Mobile Augusta

Wed. Aug. 20 2:24 pm
Sunday, July 13, 2008

Weak bats top reason for first-half woes

Associated Press
Associated Press
Tim Hudson has an impressive 3.16 ERA but the Braves have lost seven one-run games in his starts. Atlanta's hitters have simply not produced when he's pitched.

ATLANTA --- The Atlanta Braves will have a losing record at the All-Star break for the second time in three seasons.

Chipper Jones isn't happy, but he says he isn't surprised.

Jones said when the season began that the Braves too closely resembled last year's team that finished third in the NL East -- for the second consecutive season.

His concerns have been realized as the Braves have dropped to fourth in the division.

"I guess people might say that I'm a prophet," Jones said. "There's a reason why we've been at or near .500 for two and a half years now."

The Braves are under .500 since winning their 14th division title in a row in 2005.

Jones says the Braves don't play like winners, including in their offensive approach.

The Braves have the potential to win big when their big hitters are hot, but they've been astonishingly bad in close games.

Manager Bobby Cox has never been known for small ball. During the run of division titles the team kept winning with its combination of dominant starting pitching and home runs.

Despite losing John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Mike Hampton, Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan to injuries, the Braves' pitching has been strong this season. But the Braves, ninth in the NL in runs, keep losing close games.

They are only 4-22 in one-run games. They are 0-17 in one-run games on the road this season, including a 2-1 loss to the Dodgers on Wednesday night, and have lost 24 consecutive one-run games on the road since Aug. 10, 2007. It's the longest stretch of one-run road losses in major league history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Jones says the Braves would win more one-run games if they produced more one-run innings.

"You know, to win one-run games, pitchers have to get bunts down," Jones said. "You've got to hit behind runners. You've got to put the ball in play with a guy on third and less than two outs. You have to do the little things to win those one-run games, because a run here and a run there is the difference.

"We don't do it consistently."

It's not a new problem.

The Braves were 12-21 in one-run games when they were 40-49 at the break in 2006, when they finished 79-83. They finished only 18-25 in one-run games last season, when they were again third in the NL East at 84-78.

If Atlanta had won half its 26 one-run games, it would be 52-40 and in first place, 21/2 games ahead of Philadelphia.

Dodgers starter Derek Lowe, the former Red Sox pitcher who beat Atlanta on Wednesday night while retiring the first 17 batters, says the Braves take an American League approach at the plate.

"This is the type of team where you have to be able to throw your breaking ball for strikes, especially when you're behind the count," Lowe said. "... They just really look for fastballs on pretty much every single count, so you have to be able to throw breaking balls."

Jones, the NL's All-Star starter at third base, has hit .400 most of the first half. He can't do much more. But he says too many of the team's young players are just waiting on the Braves' sluggers -- Jones, All-Star catcher Brian McCann and first baseman Mark Teixeira -- to hit home runs.

"I see a lot of the young guys, they have developed a mentality that they sit back and they wait for me or Tex or Mac to deliver the big blow," Jones said. "And we're not going to do it all the time."

Jeff Francoeur was expected to be another big bat behind Teixeira and McCann. Instead, he slumped so badly that he was sent to Double-A Mississippi for a brief three-game confidence boost this week.

Some of the team's problems can be blamed on injuries to Mark Kotsay, Yunel Escobar and Matt Diaz, who have had stints on the disabled list. Kotsay missed 33 games with a lower back strain. Diaz has been out since May 28.

Jones has avoided the disabled list, but he missed eight starts in a row with a strained right quadriceps before returning on July 1.

But this is about more than injuries. With Jones, Kotsay and Escobar back in the lineup and Francoeur back from the minors, the losses have continued. The Braves had lost nine of 12 through Friday, scoring no more than one run five times in the stretch.

Tim Hudson is 9-7 despite a 3.16 ERA. The Braves have seven one-run losses in his starts.

"You just feel bad for Huddy," Francoeur said. "He's pitched so many games like this and we haven't done anything for him. What is he, 9-7 now? He could be 12-4 easy."

Hudson is the only healthy veteran starter, but general manager Frank Wren says the patchwork pitching staff has pitched as well as was expected of the veterans.

"I think if everything had gone as planned with the pitching, we'd be happy with where we are pitching-wise," Wren said.

The Braves' 3.74 ERA is second in the National League.

Index