NL East Report: Time For Atlanta’s Pitching To Step Up

Every offensive juggernaut faces what the Atlanta Braves are right now—a point when your hitting stops carrying you and the pitching has to stand up and be counted. The Braves have one of the best offenses in the National League this season, but all at once, Michael Bourn has stopped getting on base, Fredi Freeman has stopped hitting for power and Jason Heyward has slowed. And in the first three games of four in Cincinnati, Atlanta scored just five runs combined and lost all three going into tonight’s finale. It’s nothing to panic over as far as the offense in general and these players in particular. But can the pitching keep the Braves upright over the long haul in a competitive division.

The rotation looks to have its top three settling in. Brandon Beachy has been the constant all year, with a 5-2 record and 1.77 ERA, while Tommy Hanson is rounding into form. Hanson’s been sharp his last four starts, which include games against the Cardinals, Rays and Reds. The same goes for Tim Hudson, who’s gone to the post five times since his return from the neck injury that delayed the veteran’s start to the season. Hudson’s last three outings have been against the Cubs, Rays and Reds and the result is 21.2 IP and only three earned runs.

It’s the back end of the rotation that’s the problem and bullpen depth that is at least a concern. #4 starter Mike Minor continues to struggle in establishing himself as a big-league pitcher. The ERA is 6.96 and no signs of life are evident. Randall Delgado hasn’t been that bad, but a 4.26 ERA is nothing special in the National League and his recent form doesn’t suggest a turnaround. In the pen, Craig Kimbrel is a reliable closer and Jonny Venters still as good as there is for the eighth inning. But Eric O’Flaherty, the third prong on the bullpen trio that was so devastating last year, is struggling, as is Chad Durbin. The intriguing move here is manager Fredi Gonzalez’s reliance on veteran Livan Hernandez, who thus far has delivered the goods—24 IP in 14 appearances and a 2.96 ERA. But how long can that be kept up?

I don’t know what to make of Atlanta. I picked them to win the NL East at the start of the year, but have been worried about the very issues outlined above since the season began. If nothing else, the settling of Hudson and Hanson will keep the ship steady. As to whether it’s enough to get over the top…pitching depth ultimately shows (or doesn’t show) in the late summer months, but for the short-term a weekend series in Washington, followed by three with St. Louis and then a return visit by the Nats will provide plenty of tests.

Atlanta’s currently 26-19 and in second place in the NL East. Here’s the rundown on how the rest of the division is looking…

Washington (26-18): It’s a tough schedule stretch for everybody in the NL East right now, with a lot of inter-division games leading up to matchups against the AL East when interleague play resumes on June 7, but perhaps no team is being more closely watched than the Nationals. There’s the natural storyline of the team pushing for its first playoff berth, coupled with debate over how much work to give to Stephen Strasburg. If nothing else, Davey Johnson can be secure that the rest of the staff is ready to pick up the slack if they rest the young ace—only Ross Detwiler had a rough week among starting pitchers and the Nats were able to go 3-3 against the Orioles & Phillies in spite of a combined 5-for-47 from Rick Ankiel and Adam LaRoche, dragging down a struggling offense.

NY Mets (24-20): Terry Collins’ team is the classic stay afloat crew right now, but I have to wonder how much longer they can keep it up. David Wright sizzled last week, as he has all year, going for 8-for-21, but other than Ronny Cedeno—who had ten hits—the rest of the lineup was impotent and the pitching staff’s ERA was 14th in the National League in the past seven days.

Miami (24-20): The Marlins have now won their last six three-game series (and split a pair of two-game sets) and they’ve gotten big performances from stars who’d been struggling. Josh Johnson was sharp in his last outing, going seven innings and giving up one run, while Hanley Ramirez caught fire with the bat, posting a .433 on-base percentage and .566 slugging. Six home games against San Francisco, then first-place Washington, give the Marlins a chance to push to the top of the pack.

Philadelphia (22-23): We know the Phillies can beat bad teams—a run of beating up on the Padres, Cubs and Astros moved them over .500, but then Philly faced Boston and Washington, promptly dropped four of six and slid back under .500 as they get to set to open a four-game series in St. Louis tonight. Their three reliable offensive players—Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Carlos Ruiz are all hot right now, so it’s painfully evident this team needs more. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee got hit a little bit in their last starts—nothing that a good offense couldn’t occasionally cover for, but the margin of error for Philadelphia pitchers does not exist right now.