Braves face tough task vs. Phillies with rookie starters, shaky defense
The Braves are trying to gain ground by sending rookies against the Phils' aces
The Braves' normally solid defense failed them in Monday's 3-1 loss to the Phils
Despite shaky relief pitching, the Yanks beat the Rays to lead the AL East by 11/2
PHILADELPHIA -- Five Cuts from Monday's action:
1. Needing a series win against the Phillies to maintain any realistic hope of winning the National League East, the Braves sent Brandon Beachy to the mound Monday night -- for his major-league debut -- and will follow with fellow rookie Mike Minor, who will make his eighth career start Tuesday. Not the ideal starters for a club that entered the three-game set three games behind Philadelphia.
Beachy, who hadn't pitched in a game since a Sept. 3 outing in Triple A, actually threw reasonably well but only lasted 82 pitches and 4 1/3 innings, giving up four hits, three walks and just one earned run, as the Phillies went on to win 3-1 and extend their division lead to four games, while the Braves' wild-card lead slipped to two games over the Padres.
While their pedigrees couldn't be more different -- Beachy was signed as an undrafted free agent after pitching at Indiana Wesleyan while Minor was drafted out of Vanderbilt in the first round of the 2009 draft -- neither Atlanta rookie is an ideal candidate to start against the Phillies in stretch-run games. Beachy, who had a 1.73 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 119 1/3 innings in Double A and Triple A this season, got the call in place of injured Jair Jurrjens; Minor received his rotation job after Kris Medlen got hurt.
"If they're good enough to be up here, they're good enough to get in the ballgame," Braves manager Bobby Cox said.
That's more commonly true of rookie relievers like Craig Kimbrel, who notched his first career save for Atlanta on Sunday, than rookie starters who typically to face a lineup three or even four times. Just as telling was Cox's other comment from Monday regarding the merits of winning the East against the wild card: "You want to win the division, but it doesn't make any difference at all as long as you get in."
Home field would be nice for the Braves, however, as they are 52-23 at Turner Field and 34-42 away from it. Making up four games from the Phillies will be tough, but the two clubs do meet five more times.
2. While the Braves were unable to meddle with their rotation to line up their top starters -- Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson -- for this series, the Phillies are featuring their three-headed ace, affectionately known as H20 for Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt.
The three of them are a big reason the Phillies have won eight in a row and are 42-15 since July 22. Since that date, Hamels and Oswalt both have an ERA of 1.94 and Halladay has a 2.68 mark.
Hamels has particularly distinguished himself with a .193 average against and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings. He continues to master the curveball and has increased confidence in his cutter, thereby varying his repertoire and helping him prevent innings from getting out of hand like they sometimes did in 2009.
On Monday, for instance, after allowing three hits and a run to start the second inning, Hamels bore down against Alex Gonzalez and Melky Cabrera. Hamels threw a 1-1 curve for strike two against Gonzalez, setting him up for the changeup for strike three. Then Hamels threw a 1-0 cutter to induce a double-play ball from Cabrera.
"It's nice to be able to throw four pitches for strikes," Hamels said. "In the past I only had two. That's something I've never had. It makes it more fun to play that chess match [with the hitter]."
According to Pitch f/x data, Hamels still relied primarily on his fastball (73 pitches) and his change (25) but threw nine curves (six for strikes) and 10 cutters (seven strikes). That's more than enough balance to keep hitters guessing.
3. The Braves' generally reliable defense failed them in the fifth inning, allowing two unearned runs -- the difference in the ballgame. The errors were glaring opposite the Phillies, who turned three difficult double plays to quell Atlanta chances.
Philadelphia's Shane Victorino led off the frame with a flyball to deep right-center field, which glanced off the glove of Atlanta rightfielder Jason Heyward for a three-base error. Later in the inning, Chase Utley singled, stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by catcher Brian McCann. Both Victorino and Utley later scored on groundouts, only because errors advanced them to third.
They were uncharacteristic lapses by Atlanta, which ranks fourth in the NL -- one spot behind the Phillies -- in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, a Baseball Prospectus stat measuring a team's ability to turn batted balls into outs.
While it was McCann's 12th error of the season, second-most among all catchers, Heyward's gaffe was particularly striking. According to Fielding Bible data available on billjamesonline.com, Heyward entered the game leading all major league righ tfielders with a plus-minus of +22, meaning he had made 22 more plays than the average right fielder would have made. His splits show that his play on deep balls had been exceptional with a +23 rating -- roughly double the rating of any other qualifying right fielder.
In Heyward's defense, it was a tough play -- a knuckling liner into a stiff breeze -- just one he usually excels at makng.
"He inside-outed it, and it got in the wind," Heyward said. "I was right there the whole way. I wanted to hurry and get under it as fast as possible, and the last few rotations took it out of my reach. There was nothing I could do about that."
4. Monday night was the second straight visit to the Bronx in which the Rays were treated to ceremonies honoring the late George Steinbrenner. Tampa Bay was the first team to play at Yankee Stadium after Steinbrenner's death after the All-Star break, and on Monday the Yankees unveiled the gigantic Monument Park plaque dedicated to The Boss.
But that Yankees' luster and swagger celebrated in the pregame ceremony wasn't built by pitching guys like Chad Gaudin in tight spots.
Rookie Ivan Nova was sharp until he ran out of gas in the sixth inning. Lefty Boone Logan was called out of the bullpen only to give up a run in his third straight outing after a streak of 25 straight shutout appearances. Then New York manager Joe Girardi called on Gaudin to protect a 4-3 lead with two outs and the bases loaded. Gaudin walked the first batter he faced, B.J. Upton, to force in a run and tie the game.
Gaudin is a serviceable long man, but he lacks the strikeout arsenal that would make him effective in jams. Opponents are batting .296 with a .376 on-base percentage against him when there are runners on base. That's not the profile of a pitcher Girardi should have brought into that situation, even if it was only the sixth inning. Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson and Kerry Wood all have fared significantly better with runners on base.
The Yankees still went on to win 8-6, in large part due to Curtis Granderson's continued rediscovery of his home-run swing. He hit two balls out to right field -- his 20th and 21st of the season -- for five RBIs, as the Bronx Bombers moved 1½ games ahead of the Rays in the AL East.
5. After a one-day hiatus, baseball's best race resumes with all three contending NL West teams hitting the road, as the Giants travel to face the Cubs, the Rockies head south for the Diamondbacks and the Padres head up I-5 for the Dodgers. San Francisco clings to a half-game lead over San Diego and a 1½-game lead over Colorado.
The next meeting between these teams comes this weekend when the Rockies host the Giants for three games, and San Francisco will enter with the decided pitching advantage. Colorado's only starter with truly plus stuff is Ubaldo Jimenez, who throws on Wednesday -- if he were to make his following start on three days' rest, he'd face the Giants on Sunday, but Rockies manager Jim Tracy has said he won't ask that to his young ace for fear he'd risk injuring his young ace, who is "a huge part of our future." San Francisco, meanwhile, is slated to throw Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Matt Cain in the series.
The Giants, though, will have a tough road to get to the weekend still in first place. They face a Cubs team that has won six straight and eight of their last nine in consecutive road series against the Brewers, Cardinals and, most recently, the Marlins. San Francisco will run into two scorching-hot Chicago starters, too, in Carlos Zambrano (6-0 with a 1.37 ERA in his last seven starts) on Tuesday and Ryan Dempster (winner of his last two games, thanks to 14 consecutive shutout innings).
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