Frank Pulli in the 1978 World Series.

(There may well be worse from earlier generations, but umpires from way back can be glad that with the lack of video replay, it’s subjective.)

Even better was the Braves’ fans reaction after they tossed enough litter to hold the game up for 18 minutes. Who knew the Braves had that many fans who care that much? Philadelphia fans said thanks for the respite.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez used the delay to file a protest, which was summarily dismissed the next day. He’d have more of a chance if he had rolled the paperwork up and flung it on to the field with the rest of the garbage.

It was a surreal end to the best Braves’ season since 2005 (when they last won the division) or 2004 (when they last had more than 2012’s 94 wins).

Of course, it was also typical in a way for a team that has had just two losing seasons in the last 22: it was the sixth straight time the Braves had lost in their first round of the playoffs (they’re 9-20 in the postseason going back to the 2004 NLCS).

That has to end soon. The Braves have too much talent and too much youth to keep losing in the playoffs. If it doesn’t they can be glad they share a city with the NFL Falcons and NBA Hawks, whose postseason records aren’t any better.

The Braves are a sure bet to be in the postseason, even if they’ve followed a 12-1 start with a 3-8 lull. It’s not Justin Upton’s fault the bases are always empty when he homers (it’s more so brother B.J.’s and his .229 on-base percentage), and catcher Brian McCann will be back from injury just as his replacement, Evan Gattis, comes back to baseball reality.

(For more on Gattis’ interesting story, read fellow blogger Ron White’s take.)

The Braves do have things to worry about: Dan Uggla hasn’t hit more than .233 since 2010, and his strikeout rate is one every 2.4 at-bats in 2013, up from one every 3.1 in 2012; Julio Teheran continues to be Baseball America’s Ron Powlus and lefty reliever Johnny Venters (elbow) hasn’t thrown a pitch (he will soon).

The Braves will solve or overcome most of those issues over the next five months.

It’s October they have to worry about.

Team song: The Byrds: Eight Miles High

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