Braves catcher Evan Gattis (No. 24) celebrates a walk-off homer run earlier this week against the Marlins. Gattis had five of the Braves’ 25 home runs entering Friday’s game. (Reuters)
ATLANTA — The comment was made in jest, between manager Fredi Gonzalez and his bench coach Carlos Tosca, as Evan Gattis strode to the plate in the 10th inning Monday night, with the score tied and a runner on first base.
“‘Los, you think Gattis has ever bunted?’” Gonzalez said, and then added. “Not that I’m going to do it.”
Ball one, on a change-up from Marlins right-hander Arquimedes Carminaro.
“I don’t know what the percentage is,” Tosca turned to say. “But he’s got a better chance of hitting the ball out than he does getting a bunt down.”
Here comes the second pitch.
“POW,” as Gonzalez re-tells it.
Gattis has just turned on a 95 mph fastball. While the ball is rocketing toward the left-field seats, Gonzalez and Tosca are nodding and smiling at each other. Players are filing past them toward home plate, where they would greet Gattis after a two-run walk-off homer in the Braves’ 4-2 victory.
The Braves are not your “small ball” kind of team, especially with power hitters up and down the lineup, such as Gattis and Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla.
The numbers bear that out. Entering Friday’s game, the Braves had scored 71 runs this season, and more than half of them — 41 — came compliments of the long ball.
The Braves seem more likely to fare better in a slugfest, such as their three-homer bonanza in Philadelphia, when they came from behind to win on an Uggla grand slam, than they are in a one-run tit for tat.
Two days later in Philadelphia, the Braves lost 1-0 despite Alex Wood’s complete game after he failed to get a bunt down in the eighth inning to advance a runner to third base with less than two outs.
“That’s the makeup of our team. You’re not going to change that,” Gonzalez said of the power tendencies. “As much as I like to hit and run and put guys in motion and all that kind of stuff, that’s not the makeup of your club. But the constant in all those has been pitching. Pitching and defense.”
With the home-run dependency has come offensive lulls. And while the Braves rank seventh in the major leagues with 25 home runs, they rank only 23rd in runs scored. They rank 23rd in on-base percentage (.305) and 20th in team batting average (.243.)
The Braves are tied for 23rd in the majors with a .219 batting average with runners in scoring position. They were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position before Uggla’s grand slam in that win over the Phillies on April 14.
“We’re in first place,” Uggla said. “You don’t argue with anything. Can we be better at manufacturing runs? Yes. Can we be better at hitting more homers? Yes. Can we be better at every aspect of the game? Yes. But as long as you’re scoring runs, as long as you’re winning ballgames — the chemistry of winning — you don’t argue how you do it, as long as you get it done.”
That may be true, and the Braves enter this weekend series against the Reds in first place in the National League East at 14-7. But you figure at some point the pitching is going to flinch. The Braves lead the majors with a 1.50 starters ERA. Their starters have allowed two or fewer earned runs in 20 of their first 21 games. And the other one? David Hale gave up three earned runs.
“We have seen periods of time already this year where our offense clicks better, and we get more hits and we’re not as dependent on the power,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “But all in all, we’re pretty dependent on power. So for us to continue to really cover our pitching — which our pitching has been tremendous — going forward our offense is going to have to be more consistent.”
Wren is the one in charge of constructing a lineup that’s as power-laden as it is. But he believes there’s a time and place — certain counts, game situations and pitchers — where power needs to be sacrificed for the sake of a base hit.
“You’ve got to be a hitter before you’re a power hitter,” Wren said.
And he thinks with time, that’s something the Braves will show more often.
“When you get into the season and you have your timing down, you’re able to do both,” Wren said. “As the season goes along, you would expect more and more guys to get in their groove and get their timing and be able to give you better, more consistent at-bats.”