The season started with much hope but many questions. Would John Smoltz stay healthy? Would the Braves rotation be its best ever? Would Dan Kolb replace Smoltz as the closer? Would Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan work out in the outfield?
All of us believed the Braves would be in the race. They had the talent, even with all the questions. But none of us could have ever imagined the topsy-turvy first half this team would endure. If you had told the players back in March what would go on in the first half, they probably would have sent you to the funny farm.
The first thing that we discovered, and perhaps have forgotten now, is how great the starting pitchers were early on. In April, the five starters of Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Mike Hampton, John Thomson, and Horacio Ramirez combined for a 2.89 ERA. Take away Smoltz's horrible Opening Day performance in Miami and the combined ERA was 2.57 in April. They were terrific, but unfortunately, they didn't last long.
Most feared Smoltz and Ramirez would be the brittle ones. But then on May 15th Hampton went down with a strained left forearm. Two days later Thomson strained a flexor tendon in his right middle finger. Hampton returned ten days later, only to go straight back on the DL on June 1. Then on June 14th Hudson would join the walking wounded with a strained left oblique muscle.
Is there any team in baseball that could have survived losing 60% of its starting rotation? I don't even think anyone would have imagined the Braves would have been able to survive such a blow.
Chipper Jones battled nagging injuries throughout the first six months of the season, but on June 5th in Pittsburgh he had had enough. Jones went on the DL the next day with an injured ligament on his second toe in his left foot. He's been out ever since.
It didn't take long for Raul Mondesi, and for that matter Brian Jordan, to prove that they were way past their prime. Mondesi hit .244 in April, but by late May he was at .211 and was released June 8th. Jordan has hung around the .240 mark all season, and started losing playing time in mid-May.
So for all this to happen, 60% of the rotation to go down, its star player to go down, and two players who were counted on heavily to be unproductive, the Braves needed a miracle to stay in the race.
And that's exactly what they've gotten.
The miracle has been the minor league system, which has saved this team from a place they know little about: last place.
The Braves started out with four rookies on the team (Ryan Langerhans, Pete Orr, Wilson Betemit, and Roman Colon). But with all the injuries, the shuttle between Atlanta and Richmond, Virginia and Atlanta and Pearl, Mississippi became as popular as MARTA. After the season started, the Braves called up ten players from their minor league system, seven of who made their big league debuts.
Kyle Davies started it all. He pitched five great innings in Fenway Park on his debut and has never looked back. Now, when the three injured starters get back, who knows what's going to happen with Kyle. He's been up and down a bit, which for a 21-year-old is somewhat expected. But overall he has given his team a chance to win on most occasions. What more can you ask from someone who is filling in?
Eight days later Kelly Johnson would come up to replace Mondesi. Despite a horrible 1-for-31 start, Braves Manager Bobby Cox stuck with Johnson, believing in his swing and his talent. Johnson has rewarded Cox with a tremendous last four weeks, and now it looks like the Braves have an outfielder for many years to come.
Along the way, we've seen more rookies come up and sparkle. Blaine Boyer has been almost perfect out of the bullpen. Best friends Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur have shown they're not far away from being ready to contribute full-time, if not now. And while his average doesn't show it, Andy Marte has displayed the talent that has him as baseball's top prospect.
Ryan Langerhans has helped the Braves win many games with his bat and tremendous defense. After starting the season as the fourth outfielder, Langerhans is now in a rotation with Jeff Francoeur in right field. Wilson Betemit has stepped in for Chipper Jones and pretty much convinced everyone he is, in fact, a heck of a baseball player. Now many believe he'll be an ample replacement should Rafael Furcal leaves next winter. And how about the contribution of Pete Orr? Wow. Peterson Orr helps his team win games – period. He's done it everywhere he's been, and now we know why it was easy for the Braves to give up Nick Green.
The energy and enthusiasm the kids have displayed has been as contagious as a bad virus. It has saved this team from falling by the wayside. But it's done way more than that.
Sure, the Braves are 2.5 games out of first place at the All Star Break. That's great. But we're going to win the Division. I mean, heck, let's admit it. We all believe we're going to win. But the misfortunes of the first half have accomplished a bit more than expected: it's given us a glimpse into our future.
We all believe that Davies, Johnson, Boyer, Marte, McCann, and Francoeur were close, but now we know they are ready. We know they are not only our future, but our present as well. And we know that with these kids on the team, we're going to be better from this day forward.
Baseball's a funny game, much like life, I guess. Just when you think something bad has happened, it turns out to be pretty good. I get almost spiritual when looking back on the first half of this season. ‘When God closes one door, another one is bound to open.' That certainly does fit the description of the first half for the Braves. This team could have been down and out, stuck in last place with all the injuries, but instead the team has not only kept its head above water, but floating on its back with a cool cocktail in hand simply waiting for the second half of the season.
BravesCenter's Bill Shanks will take a look at the second half of the season Thursday. Bill's new book, "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team," is in bookstores now all over the country. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BravesCenter's First Half Review
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