The word “injury” has plagued this 2013 Braves team all season long. The injury bug didn’t take long to hit as Jonny Venters the teams premier set up man was unable to throw a single pitch this regular season. Then it was Eric O’Flaherty who was hit with a season ending injury. At this point in time it was about mid May and many were in panic mode over what would become of this feared and revered Atlanta Braves bullpen.
It wouldn’t take too long to find out the answer to that question. After a little mixing and matching Fredi Gonzalez found the right guys to plug into those critical 7th/8th inning roles and they have been nothing short of spectacular. Luis Avilan has filled a huge role for the Braves this season as he’s been the main lefty to take over for both Venters and O’Flaherty and boy has he not disappointed. Avilan is sporting a very impressive 4-0 record out of the bullpen with a shiny 1.21era. The Braves have also gotten tremendous contributions from David Carpenter and Jordan Walden as well.
So really the Braves bullpen is a situation where it reshaped itself. Nothing more and nothing less. The faces are different as are the names but the results have remained pretty much the same. As a Braves fan myself I have absolutely no concerns about this bullpen at all. Even without the likes of Venters and O’Flaherty they still strike a ton of fear into their opponents and Fredi Gonzalez knows if he can get a lead to the 7th inning the game is pretty much over 9/10 times.
Roughly one month ago the Braves took another enormous blow as they lost their veteran ace Tim Hudson to an ankle injury. Hudson wasn’t just a veteran pitcher with playoff experience and an effective sinker. He was the leader of that rotation and his positive attitude and outlook affected everyone in ways that went far beyond the game itself. Many were concerned with how the rotation would fair without Hudson in it and while I’m sure Braves starters would tell you they miss him dearly, they’ve still managed to get the job done. Since the Hudson injury they’ve been able to put a strangle hold on the N.L East and even went on a run of winning 14 consecutive games.
Alex Wood stepped in and again like the guys in the bullpen has filled a bigger role then any of us could have even imagined. He’s given us quite a few quality start with an era under 3.00. His deceptive motion has kept hitters off balance and his fast ball is bordering on electric. But again, someone stepped up and held down the fort. This is the mark of a winning team and the Braves thus far have proven to have that in their DNA.
This afternoon as the Braves were playing the Mets at Citi Field, Jason Heyward suffered a fractured jaw and will miss 4-6 weeks. I don’t need to recap the medical report or the play in which it occurred because I’m sure everyone has heard about it and doesn’t need the refresher.
Heyward was really starting to heat as he was hitting .366 over the past 21 games and certainly seemed to have found a home in that lead off spot which had plagued Atlanta for most of the season. Jason will definitely be missed and this column is not to suggest other wise. The point I’m trying to push across here is that the Braves have over come so much adversity this season as it is, ranging from player injuries to those who just haven’t played up to expectations. And with all that said the Braves are still in 1st place by an enormous margin and still on top of that hold the best record in the National League.
With that being said. How do the Braves go about dealing with the Jason Heyward injury? Well here are a few things to think on as we wait to see what Fredi Gonzalez does.
For me he becomes the critical piece in all of this. Schafer has played 67 games for the Braves in which he’s hit .290 with a .380 on base percentage. He also has scored 24 runs and has stolen 13 bases in 16 attempts. Jordan Schafer isn’t Jason Heyward but he’s also a far cry from a player who should be buried deep on the bench and forgotten about.
Throughout most of this year ( minus the time he’s spent on the disabled list himself) Schafer has fought for playing time. This includes the period where both B.J Upton and Jason Heyward were struggling. There was a time when Schafer was thought of as the possible solution to our lead off issue until it was eventually resolved by putting Heyward in there, go figure.
Schafer gives us a very solid glove and arm in the outfield, speed on the bases and his plate approach is ideal for that of a lead off hitter. There’s no reason to make any other move then to give Schafer the opportunity to play every day. This way you can also keep Simmons down in the 8th spot where he feels far more comfortable in comparison to the top of the order where he’s struggled for a better part of the 2013 season.
15 Game Lead:
It’s an eerie feeling for me to even mention this after what happened in 2011 but I can’t help but feel as if the Braves have the division all but wrapped up at this point. This doesn’t mean that they have nothing to play for or that winning games becomes any less important but if you were to have the choice of being up 1 game or 15 in your division I think all of us would take option # 2.
With the Braves holding such a large division lead they can afford some of these set backs as long as Heyward will be back before the end of the season and ready to go for the playoffs. This is a luxury that most teams do not have and one that deserves to be recognized.
Then there’s Jason Heyward himself. We are all wishing Jason a speedy recovery and hoping that he comes back sooner rather then later. A fractured jaw is no joke and is an extremely painful injury but there is always a silver lining to any situation. Heyward’s injury is not directly related to his baseball activities and or motions. What I mean by that is this; his injury isn’t a broken hand, a torn ACL or fractured ankle. It’s nothing that will stop him from doing baseball related motions or one that will have a grave affect on his ability to play the game once he returns.
His jaw needs to heal for his own safety, comfort and peace of mind but once that occurs I think that an athlete like Heyward will bounce back rather quickly. He won’t be favoring his hand or limping on a bad ankle and his body should remain strong enough to make a push at the end of the season to be ready for October.
We all look forward to having Jason Heyward back in the line up as soon as possible but until that time comes I believe this Braves team is more then capable of holding down the fort. Every time there’s been an injury, every time someone has struggled the other guys have been there to pick them up. Someone always gets hot at the right time, a pitcher always comes up with a big start and the bench comes through when we need them the most.
By: Bob McVinua