What's going on with the Braves?
When we last saw the Braves, they were in an offensive rut and losing two of three games to our Mets. After that, Atlanta went on a five-game winning streak against the Nationals and Phillies, scoring runs in bunches and asserting dominance over the rest of the National League East.
The most exciting part of the Braves' recent surge was their 9-6 victory over Philadelphia on Monday night in which the tomahawk choppers scored all of their runs after the fifth inning. That included back-to-back-to-back home runs from Evan Gattis, Dan Uggla, and Andrelton Simmons in the eighth as well as a go-ahead grand slam by Uggla in the ninth.
Atlanta finally saw its offensive momentum slowed in the past two games. On Wednesday, they defeated the Phillies 1-0 thanks to a dominant start by Julio Teheran. On Thursday, they lost by the same score despite a great performance by Alex Wood. It's nice that the Mets won't have to see either of those hurlers this weekend, but we also can't count on the Braves' power-packed lineup staying dormant for much longer.
Who are these guys?
Andrelton Simmons is a guy we all know thanks to his defensive prowess. He won the Platinum Glove award last season as the NL's top defender, and his incredible range and arm could make him an elite shortstop for years to come. What's really intriguing, though, is how Simmons's offensive game is developing. Throughout his pro career, he's done a great job of limiting strikeouts, but this season he's taken that skill to an extreme with zero in his first 49 plate appearances. That means that Simmons has a .333 average despite a moderate .289 BABIP. If he can keep hitting for power (two home runs, two triples, and a double so far) while not punching out, there could be an MVP award in his future.
Just like how Simmons has rarely struck out, Evan Gattis hasn't walked in 2014 so far. That's a little bit of a problem when you strike out more than 20 percent of the time and just came off a .291 on-base percentage season. It's not as much of a problem, though, if you have nine hits in your last three games. That's what Gattis has done, with a pair of home runs on Monday and a 4-for-4 night on Wednesday. He's bound to cool down, hopefully in the immediate future, but to be useful as a catcher in baseball, you really only need to have to get on base or hit for power. Gattis sure can slug it, and that makes him a nice asset for the Braves.
Who's on the mound?
Atlanta has the second best ERA in the majors right now, and a big part of that has been Harang's brilliant start to the season. After allowing one run in six innings during his duel with Bartolo Colon ten days ago, he was just as good in the Braves' blowout win over Washington on Sunday. As you might expect, Harang's 0.96 ERA is helped along by a .191 BABIP and a strand rate of 86.7 percent. He's also allowed zero home runs despite a 25 percent ground ball rate. Still, Harang has 17 strikeouts and six walks in 18.2 innings, and that means his performance so far hasn't been a total mirage. Opposing Harang will be Niese, who pitched into the eighth inning against the Angels last time out even though he allowed a home run to Collin Cowgill.
Saturday: Ervin Santana vs. Bartolo Colon
It's only been two starts for Santana and the Braves, but the National League newcomer is looking like the steal of the winter so far. After shutting out the Mets for eight innings during his Atlanta debut, Santana took his show on the road and hung 11 strikeouts on the Phillies in just six innings on Monday. Santana's major weakness during his career has been allowing home runs, and he's only let up one of those so far. You can thank a 52 percent ground ball rate for that, and Santana's increasing career rate from 35 percent in 2010 to 43 percent in 2012 to 46 percent last season is a promising sign for the 31-year-old. Not a promising sign is that Colon just allowed back-to-back-to-back home runs in Anaheim and the Braves just accomplished the feat in Philly. Hopefully the big guy is over his back issues and can pitch as well as he did in his last outing versus the Braves.
A rainy day on Tuesday in Philadelphia allowed the Braves to skip Hale's last scheduled start. That means that the rookie's most recent outing was against the Mets eight days ago. New York got to him early that day, scoring three runs before Hale could finish the fifth inning. His first start of the season in Washington went much better, but Hale's seven walks and six strikeouts make him the odd man out when Mike Minor returns to the rotation. With the way Wheeler has been commanding his secondary stuff lately, the Mets appear to have a clear advantage in this matchup, but you know how that always goes...
Prediction: Santana stays hot, but the Mets defeat Harang and Hale to take another series from the Bravos.
What about some GIFs?
When these teams last met, Jose Valverde closed out the game in his typical enthusiastic fashion.
Colon was sure to show off the goods after shutting out the Braves for seven innings on April 8.
Andrelton Simmons slipped while trying to field this Travis d'Arnaud ground ball, but he still got the out thanks to his magical arm.