The List: Time to panic in Atlanta?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 11, 2006

Forget what the optimists say. It’s time to start worrying if you cheer for the Atlanta Braves.

And we’re talking “end of the tunnel, calling you to the white light” worrying.

The good news is a little more than a third of the season is done and Atlanta is in third place.

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The bad news is no one recognizes who this team is anymore.

I’ll tell you what’s wrong and what’s right when we go down “The List.”

6. Dropping the dime – If you’ll take a look at the last 10 games for all the National League East teams, you’ll notice a disturbing trend. Going into Sunday, Atlanta was the only squad with a losing record. New York (7-3), Philadelphia (6-4), Washington (8-2) and Florida (6-4) are all playing well lately. The Braves (2-8) are, well … yeah.

5. Getting the easy ones – Hitting with runners in scoring position is talked about but is still highly undervalued. The middle of the order just isn’t getting it done. Andruw Jones has 16 home runs, yeah, but he’s hitting .253 with runners in scoring position. Chipper Jones (.250 RISP) isn’t helping the cause. Don’t doubt for a second that Adam LaRoche (.340 RISP), Brian McCann (.318) and Edgar Renteria (.308) are keeping this offense afloat.

4. Setting the table – While we’re talking about hitting, let’s mention the man at the top of the lineup. I’m not bothered by the fact Marcus Giles is hitting only .240 because the name of the game is on-base percentage. But that’s where things go sour. He’s getting on about one-third of the time. For a Major League leadoff hitter, that oughta be up around .360 or .370. Here’s the number that really hurts: .192. That’s Giles’ average leading off innings. Start taking some pitches, man.

3. Hill thrills – Do I really have to spout off pitching stats? Cuz I promise you won’t like them. Well, since it’s my job, and since I don’t want to say the Braves’ pitching stinks without having some proof, I might as well. Their staff’s 4.64 ERA is 14th out of 16 NL teams and 20th out of 30 Major League clubs. And how about a rousing hand for the bullpen? Its 12 blown saves are the third-most in the Majors. The staff has also allowed the fourth-most homers in the NL. But it’s not all bad news. The Braves’ starters lead the league with five complete games – two each by Tim Hudson and John Smoltz and one by Kyle Davies.

2. Heavy 15 – During the formative years of my life, all I heard about was the juggernaut that was the Atlanta Braves. They were going to win their division, so the other teams had better have been thinking Wild Card right out of spring training. But now I hear that instead of talking about winning their 15th consecutive NL East crown, the players are talking about not wanting to be the team that breaks up the run. Serious, serious problem there. Playing to win always takes precedent over playing to keep from losing. I don’t know how such a great team forgot that.

1. The downside of up – Hardcore Braves fans are fuming right now. They’re saying last year’s team was a lot worse off at this point. Chipper was on the disabled list, Johnny Estrada’s season literally got railroaded by Darin Erstad, Rafael Furcal was hitting in the low .200s and Atlanta was fourth in the division.

This isn’t last year. The Mets’ pitching is deeper and more consistent (NL-best 3.83 ERA and 38 wins), and their offense is third in the league with 83 homers. The Phillies fall right behind with 82 homers, and their bullpen is strong.

As an aside, Washington and Florida don’t seem that imposing, but underdogs that smell blood are extremely dangerous.

George L. Jones is a staff writer for the Selma Times-Journal. He can be reached at .