Three up, three down: Braves taking charge
Atlanta's strong pitching helping create separation in NL East standings
The Braves are taking charge in the National League East. The only team in the division with a winning record, Atlanta won seven of its first nine games in June and extended its lead over second-place Washington to 7 1/2 games. The Braves have done that despite having scored only 36 runs in the nine games. But with a 1.42 ERA for the pitching staff over those nine games, the offense didn't need to be explosive. Kris Medlen was 2-0 and allowed one unearned run in 12 2/3 innings of two starts, and closer Craig Kimbrel is back in command. Since blowing his third save on May 7, Kimbrel is 9-for-9 and has worked 12 scoreless innings in 12 appearances, allowing three walks and seven hits while striking out 13. Freddie Freeman has provided an offensive lift, driving in nine runs during that stretch. With a .306 average, Freeman joins Andrelton Simmons (.310) and surging Jason Heyward (.375) as the only Atlanta regulars with a .300 average.
Three weeks ago, the Indians were sitting atop the American League Central, 2 1/2 games in front of the Tigers. They were coming off a four-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners that included three walk-off wins. Then came a reality check. With Detroit checking in to Cleveland on May 21, the Tribe began a stretch of 22 consecutive games against teams with winning records. So far, not so good. The Indians opened a three-game visit to Texas on Monday night having lost 15 of their last 19 games, dropping to 5 1/2 games back of the AL Central-leading Tigers, just one game ahead of the Royals. And it's been a total breakdown. The pitching staff has a worst-in-baseball 5.77 ERA since May 21, including a 5.06 ERA for a rotation that is 4-11. The bullpen has converted only one of four save opportunities. The offense is last in the Majors in the three weeks, with a .233 average and .293 on-base percentage. Four regulars are hitting below .210 -- Mark Reynolds (.206), Drew Stubbs (.204), Jason Kipnis (.200) and Nick Swisher (.153). Oh, Jason Giambi does have four home runs in 28 at-bats, but the rest of the roster has only 10 in 604 at-bats.
UP: Adam LaRoche
The Washington first baseman was stumbling with a .129 average after games of May 1. He had only eight RBIs in 85 at-bats. That weekend, however, the Nationals were in Atlanta, and Chipper Jones, who became a close friend of LaRoche's when LaRoche was with the Braves, happened to show up, and he talked with his former teammate about his approach at the plate. A coincidence? Nobody knows. But what is certain is since the Nats left Atlanta, LaRoche has put the early woes behind him. He has hit .342 since May 2, with seven home runs and 22 RBIs. LaRoche also has drawn 18 walks, giving him a .430 on-base percentage.
DOWN: Ike Davis
Davis is the son of a former big league reliever (Ron Davis) just like LaRoche (Dave). And just like LaRoche, he is a first baseman. Unlike LaRoche, Davis was unable to turn around an early funk, prompting the Mets to finally send him back to Triple-A Las Vegas. Davis only hit .227 a year ago, but he did have 32 home runs and did drive in 90 runs. This year? Well, his average was 66 points lower (.161) at the time he was sent out, and he had struck out 66 times while reaching base only 50 times (30 hits, 19 walks and one hit by pitch). Want more? Davis had a .242 on-base percentage at the time of demotion, was 3-for-20 in the month of June, had hit .146 with runners in scoring position, and .080 (2-for-25) with runners in scoring position and two outs.
The Royals have regained respect on the field, providing a calming moment for a franchise that at this time last week was trying to squelch rumors of a pending managerial change in the aftermath of Hall of Famer George Brett taking on the interim hitting coach duties on May 30. Since Brett put the uniform back on, Kansas City has won seven of 10 games, despite scoring only 33 runs. The Royals went into Monday night with a five-game winning streak that has helped erase the anxiety of a stretch in which they lost 15 of 18. In winning six of the club's first eight games this month, Kansas City's bullpen allowed only two earned runs in 21 2/3 innings, and Greg Holland converted all four save opportunities. The Royals have managed to climb back to within a game of the second-place Indians in the AL Central.
It's not just that the Reds have lost seven of their last 11 games, but after being the game's best home-field team in the first two months of the season, they just lost four of six at Great American Ball Park to Colorado (1-2) and St. Louis (1-2), dropping to four games back of the NL Central-leading Cardinals. In losing five of their last seven games, Cincinnati has had three different relievers blow saves -- Jonathan Broxton in the eighth on June 2 at Pittsburgh, Sam LeClure in the eighth inning against Colorado at home on Tuesday and Alfredo Simon in the seventh inning of an 11-4, 10-inning lost to St. Louis on Sunday in which Matt Holliday's grand slam capped a seven-run 10th.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.