What's going on with the Braves?
Atlanta is seven games in front of the Mets and sitting in first place in the National League East, but don't get too intimidated. Even after a four-game sweep of the Phillies, the Braves have scored 22 fewer runs than our Amazins this season, and if you're a fan of the Amazins, you know they don't score too many runs.
Beyond their big three run producers of Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis, Atlanta has serious issues making things happen on offense, and that is a problem that isn't going to go away now that Gattis is sidelined with back spasms.
The good news for Atlanta is that the club continues to pitch well, even as injuries continue to cripple the rotation. We already talked about how the Braves are gong to be without Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen all season, but since they last saw the Mets, Gavin Floyd broke his elbow, forcing another shuffling of the staff.
Not many teams would have the depth to move a talent like Alex Wood from the bullpen to the rotation, but the Braves were "forced" to do that when Floyd went down. Wood began the 2014 season pitching pretty wonderfully out of the rotation, so it's not as though this was a desperation move, and in his first start since May, he shut out the Astros for seven innings (no easy feat these days).
Yes, the Wood transplant does technically weaken the Atlanta bullpen, but with right-handed arms like Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, and Anthony Varvaro backing up the starters, this is hardly an area of concern. If you're looking for the Braves to falter, the back end of the rotation could be their downfall.
Julio Teheran is pitching like a "true ace," but Mike Minor has struggled lately, and Aaron Harang should continue to fall from the heights he established in April. Ervin Santana is talented yet unpredictable, and Wood only has 145 big league innings under his belt. It's a credit to the organization that the pitching has held up this long, but there's not much reliability left in Atlanta the rotation after so many injuries.
Who are these guys?
As a rookie second baseman whose calling card is getting on base, Tommy La Stella is currently having his thunder stolen by Mookie Betts of the Red Sox, but that doesn't make him any less interesting a prospect. Since being drafted by Atlanta out of Coastal Carolina in 2011, La Stella has consistently posted very high walk rates and very low strikeout rates in the minor leagues, and he's continued that trend at the outset of his big league career with a 9.8 percent walk rate and a .347 OBP in 30 games. With just 10 strikeouts over that span and a .074 isolated power, he's kind of like the opposite of Dan Uggla, and that's not a bad thing these days.
The one silver lining of the Gattis injury is that Braves fans got to see catcher prospect Christian Bethancourt a little sooner than expected. Well, technically Bethancourt did play one game in the majors last year, but this time around his stay will be a little longer, even if Gattis does recover quickly. As a defensive-minded catcher, Bethancourt's offense isn't going to blow anyone away yet, but you could do a lot worse than .273/.304/.372 with a 22-year-old at Triple-A.
Who's on the mound?
Monday: Zack Wheeler vs. Alex Wood
Perhaps the most impressive thing out Wood's recent start against the Astros was that he made it through seven innings with just 79 pitches. The Braves were probably just hoping for five considering that Wood was still being stretched out, and yet he nearly pitched a complete game. As a swingman for the past two seasons, he's striking out about a batter per inning, and in 2014 Wood has managed to lower his walk rate from three batters per nine to two. For a kid who only throws his fastball in the lower 90s, he's got more strikeout potential than your average soft-tossing lefty, and Wood is only going to get better when the Braves decide to start him consistently.
Wheeler is a guy who the Mets would love to see consistently improve, but he's hit a snag after every hot streak this season. Even after a potentially career-altering complete game in Miami two weeks ago, Wheeler went back out and got hammered by the A's in his next outing. The 24-year-old right-hander blamed that dud on sign stealing, so maybe he'll be more careful and/or less paranoid against the Braves tonight.
Tuesday: Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. Mike Minor
You'd think that a 26-year-old lefty who had as much success as Minor had in 2013 would be more famous by now, but this kid seems to fly under the radar on a national basis. Minor didn't help matters by missing the first month of 2014 with shoulder soreness, and now he's struggling with a 4.50 ERA and 1.48 WHIP despite a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3:1. That's partially explained away by a .342 BABIP and also by a Bartolo Colon-like ability to pitch solidly in most of his outings while blowing up in a few instances to ruin his stats. Seven of Minor's 11 start this season have been of the "quality" variety.
Matsuzaka would have more quality starts, but three of his five outings this month have gone fewer than six innings. That doesn't bode well for his chances to remain in the rotation when Dillon Gee returns from his lat strain injury. By shifting Matsuzaka back to the bullpen, the Mets would be doing Terry Collins and the relief staff two favors with a single move. The veteran from Tokyo could strengthen the pen with his rubber arm while at the same time avoid taxing it with his short starts.
Wednesday: Jacob deGrom vs. Julio Teheran
Sporting an impressive 2.34 ERA and 0.95 WHIP to go with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 5:1, Teheran has been Atlanta's most important pitcher this season. Add in that he's only 23 years old, and this is a kid who can challenge the marks set by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz if he stays healthy. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, Teheran has been helped along this season by a low BABIP and low home-run-to-fly-ball rate, but his peripherals remain impressive enough to promote long-term excellence. The Mets have been fortunate enough to only face Teheran twice since the beginning of 2013, and the Amazins only have two runs off of him to show for it.
Two straight solid starts in a row for deGrom is encouraging for the young right-hander, as he was having a pretty miserable time in his first three starts of June. Yes, he has walked a total of six batters in those last two outings, but deGrom is getting more ground balls and surrendering less home runs now than when he broke into the majors in May. It should be more than enough to keep him in the rotation when Gee returns.
Prediction: Mets win just one off three games against some of Atlanta's toughest pitchers.
What about some GIFs?
The last time the Mets saw the Braves, it was Easter Sunday and New York was being sent home by a struggling Curtis Granderson.
Matsuzaka pitched in relief in that game and showed he can still fool hitters with his curveball.
Thanks to first base coach Terry Pendleton, this nasty bee from Philadelphia won't follow the Braves home.