Baseball is back, the Braves are back, and it’s time for them to make hay, or lemons, or engage in some other food-related metaphor. Why? Because they’re running out of time, and healthy above-average players, to do much of anything at all. Tonight, the Rays come to town, so the Braves have a tough task ahead of them. But, they haven’t particularly succeeded at the easy tasks placed in front of them this season either, so success or failure might really be up to them moreso than their opposition.
Tonight’s matchup, in particular, features a hint of intrigue: Charlie Morton is facing his most recent former team, with whom he journeyed to the World Series last season. Morton hasn’t donned a Tampa Bay uniform since his not-great outing in Game 3 of the championship set, and he’ll be squaring off against a bunch of former teammates. On the season, Morton’s been great, well worthy of garnering the first post-break start among his array of ever-dwindling rotation compatriots. Morton has an 89 ERA-, 83 FIP-, and 82 xFIP- so far on the season, and could very well challenge for a 4 fWAR campaign provided he doesn’t get hurt or otherwise have to miss time. In his last five starts, Morton’s had three scoreless outings and a 39/7 combined K/BB ratio. If the Braves are going to start the “second half” of their season with a victory, chances are somewhat better when he’s on the mound.
Not that facing the Rays is an easy task. The crew from St. Petersburg is 53-37 and 1.5 games back in the AL East, but in playoff position. That mark is sixth in baseball, better than two current division leaders (Brewers, Mets), and they’ve done it by pairing decent hitting and great fielding with good pitching. They’ve scuffled a bit lately, as they’re 6-4 in their last 10, 10-10 in their last 20, and 16-14 in their last 30 (the Braves are 6-4, 11-9, and 15-15, respectively), but the run prevention is solid, so tallies might be at a premium tonight.
The Rays’ scheduled starter in this game is Michael Wacha, but as usual with this crew, it’s not entirely clear what that means. Wacha’s made 10 official “starts” and five “bulk guy” relief appearances, but he’s also functioned as a pseudo-opener (fewer than three innings pitched) in a few starts as well. In short, stay tuned. On the season, Wacha hasn’t been particularly effective: 117 ERA-, 113 FIP-, 103 xFIP-. If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s that contact-wise, Wacha has been absolutely crushed so far: he has a ridiculous .371 xwOBA against, and is way worse than average in terms of average exit velocity allowed, average launch angle allowed, sweet spot percentage, hard-hit rate, barrel rate, you get the idea. A lot of that is due to a fastball that isn’t consistently located up despite good shape, and some is because his cutter, which he throws a third of the time, doesn’t really have many pluses. In any case, the Braves probably aren’t going to get too many cracks at Wacha (fewer than 10 percent of his batters faced have come a third time through in a game), so hopefully they can make their hacks count, because it’s not like it gets easier when the Tampa Bay bullpen inserts itself into the game (third in fWAR, top three in ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-).
If nothing else, stay tuned to see how Joc Pederson fares in his first game as a Brave, since, oh yeah, that happened.
Friday, July 16, 2021
7:20 pm EDT
Truist Park, Atlanta, GA
TV: Bally Sports Southeast, MLB Network (out-of-market)
Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network, La Mejor 1600/1460/1130 AM
XM Radio: Ch. 189