Thursday, July 3, 2014
Streaking Braves finding different ways to win
ATLANTA -- The Braves, finding new ways to create runs, have regained the lead in the NL East with their best two-week stretch of the season.
It's even more impressive when considering during that period starting pitcher Gavin Floyd had season-ending elbow surgery and power-hitting catcher Evan Gattis was lost indefinitely with a back injury.
The Braves were off on Thursday, but will carry a seven-game winning streak into Friday night's game against Arizona. Atlanta has won 11 of its last 14 games to move one-half game ahead of Washington.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez said he has seen the Braves play as well in a series, but not over a stretch as long as two weeks. He is encouraged that his lineup is proving it doesn't have to rely on homers.
"There's been a lot of different components for us to be winning, whether it's the bullpen one day or starting pitchers going deep in games, whether it's situational hitting or baserunning," Gonzalez said Wednesday. "We're winning in different ways, I guess is a better way to describe it. We're not relying on the home run."
The Braves hit no homers but instead relied on clutch hitting, scoring all eight runs with two outs, in the last two games of a sweep of the Mets this week.
"We're always going to hit home runs, but it's nice for us to show we can win games other ways," said third baseman Chris Johnson, who hit a three-run double with two outs in Atlanta's 3-1 win over New York on Wednesday night. "We don't have to hit a two- or three-run home run."
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the winning streak immediately followed B.J. Upton's move to the leadoff spot. Upton has a nine-game hitting streak -- all from his new home in the lineup. Despite the streak, he's hitting only .210 but leads the team with 13 stolen bases.
Former leadoff hitter Jason Heyward's move to the middle of the lineup is especially important following the loss of Gattis. Heyward's power was a bonus as the leadoff hitter, but now it provides support for Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton in the middle of the lineup.
Gonzalez acknowledged he doesn't know if his decision to use B.J. Upton at the top of the lineup has had a direct impact on the winning streak.
"Is it coincidence, is it the timing or is it all those things combined?" Gonzalez asked. "It's not the manager, though, I'll tell you that."
Another important lineup change was rookie second baseman Tommy La Stella's promotion from Triple-A Gwinnett in late May. La Stella has hit .270 in 33 games while playing strong defense, putting a lock on the starting job after Dan Uggla, Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky took turns at the position.
Now the big question is Gattis, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Tuesday with a bulging disk in his back.
Atlanta had Alex Wood ready to move back into the rotation as Floyd's replacement, but Gattis would be more difficult to replace if his back injury keeps him out for a significant period.
Gattis has 16 homers to share the team lead with Justin Upton. He was hitting .290 in his first year as the starting catcher and was a candidate to be named to the NL All-Star team.
Rookie Christian Bethancourt, best known for his strong throwing arm and defense, was the starting catcher in all three games against the Mets. Veteran Gerald Laird is a solid backup but is hitting only .222. Utility player Ryan Doumit has spent more time in the outfield than at catcher.
The team's strength is still pitching. Atlanta is tied for second in the NL with its 3.24 ERA. Julio Teheran, 8-5 with a 2.29 ERA, is an emerging ace. Craig Kimbrel, who struck out the side in Tuesday night's 5-4 win over the Mets for his 26th save, remains one of the most dominant closers in the game.