The Atlanta Braves have been flirting with disaster lately, losing eight of their last fourteen games to drop to 34-29 on the season. The team is currently in the midst of a three-way battle with the Washington Nationals and the Miami Marlins for the lead in the NL East.
Atlanta’s biggest problem in the last few weeks has been the once-resolute bullpen. One of the Braves’ best facets for several seasons, the team’s relief pitching staff has been responsible for five of the team’s last eight losses, giving up a total of twenty runs in those eight contests.
The last few series were not particularly kind to Alex Wood, who had previously been forced to move to the bullpen to make room for veteran Gavin Floyd. Wood’s numbers suffered as a result, ballooning to 5-6 with a 3.43 ERA before being sent down on Tuesday.
Wood’s move to AAA makes room for Jordan Walden, a proven setup man who should immediately bolster the bullpen. Fresh off of a hamstring injury, Walden will stabilize the relief corps while Wood gets back into starting form with the Gwinnett Braves. The move to AAA for Wood seems to point towards a return to the starting rotation, meaning that either Gavin Floyd or Aaron Harang will be dealt before July’s trade deadline.
Despite the struggles of the bullpen over the last two weeks, several aspects of the Braves have fans excited for this season’s long run. Right fielder Jason Heyward has simply been on fire lately in the leadoff spot for Atlanta, hitting .321 with 2 home runs with 5 RBIs in the last week. Heyward has quietly collected hits in thirteen of the team’s last fourteen games, which includes six multi-hit games for the former first round pick. Heyward’s recent output at the plate has been a welcomed sight considering his sub-.200 play in the first month of the season, and there’s no reason to think that the player many once considered to be the face of the franchise cannot maintain this excellent string of success.
Along with great batting performances from Heyward as well as current NL MVP candidate Justin Upton (.295 batting average with 14 home runs and 36 RBIs), the Braves have featured a pair of rookies that have shown great promise in limited play. Leading the way at second base is Tommy La Stella, a twenty-five-year-old who was called upon to replace Dan Uggla. La Stella has certainly been up to the challenge through eleven games, hitting .368 with 14 hits and 4 RBIs with just a pair of strikeouts. La Stella has also shown off his great defensive ability several times and has already made a legitimate case to stay at second for the foreseeable future.
Another young stud that looks ready to contribute on a nightly basis goes by the name Simmons, and it’s not defensive superstar shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Relief pitcher Shae Simmons has had a great start to his Major League career up to this point, wielding an impeccable 0.00 ERA with three hits allowed and five strikeouts in 5.0 innings of work. Simmons, 23, possesses a 96 MPH fastball that is complemented by a hard-breaking slider that has the potential to buckle even the best batters. Manager Fredi Gonzalez will understandably ease Simmons into the rigorous schedule that comes with playing in the bigs, but the recent struggles of Simmons’ fellow relievers should mean more appearances for the former Southeast Missouri State Redhawk.
Currently tied for the division lead with the Washington Nationals with identical 34-29 records, the Braves will be looking to add some breathing room with some wins in the coming days. Atlanta finishes up their four-game series against the Colorado Rockies on Thursday then heads back home for a three-game matchup against the Los Angeles Angels.
Following the battle with the Angels comes a three-game series against the division rival Philadelphia Phillies at Turner Field. The Braves then head to the nation’s capital for a four-game slugfest versus the Nationals.