Monday, September 26, 2011
NL Pennant Race Panic Meter
Just a few weeks ago the Atlanta Braves appeared to have a playoff spot locked up. After a 5-2 win over the Washington Nationals on September 1, the Braves were a season-high 26 games over .500 at 81-55 and owned a 8½ game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the Wild Card race.
The next night they were leading the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 at home, but blew the game, losing 8-6. That started their collapse, as they have gone 8-15 since then, which is the worst record in the NL starting on September 2.
So what’s gone wrong and who’s to blame on the Braves?
The Braves are struggling against left-handed pitching during their September to forget. The team is hitting .240/.276/.323 against left-handed pitching this month, and have lost four of six games started by southpaws.
A number of Braves position players have struggled since the start of the month. Chipper Jones is 3-for-22 with five strikeouts in his last seven games. Since coming off the DL in mid-August, Brian McCann is hitting .174 with a sub-.300 OBP.
The Braves have been hindered by injuries to two of their top starting pitchers - Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson – while veteran Derek Lowe is 0-4 with an 8.24 ERA in his last four starts.
The bullpen that was so reliable in the first five months has been unstable in the finals weeks. Jonny Venters has a 5.84 ERA since August 23, and Craig Kimbrel has a 6.75 ERA since September 9. The bullpen has five blown saves this month, only the Cubs and Mets have more.
On the other side of the ledger, the Cardinals playoff hopes appeared to be on life support just a few weeks ago. Following a 4-1 loss to the Brewers on September 5, the Cardinals trailed by 8½ games in the Wild Card race.
Since then they have won 14 of 18, including a three-game sweep of the Braves. They have the best record in the NL starting on September 6 and have pulled to within one game of the Wild Card lead.
So what’s gone right for the Cardinals during their recent hot streak?
Matt Holliday missed nine games with an injured hand, but Allen Craig stepped up in his place. Craig has started eight of those nine games, and is hitting .281 with six extra-base hits, including three home runs.
Albert Pujols has looked like the Albert Pujols we’ve come to expect at this time of the season. He’s hitting .374 with five homers and 19 RBI in September, ranking among the league leaders this month.
The Cardinals have also gotten an unexpected offensive boost from shortstop Rafael Furcal. After hitting one home run in 37 games with the Dodgers, he’s hit seven in 48 games with the Cardinals. All seven of his homers have come with the score either tied or within two runs.
The Braves finish up with three home games against the Philadelphia Phillies, who have the majors' best record, while Cardinals face the league's worst team, the Houston Astros, in their final three games.