Ah, a trip to Florida to play the Marlins. There's nothing like it. Every time the Braves head down there for a series, it seems like there is at least one rain delay, and this weekend looks like it won't be any different. Game 1 seems doubtful due to Tropical Storm Bonnie, which is probably blowing over Miami as you read this. While it's possible that Bonnie will pass before tonight's 7 PM start, even if it does, the field will likely be waterlogged. Thunderstorms are also in the forecast for Saturday's game 2.
I doubt that Bobby Cox is too worried about the storms, though. His team just toppled the Padres to regain the NL's best record. The Braves now hold a 7-game lead over the Phillies and a 7.5-game lead over the Mets; both of our main competitors have been slumping lately, allowing us to open up the biggest division lead in baseball. And with both of them playing tough western-division teams this weekend (Phillies vs. Rockies, Mets at Dodgers), our division lead could grow even bigger if we continue to win series (we've gone 16-1-4 in our last 21 series).
In fact, the Marlins are not very far back of the Phillies and Mets; they are 2 games behind Philadelphia and 1.5 behind the Mets (9 behind us). They just took 3 of 4 at home from the Rockies, which is pretty impressive. The Marlins' pitching staff has been carrying them in July. They've given up only 3.82 runs per game this month, which is pretty solid (28 of the 65 runs allowed came in 3 games). Unfortunately, their offense has been in a major funk all month; they've scored only 3.11 runs per game in July. Ronny Paulino, Cody Ross, and Chris Coghlan have combined to put up a hideous .161 / .218 / .199 line in 175 PA this month.
The Braves get somewhat lucky in the pitching matchups; they do have to face Braves nemesis Ricky Nolasco, but they miss the Marlins' ace, Josh Johnson. More on the pitching matchups after the jump.
Friday, 7:00 PM ET: Derek Lowe (10-8, 4.39 ERA, 4.27 FIP) vs. Alex Sanabia (1-1, 2.12 ERA, 3.70 FIP)
Lowe is coming off of two straight mediocre starts. He went only 5.1 innings in each one, giving up a total of 5 runs on 16 hits (including 3 homers). One positive sign is that he struck out 9 versus only 3 walks in those 2 starts. One negative sign is that he got only 43% ground balls in those starts. His season rate is 58%, and he really needs to be up around 60% to be successful.
Sanabia is a relative unknown who the Marlins recently called up from AA Jacksonville, where he was 5-1 with a 2.03 ERA in 14 starts. He had a decent strikeout rate in AA (6.94 K/9) but a fantastic walk rate (only 1.71 BB/9). He also allowed only 2 homers in 84.1 IP. The 21-year-old right-hander from San Diego has taken the baseball world mostly by surprise; I haven't seen him on any prospect lists at all, not even a token mention as a "sleeper" pick. In fact, he didn't even make John Sickels' Top 40 Marlins prospects list before the season. Yet, it's hard to ignore his numbers as a 21-year-old in AA. I'd liken his out-of-nowhere success somewhat to our own Brandon Beachy (though Beachy strikes out more guys).
So far in the majors, Sanabia has made 3 long relief appearances and 2 starts. In the 2 starts, he's pitched only 8.2 innings but has yet to allow a run. He's given up 9 hits and 3 walks with 7 strikeouts in those games. In his last start, on Sunday against the Nationals, he gave up no runs in 5.1 innings as the Marlins won 1-0.
Saturday, 7:00 PM ET: Kris Medlen (6-2, 3.31 ERA, 3.84 FIP) vs. Anibal Sanchez (7-6, 3.62 ERA, 3.45 FIP)
Medlen returns to the rotation after a brief All-Star-break-induced trip to the bullpen. In his last 4 outings (all in relief), Kris has given up 4 runs (3 earned) in 5 innings. In his last start, on July 7th against Philadelphia, he gave up 4 runs in 6.2 innings thanks in large part to 2 home runs. Though that was probably his worst start this year, he still picked up the win.
Sanchez has been struggling a bit lately, although his defense has not helped him (which isn't surprising--the Marlins rank just 19th in team UZR and 25th in team DRS). In his last 3 starts, including one against the Braves, he has given up 14 runs (11 earned) in 16 innings. He has not allowed a homer in those 3 starts but his strikeout to walk ratio is just 10:6.
Sunday, 1:00 PM ET: Jair Jurrjens (3-3, 4.25 ERA, 4.63 FIP) vs. Ricky Nolasco, (10-7, 4.50 ERA, 4.17 FIP)
Jurrjens' overall numbers still don't look great, but he has been very good since returning from the DL on June 30th. In 4 starts (24.2 IP) he has given up just 6 runs (2.19 ERA) on 19 hits (including 3 homers). He's still walking a few too many (10 walks since his return) but his strikeout rate has gone up (20 strikeouts, 7.30 K/9). If he can keep the walks and homers relatively under control, he should continue to be successful.
Nolasco is a weird pitcher to me. He has great stuff and sometimes seems dominant... but he always seems to give up a few runs. In fact, he has given up at least 1 run in all 20 of his starts this year, and has given up 2 or more runs in his last 13 starts. Even though he's been pitching fairly well lately (including an 8-inning, 2-run, 8-strikeout performance against Colorado his last time out), he always seems to keep both teams in the game. With Jurrjens on the hill, the Braves might only need a few runs off of Nolasco to win.
Stat of the Series
All 6 starters in this series are right-handed. The Braves have a dominant 39-23 record versus right-handed starters (17-16 vs. LHPs). The Marlins, though, have only a 30-37 record against right-handers (17-11 vs. LHPs). I'd say a series of only right-handed starters certainly works to the Braves' advantage, wouldn't you?