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My Take 6/6 - Time for Braves to be concerned?
Mike Anthony
Mike Anthony

I’m not going to use the “P” word.
    It’s far too early in the season and anything can happen over the last four months of play.
    Still, for an Atlanta Braves squad that is still stinging from last year’s huge collapse and that hasn’t seen any sort of playoff success in almost a decade, things are starting to get a little more tense than they were early in 2012.
    Armed with a seasoned core of players, the Braves had plenty of reasons to be very enthusiastic about making a run at a division crown. After an 0-4 hiccup to begin the season, the Braves looked like one of the best teams in baseball in rattling off 10 wins in 11 games — many of those victories coming via blowout. The only thing keeping Atlanta from the top of the standings was an equally hot start by Washington, but things figured to lean the Braves’ way once the Washington Nationals started getting regularly bitten by the injury bug.
    Without a doubt, the Braves’ biggest strength for this season was going to be the pitching. Brandon Beachy has looked like an All-Star while Tommy Hanson has produced good numbers and Craig Kimbrell has continued his climb toward becoming the best closer in baseball.
    When Tim Hudson returned from his offseason surgery and looked like the same ace-quality pitcher Braves fans have come to rely on, it seemed like Atlanta might have been readying for a long stretch of dominant baseball that could steer it clear of the rest of the division. Hudson seemed to provide that first step in outdueling Tampa Bay’s ace, David Price, on May 20 to put the Braves 10 games over .500 and 1 ½ games in front of second-place Washington.
    But then a funny thing happened on the way to the start of a great summer.
    Just as the weather started heating up, everything that had been powering Atlanta suddenly cooled off.
    Dan Uggla managed to avoid the same sort of wretched slump that he endured for the first three months of 2011, but his .263 batting average, eight home runs and 32 RBIs aren’t quite what the team needs out of their cleanup hitter and only powerful right-handed bat.
    While Uggla is a bit closer to mediocre than fans would like him to be, those same fans can only hope that Jason Heyward can soar to those same heights of normalcy. Injured for much of last season, it was easy to explain away the dip in production for Atlanta’s highest-touted young player in a generation. This season, Heyward declared himself 100 percent, but after a solid April, he has gone back to looking like his injured self — flailing away at too many bad pitches while rarely showing off his great power.
    Chipper Jones has done exactly what can be
expected of him — namely, being a big threat at the plate during the third or so of games that he can be healthy enough to play in.
    Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman have each struggled recently, hitting .248 and .246, respectively. McCann has been hobbled by a variety of ailments, but Freeman’s eye issues, which forced him out of the lineup for a week and had him unable to step into the batter’s box, could be disastrous for the Braves if his new glasses don’t hold up.
    All of these are concerns, but the Braves haven’t been an offensive juggernaut in years and weren’t looking to power their way to this season’s playoffs.
    The pitching has been Atlanta’s bread and butter, and the lapse it has taken in the last two weeks is what will put that “P” word in play if it continues.
    Jair Jurrjens, who was at the top of everyone’s Cy Young list in July of 2011, started this season badly and only got worse. Even after being sent to the minors, he hasn’t shown himself to be anywhere near the pitcher that the Braves were counting on this year.
    Mike Minor hasn’t fared much better as his ERA sits at an awful 6.98 and he is still searching for his first win since April 19. Fellow young arm Randall Delgado has also struggled, fighting his way to a 3-5 record thus far.
    Hudson has had two rocky starts in a row and even Beachy — though still pitching well — has yielded enough to be on the hook for the loss in each of his last three outings.
    Mired in the pitching-rich N.L. East, the Braves don’t need to slug their way past the competition, but will be in a world of trouble if their big arms don’t start to produce. When its pitching is at its best, Atlanta can keep teams off the board early, then slam the door in the late innings. When those pitchers misfire, it makes things even tougher on the slumping offense.
    This is where Atlanta needs to shape up, and fast. The Philadelphia Phillies have come back to the field from their five-year reign atop the division while the Nationals, Miami Marlins and New York Mets are all much improved. It’s looking more and more like the division race will be a grind that lasts all the way through September. Division rivals will be able to match each other win for win, and it will be the teams that best avoid a prolonged slump that will survive and advance to the postseason.
    Of course, the season is still young, and — even to teams that have taken some recent lumps — the beginning of a hot streak can always be just a day away.

    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.