The first place Cincinnati Reds come to town for a pair. Wait, what did I just say?
Thats right, the Reds of all teams are in first place in the NL Central. They were a chic sleeper pick this year, and people must be feeling pretty smart right now, apparently ignoring the fact that the Reds are 7 games over .500 despite only scoring 3 runs more than their opponents this offseason. The Braves are +12, and are a game under .500. Gotta love pythag standings! The Reds are a scary looking team, however. They have a very potent offense, led by the no longer depressed Joey Votto and his .962 OPS. Also worth paying attention to is platoon catcher Ryan Hanigan, who has a 12:5 BB:K ratio and has an OPS a point shy of 1.000...shades of David Ross last year, no? Scott Rolen has also hooked himself up to the juvenation machine and is hitting like he used to in his prime with the Cardinals after getting his injury issues taken care of. Longtime prospect Jay Bruce is having a breakout season due to a BABIP that is no longer frighteningly low. There's also former Ray Jonny Gomes, getting a chance to start full-time and making the most of the opportunity. And quite frankly, do you really need anymore studs in the lineup? Those 5 are the lifeblood of the Reds offense, and the team draws a lot of strength from them. The only weakness on the offense is up the middle, as the young Drew Stubbs, all glove Orlando Cabrera, and the enigmatic Brandon Phillips are all struggling terribly.
Starting tonight for the Reds will be Aaron Harang, who despite an ERA over 6.00, hasn't been that bad...when you have a K:BB of 4 to 1, you're not a bad pitcher, even if you allow 9 homers in 46 1/3 innings pitched. Harang has had crappy luck with balls in play, and is still a very dangerous pitcher...he's the type of guy that will inevitably shut the Braves down for 7 innings, like Rodrigo Lopez did last weekend. Tomorrow's starter is rookie of the year candidate Mike Leake, who has an ERA of 3.09 mainly through smoke and mirrors, with his 20 walks and 33 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings. Leake is a great young pitcher, but he's not THAT good...yet.
The Reds bullpen is rather bad, with the exception of Arthur Rhodes and his 1 run allowed in 15 innings. Aside from Rhodes, only closer Francisco Cordero and Danny Herrera have ERAs under 4.00. This is where the Braves can tee off if they can make the starter in each game throw a lot of pitches and force them to exit early. One guy to watch that is dangerous despite an ERA over 6.00 is Nick Masset, who's got 30 strikeouts in 19 innings. Now THAT, is frightening.
We all know the book on the Braves: erratic starting pitching, fantastic bullpen, improving offense. Kenshin Kawakami starts tonight, and the mere mention of his name makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit. He is averaging 5 1/3 innings a start and has an ERA nearing 6, and a strikeout rate of 5 and a half per 9. Only a year left on that deal, folks...on a happier note, Tommy Hanson pitches on Thursday, and Tommy Hanson is awesome at life. Hanson oddly only has 3 quality starts, mainly due to stamina issues, and has only really pitched bad in 2 games this season...one of which was his last start on Saturday against the Diamondbacks, but that was due to some balls that just didn't bounce Hanson's way. It was crappy luck, and it happens sometimes.
The Braves offense is starting to blossom, and not a moment too soon. 3 players have their OPSes above .800, with Brian McCann a good game or two away from being the 4th. That doesn't include Eric Hinske, who has been an absolute demon since becoming a starter in left field at the beginning of last week. Nate McLouth is also starting to heat up, which is someone that the Braves really need to get his swag on, because quite frankly, he could be sexy trade bait come July if Jordan Schafer starts to hit in Gwinnett and prove he'll be ready for the starting job in 2010 or 2011. Finally, there's Chipper Jones...who is looking close to done despite having nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts. Despite his broken down body and .223 average, he's got more steals than McLouth. What are the odds, right?
The game will be starting in around an hour and a half, so I hope I've got you all psyched up for this series...500 is in sight, and I'd like to see a 5 at the beginning of the Braves winning percentage on Friday!