Starting rotation, lineup aim for consistency

Starting rotation, lineup aim for consistency

Starting rotation, lineup aim for consistency
ATLANTA -- A little more than a week from the regular season's midpoint, the Braves continue to stand as one of the game's most confusing teams. Are they the team that was rolling when it took two of three from the Rays or more like the one which has lost 18 of the 30 games that have followed?

If recent history provides any indication, it might be futile to attempt to guess how the Braves might fare over the next three months. At this time last week, they were in the midst of a scoreless drought of 20 innings and preparing for the start of a six-game road trip against the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

After winning three of the first four games played against these American League East clubs, they dropped the final two games while facing a pair of starting pitchers -- Franklin Morales and Aaron Cook -- who had each made just one previous start in the big leagues this year.

"We've got a really good team," Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said. "When we're hot, nobody can play with us. But you can say that about a bunch of teams. It's like we've had stretches where things haven't gone our way."

When the Braves exited St. Petersburg and the Rays' series on May 20, they were 10 games above .500 and holding a 1 ½-game lead in the National League East standings. Eight days later, they were two games above .500 and in fourth place, four games behind the first-place Washington Nationals.

The ugly eight-game losing streak that altered the direction of this season was influenced by the absences of Brian McCann, who was weakened by the flu for nearly a week, Freddie Freeman, who was sidelined by blurred vision, and Chipper Jones, who made just one pinch-hit appearance over a three-week stretch after badly bruising his left calf on May 18.

With the middle of their lineup depleted by these injuries and ailments, the Braves batted .178 and scored only 20 runs during the eight-game skid.

"It's just been one of those things where we've had a rash of injuries," Braves outfielder Matt Diaz said. "The good news is we've bounced back every time. The bad news is you don't want to have to do that. You want to be consistent."

The Braves have been anything but consistent over the past five weeks. They followed the eight-game skid by winning eight of their next nine games. They then lost seven of their next eight and Brandon Beachy's valuable right arm in the process.

Last week's confirmation that Beachy would need to undergo season-ending Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery served as the first major blow the Braves have endured on the health front this year. He was leading the Majors in ERA and stood as the most reliable piece of a rotation weakened by the youthful inconsistencies experienced by Mike Minor and Randall Delgado.

"Losing Beachy is obviously a blow for any team," Braves veteran pitcher Tim Hudson said. "I don't think anybody is expecting somebody to come in and fill those shoes the way he was able to throw. But I feel like we have the pieces."

When the Nationals lost outfielder Jayson Werth to a broken wrist and played the season's first two months without Michael Morse, their offense was aided by the arrival of Bryce Harper. But they likely wouldn't be in their current position without the stellar work of a starting rotation that leads the National League in ERA.

Life has not been the same in Atlanta, where the Braves' starters rank 13th in the NL with a 4.21 ERA. The only teams sitting behind them are the Cubs, Astros and Rockies, who are all on pace to lose at least 90 games this season.

After Delgado completed the shortest start of his young career on Saturday and Minor's struggles were extended as he surrendered three home runs on Sunday, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was not ready to discuss specific changes to the starting rotation. But he did acknowledge that his team's consistency depends on the contributions of the rotation.

"For us to be consistent, we've got to have starting pitching," Gonzalez said.

The Braves have also been influenced by the struggles endured by Jonny Venters, who has not been the same reliable setup man that he was during the previous two seasons. His struggles combined with some brief encouragement produced by Minor and Delgado led the Braves to nix their plan to add Kris Medlen to their rotation after sending him to Triple-A Gwinnett to stretch out to be a starting pitcher.

Medlen has been used as a reliever since returning to the Majors on June 15. There is a chance the Braves could eventually put him in the rotation. But even if this decision is made, they will likely make an aggressive search to land a veteran starting pitcher before the Trade Deadline.

If Jair Jurrjens builds on the success he had when he returned to the Majors with a dominant effort against the Red Sox on Friday, the Braves might not be as urgent in their search for a starting pitcher.

But as the season's first three months have proven, their search for consistency will be heavily influenced by the contributions made by their starting rotation.

"We're going to get hot again," Uggla said. "We're going to start to get opportunities and play better again. We're going to start to be more consistent. Every start our young pitchers have, they're going to get better and continue to learn. That's going to help us be more consistent too."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.