Make or Break Time for Braves

James HulkaAnalyst IJune 30, 2008

With the All-Star Game just two weeks away, the Atlanta Braves find themselves at a major crossroads in their season. They return home from a three-game series in Toronto that started out with such promise, and like many road trips, ended with major disappointment.

Surely, in the Braves clubhouse around 10PM Friday evening spirits were high after Jair Jurrjens had the Blue Jays thinking he was Pablo Picasso - painting the corners and brushing through their lineup quickly and efficiently.

All that went downhill when Tim Hudson reverted to his Dr. Jekyll self when in Interleague (now 1-11 against the AL with the Braves), and Jo-Jo Reyes lost his second 1-0 road game in a month when the Braves couldn't scratch across a run against AJ Burnett.

Bobby Cox looks at the season one series at a time. Surely, with four three-game series left before Chipper, McCann, and possibly Jurrjens head off to Yankee Stadium, he realizes the Braves need to win each series to break the .500 mark and hopefully close the gap in the NL East.

After losing a 23rd consecutive one-run game on the road, extending their dubious MLB record, the Braves have some hurdles to jump over the next 12 games, but a few of the potholes in the way should be made a bit smoother.

The Atlanta papers this morning are reporting that Chipper Jones could be DL-bound by tomorrow's start of the series with the Phillies at Turner Field. He'd be eligible to return just in time for the final series at San Diego.

It's no secret that the Braves have struggled with Jones not in the lineup.

However, they are four-four in their last eight games, all of which Jones has missed. With two of those games one-run losses (Tuesday vs Milwaukee and Sunday vs Toronto), one can argue his presence alone might have had the Braves above .500 right now.

Jones' absence has been felt more because of Jeff Francouer's struggles which are not limited to too many strikeouts, trying to pull too many pitches, not being able to catch up to average at best fastballs, and failing to recognize and subsequently chasing off-speed and breaking pitches that aren't anywhere near the strike zone.

Teixeira can't do it all by himself, as he's been the only consistent hitter while Chipper's been out of the lineup.

Tomorrow may mark the return of two Braves players from the DL if Chipper is disabled. Raise your hand if you thought at the beginning of the season that Mark Kotsay's return from the DL would be a much-needed boost to the Braves lineup. I thought so.

With super-sub Omar Infante unable to go with a tweaked hamstring, getting Escobar back at regular duty at short and potentially Martin Prado also back from the DL would give the team a longer bench, and more versatility and pop in the lineup.

Lillibridge hasn't shown much in his limited playing time with Atlanta this year to make anyone believe he's ready for a regular job in the majors.

The Braves also have two more off days - today and next Thursday - to hopefully either give one of the tired rotation arms a chance to skip a start, or an extra day's rest between starts.

If Cox chooses not to alter his rotation, Charlie Morton and Jorge Campillo would be the only ones getting three starts before the break. After watching Hudson struggle with location, two starts then a nine day break might do our ace some good.

However, I expect Cox, if he shuffles the deck a bit, might skip Morton that last start, and let Campillo and Hudson pitch that final weekend on regular rest, then start up with those two right after the All-Star Game.

Looking ahead to the Braves' next 12 games, the goal of winning each series isn't a far-fetched possibility. Keep in mind, as bad as the Braves have been on the road this year, they are five-five in their last ten road games.

Only Philadelphia (44-39) has a winning record and the Braves won't be facing the Phillies' two winningest starters - lefties Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer - unless manager Charlie Manuel skips Brett Myers who is slotted to take his three-nine record, 5.84 ERA, and ML leading 24 HR's allowed to the mound at Turner Field on Thursday versus Jair Jurrjens.

The Astros come calling this weekend, scheduled to throw Brian Moehler, Roy Oswalt (6-8, 4.77 ERA), and Wandy Rodriguez at Turner Field - all pitchers that the Braves have had success against before.

Oswalt is an ace, but hasn't looked it all year for a team that at times looks like an offensive juggernaut, while at other times looks more like the Mariners. 

When the best pitcher the Braves see this week at Turner Field is Kyle Kendrick, and only have to face one lefty, the Braves have to like their chances of winning their final first half homestand.

If the Braves are going to win a one-run road game this year - it'll probably happen next week. The Dodgers host the Braves with Derek Lowe struggling, Brad Penny, Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre, and Rafael Furcal on the DL, and Clayton Kershaw not slated to start.

The Braves should throw out Campillo, Jurrjens and Hudson against a team that got no-hit by the Angels on Saturday, then only got three hits the next day in being shut out one-zero.

The only pitcher the Braves face who's been really dominant this year is Jake Peavy in San Diego, along with Josh Banks and Greg Maddux - who combined have one win the entire month of June.

The Padres have lost 12 of 13 and each of their last eight, scoring a total of 21 runs in those eight games, no more than three in any of the last seven, and getting outscored 18-6 while getting swept at home this past weekend to Seattle.

Oh yes - the Braves swept both of these teams at Turner Field earlier this year outscoring the Dodgers 16-3 with Chuck James and Jeff Bennett starting two of those games, and the Padres 15-9 (with one of those being a one-run win).

An eight-four (or better) finish taking two of three in each series would leave the Braves at least at 48-47 at the break, a hopefully healthy Chipper, and probably within striking distance of the NL East lead heading to the second half.

Not too bad for a team that might have $50 million worth of players on the DL this time tomorrow.