Familiar Themes Haunt Atlanta Braves Offense on Opening Day

Martin Gandy@gondeeeFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2014

B.J. Upton walks back to the dugout after a strikeout.
B.J. Upton walks back to the dugout after a strikeout.Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves did nothing to quiet the critics or the skeptics on Opening Day. The team opened the season needing its offense to contribute more after a spring in which starting pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were lost for the season, and starter Mike Minor was delayed with an injury.

In their first trip between the lines. the Braves hitters were not up to the challenge, losing 2-0.

The offense managed only five hits against Milwaukee Brewers pitchers, and only one of those hits—a sixth-inning double by Chris Johnson—went for extra bases. Atlanta was 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position while getting shutout for the sixth time in the past nine games against Milwaukee, dating back to September of 2012.

The Braves have fared poorly at Miller Park, making an ironic statement by getting shutout in four of their past six games in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball.

Another familiar theme repeating itself from last year is the insistence by Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez to bat B.J. Upton at the top of the batting order.

The elder Upton didn’t succeed at the top of the lineup last season, hitting .179 in the 19 games he hit leadoff, and .091 in eight games batting second. Of course, Upton didn't do much better in any other spot in the lineup, but that should be a clue to the manager not to hit him in a part of the lineup where he is expected to get on base with more regularity. Upton was hitless with two strikeouts in four trips to the plate while batting second Monday.

Dan Uggla also failed to collect a hit, though he was potentially robbed of a hit in the ninth inning when a ball up the middle was slowed off the pitcher’s glove. Uggla and Upton are coming off of historically bad seasons in which they were each worth negative-1.3 WAR, as measured by Baseball Reference.

Whether it’s fair or not, any struggles early in the season by the Braves offense will be highlighted by the contributions from those two batters. If they struggle, and the entire Braves offense struggles, then they will rightly or wrongly be blamed.

Despite poor control, Julio Teheran kept the Braves in the ballgame.
Despite poor control, Julio Teheran kept the Braves in the ballgame.Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Two other areas of concern for the Braves—the rotation and the bullpen—were bright spots on Opening Day.

Julio Teheran was not sharp, but he worked around his control problems and only allowed two runs in a solid six-inning effort. Early in the game Julio struggled to locate his fastball, relying heavily on his changeup. His fastball control completely deserted him in the fourth inning when he walked the leadoff batter, then gave up back-to-back hits on poorly located fastballs, allowing the Brewers to take a two-run lead—the only runs scored in the game.

In relief of Teheran, the Braves turned to two pitchers making their major league debutand two pitchers who have never pitched above Double-A.

Left-hander Ian Thomas was able to retire one of the two left-handed batters he faced to lead off the seventh inning. Sidearming right-hander Gus Schlosser came on in relief of Thomas and induced an inning-ending double play, then remained in the game to pitch an impressive eighth inning. The strong work from those two rookie relievers, especially Schlosser, has to give the Braves hope that at least their bullpen will survive despite the youth and inexperience forced to fill its ranks.

The Braves offense is critical to the team’s success in the early part of the season.

With the starting rotation not expected to be at full strength until sometime in May, the Braves were lucky to draw a schedule that ESPN.com’s Buster Olney ranked as the easiest early-season schedule in the National League. According to Olney, only 12 of the Braves first 40 games are against teams that had .500 or better records last season, and Milwaukee is one of those teams.

These early-season games against potentially weaker teams are a scheduling advantage that the Braves must exploit to be competitive in the Eastern Division race with the Washington Nationals. While the Braves have historically struggled against Monday’s starter, Yovani Gallardo (2.01 ERA and 4-1 career record vs. Atlanta), they’ll need to hit better for the remainder of the series against veterans Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza.

All eyes will be on the Braves offense, especially Uggla and Upton.


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