That's the conclusion from an 8-2 run against the Marlins and Nats that has propelled the local baseball collective back to within striking distance of the Mets and Phillies. My hope going into the ten-game stretch was that the Braves just get back to about five games back and stay there so they remain in striking distance when the obligatory hot streak in June and July arrives. Thus, crawling back to within 3.5 games is gravy, although the team could easily give those games back on their upcoming swing through Arizona, San Diego, and Chicago. (G-d help us if we can't take two of three from the punchless Cubs. Speaking of whom, Juan Pierre has picked up where he left off after sabotaging the Marlins last year, as he is leading the Cubs in at-bats and has a whopping .269 OBP and a .289 SLG. Keep in mind that Terrence Moore proclaimed this winter that Pierre was the solution to the Braves' lead-off hole. For once, I'd like to see him acknowledge that one of his premises was wrong. I guess the problem there would be once he started, he would spend his next 173 columns apoligizing for everything else on which he's erred. It would be like Stalin deciding in 1951 to start apologizing to generals and politicos that he condemned to Lubyanka.) Anyway, here's what I'm feeling good and bad about right now. Just imagine Phil Hartman's Frankenstein intoning these captions:
Tim Hudson...Good - Let's give Roger MacDowell some credit here. He found a flaw in Hudson's delivery in April and ever since correcting it, Hudson has been an excellent pitcher. He's given up two or fewer runs in four of his last six starts and his K, BB, and HR rates are all on pace to be slightly better than last year's. To the naked eye, it seems that he's getting more movement on his pitches, which is what the changes to his delivery were supposed to accomplish. Given what the Braves are paying him, we need to see some quality production from Hudson.
Pitching Depth...Bad - Those dreams of demoting Jorge Sosa to the bullpen died along with Kyle Davies ruptured groin. Sosa threw his first good start of the year against the Marlins yesterday, so maybe he's going to turn a corner and at least become an average pitcher, but one start goes not a decent hurler make. Horacio is about to come back from his hamstring injury and had a good tune-up start in Richmond. I would have felt better with three question marks fighting for two spots, but with Davies out, the team is going to have to lean on Ramirez and Sosa (or find a solution from the combo of Chuck James and Anthony Lerew). This does vindicate my belief in spring training that trading John Thomson would have been a horrible mistake, as it would have forced the Braves to rely on Sosa, Davies, and Ramirez. Imagine where the team would be now without Thomson, a real "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" situation.
Edgar Renteria...Good - We have a shortstop with a .408 OBP for only $6M per year. And yes, Sports Guy, it must be because he's moved back from the AL and any Tom, Dick, and Rafael Belliard can hit in the NL. Just don't pay attention to your third baseman, who went from a .658 OPS with the Marlins last year to a .934 OPS this year with the Red Sox. It must be because of Big Papi's Buddha-like effect on teammates.
(Incidentally, Renteria is towards the bottom of the league in zone rating and range factor, so he hasn't been perfect, but he's been consistent in making plays on the balls he gets to. Not surprisingly, Derek Jeter is dead last in zone rating and next-to-last in range factor, with only New York's other shortstop behind him. [Jeter's .441 OBP sure makes up for his defensive deficiencies, though.] Reyes is towards the top in zone rating, which makes little sense. Conversely, Rafael Furcal is towards the top in range factor, but almost on the bottom in zone rating. Oh no, I've gone cross-eyed.)
Chris Reitsma...Bad - I have no confidence in his ability to get through the 9th inning against a good team. That said, there are a whole bunch of "proven" closers around the league who are struggling. Keith Foulke lasted one day in Boston, which is slightly longer than Brad Lidge in Houston or Francisco Cordero in Texas. Chad Cordero has been bad (and thank G-d for that, says Jeff Francoeur), as has Huston Street. The Braves should be happy that there seems to be a dearth of good closers this year...or more specifically that the Marlins and Nats don't have them, as the Braves rallied for three wins this week that would have been losses if they faced lights-out closers. Speaking of which, that's a good reason why we shouldn't be that excited about the recent 8-2 stretch. The Braves won four blowouts, lost two blowouts, and then won all four close games, including three improbable wins where they rallied from behind in their final at-bats, including twice in one game on two straight nights. The Braves weren't as bad as they looked when they were 13-18 and losing all of their close games, but they aren't an .800 team either, in light of the fact that they've been playing bad teams and winning all of their close games. All that said, their run differential puts them on par with the Mets and several games ahead of the Phillies, so there are still encouraging signs.
Jeff Francoeur...Good - His OBP is still an unpresentable .279, but he's 5th in the NL in RBIs and has ten homers a quarter of the way through the season. The RBI total is inflated because he has so many guys in front of him who are good at getting on base (especially with Brian McCann hitting in front of him). Given my worry at the start of the year that Francoeur was never going to hit unless he adopted a major change in his approach, I'm very relieved to see him hitting like he did in his first two months in the bigs. Kudos to Bobby for sticking with him and to Jeff for keeping his head up when he was hitting .100.
Brian McCann...Good - First in the NL in batting average, 14th in OBP, 13th in SLG, 12th (among position players) in VORP, and 11th in OPS. And all of this from a catcher who was in AA at this time a year ago. Pitchers of the NL, please don't figure this guy out.
Bobby Cox...Bad? - Solely for leaving Smoltz in for 130 pitches on Wednesday night when he was clearly out of gas in the 8th inning and ended up surrendering a 2-0 lead. Otherwise, Bobby's patience with players like Matt Diaz and Jeff Francoeur has paid off handsomely.