Phillies get an early look at talented but inexperienced Braves

Associated Press
Associated Press
Posted: April 08, 2011

Of course, you could go to the track and bet the favorite every race. Could eat the same lunch every day. Could wear the same shirt, hopefully with frequent launderings. But that would be pretty boring.

Making preseason baseball predictions is sort of the same deal. The whole exercise is pointless, since there's no way anyone can foresee the injuries, trades, unaccountable slumps and out-of-nowhere hot streaks that will ultimately determine who wins and who loses. But picking a team like the Phillies to win the National League East is a real yawner. Four straight titles, a terrific rotation, and have you thought about putting your money on the Harlem Globetrotters?

That might be why a notable number of prognosticators prognosticated for the Atlanta Braves going into this season.

It could be that they really liked the Braves - and there's a lot to like - or were worried about an aging champion that lost Jayson Werth and started the schedule without second baseman Chase Utley and closer Brad Lidge. And those are legit worries.

In the end, though, none of that matters. What matters is what happens on the field. And this weekend, beginning tonight at Turner Field, the Phillies and Braves will face off for the first three of 18 regular-season meetings.

Let's not oversell this. Nothing will be proved by sundown Sunday. Still, it's at least an interesting early-season chance for the contenders to take each other's measure.

Atlanta catcher Brian McCann got it exactly right. "It's hard to really talk about any other team," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We've just got to focus on what we can do and not worry about the Phillies or anybody else.

"I think in '07 we went into Philly and we swept an opening series and then we struggled. It's about consistency for 6 months."

His memory is accurate. The Braves started 7-1 and 24-12 that season . . . then went 60-66 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs.

Hey, Atlanta could topple the Phillies. Their Chipper Jones-McCann-Dan Uggla-Jason Heyward heart of the order is formidable. The rotation, which includes Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy and Derek Lowe, has a chance to be excellent. Closer Craig Kimbrel has been a strikeout machine so far.

Still, it's natural to look at your own team and focus on the warts, look at the opposition and concentrate on the strengths. The reality, though, is that Atlanta is not without vulnerabilities.

They are placing an uncommon amount of faith in rookies like Kimbrel, Beachy and first baseman Freddie Freeman. Hayward and setup reliever Johnny Venters are in their second full seasons. Hanson is in his third year.

Asked about Beachy and Kimbrel, Brewers veteran Craig Counsell told reporters in Milwaukee that both are special talents but added, "They're rookies and we haven't really seen them." Can they make the necessary adjustments?

Jones is also a key, and while he had a strong spring following ACL surgery last year, he turns 39 before the end of the month and has been on the disabled list at least once in 6 of the last 7 years. Jurrjens (14-10, 2.60, 215 innings pitched in 2009) made only 20 starts last season because of hamstring and knee problems and is sidelined again this season.

Admitted Jones: "You want to get back to that point where you walk on the field every day and you just expect to win."

The Braves had that while winning 14 straight division titles. The Phillies have had it since that attitude was forged in the crucible of the 2007 stretch drive when they nipped the Mets at the wire.

Who will have it when the regular season ends is still to be determined.

PHAIR AND PHOUL

-- April powers: With Ryan Howard off to a strong start (.480 with two homers, eight RBI in the first six games), the fact that he's a notoriously slow starter has gotten quite a bit of play. That's a little misleading, though. While it's true that Howard has hit more homers in September/October (59) than any other month and more in the second half (134) than the first (121), he's had his moments in the first month as well. In 2006 ,he was .306-5-12; in 2009, he was .288-4-15; and last season .274-4-17.

-- Add Howard: Ryan Howard has already missed a cycle by just a triple twice this season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there have been 142 cycles during the expansion era (since 1962). In that same span, there have been 8,830 occasions when a player needed only a triple to complete the cycle.

-- In case of emergency . . . : Wondering who the Phillies' emergency catcher is now that Jayson Werth, who was originally drafted by the Orioles as a backstop, is gone? Answer: Wilson Valdez.

-- Missing man formation: Normally the Phillies have a franchise icon throw out a first ceremonial pitch on Opening Day. This year they planned to have senior adviser Dallas Green and his family do the honors. But Green couldn't attend because he was in Arizona for a memorial service for his granddaughter, Christina Taylor Green, who was slain by a deranged gunman attempting to assassinate congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. In a nice touch, the team decided not to have anybody else throw out the pitch as an unspoken tribute.

-- It adds up: Everybody knows the Phillies' starters are pretty good. But when you add it up, it just seems that much more impressive. Combined, they have 550 wins, 19 Opening Day starts, 13 All-Star selections, six 20-win seasons, three Cy Youngs and three postseason MVPs.

-- Second chances: The Phillies brought three former second basemen back into the organization this season. Juan Samuel is the new third-base coach, Ryne Sandberg is the manager for the Triple A Lehigh Valley IronPigs and Mickey Morandini is the manager for the short-season Class A Williamsport Crosscutters.

-- Sign of the times: There's a new advertisement on the concourse at Citizens Bank Park this year. Sponsored by Liscio's Bakery, it features a picture of reliever Ryan Madson and the caption: "The perfect set-up for a great season." Clever. Just one question. Would they have changed the words if Madson, not Jose Contreras, had been named the closer in place of the injured Brad Lidge?

AROUND THE BASES

-- An ounce of prevention: Amid vague rumblings that the Rockies might be swinging at livelier baseballs than their pitchers were throwing at Coors Field, Major League Baseball has hired an authenticator to maintain a chain of custody as the balls are taken from the humidor to the umpires' room to the dugout. According to the Denver Post, he then sits in the camera well during games, keeping the supply of balls in sight at all times. And since he can't leave his post, an MLB-hired security guard meets the umpires' room attendant if more balls are needed during the game. We couldn't make this stuff up.

-- Suspicious minds (Part 2): A bullpen catcher, not from the Braves, tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the baseballs being used this year are harder than in recent years. He theorized that MLB wants more offense to keep fan interest up in a down economy.

-- That's sick: Orioles ace Jeremy Guthrie had to be taken to the hospital on Monday with a spiking fever. The thoroughly modern pitcher updated the world on his condition via Twitter. "Initially I thought I had Bieber fever but it turns out I have pneumonia," he tweeted.

-- Oops: Cubs righthander Carlos Silva pitched a fit after being told he wouldn't make the Opening Day rotation. He refused to report to TripleA Iowa and was released. Then the Cubs had to put Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells on the disabled list after their first starts.

-- Add Cubs: The announced attendance at Wrigley Field on Monday was 26,292, the lowest since 2002. The next day, when 27,039 turned out, was only marginally better despite a Starlin Castro bobblehead promotion. Could it be that Cubs fans have finally decided that the charms of the old ballpark no longer outweigh the general lack of competitive baseball?

-- Less is more: A recent article in Forbes magazine strongly suggested that MLB will legislate the Tampa Bay Rays out of existence following the 2014 season, citing poor attendance as the primary reason, despite a competitive team. The argument loses some credibility, though, because the story didn't mention any other teams being contracted. And, for scheduling purposes, it's impossible to eliminate just one club.

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