Braves eye return to full health, home-heavy summer
Atlanta still sits in first place after extensive road trips, various injuries
ATLANTA -- An obvious sense of discouragement was displayed as the Braves packed their bags and prepared to exit Arizona's Chase Field late Wednesday afternoon. For the second time in less than a month, they had completed a grueling 10-game road trip in disappointing fashion.
But with the conclusion of this latest long journey came the opportunity to return to the foreign comforts of home, where over the course of the next week, they hope to find a sense of normalcy.
"We haven't been healthy all year and we've kept our heads above water," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "Now we're getting our full squad back. So we're going to see how it goes the rest of the year."
While losing 16 of their past 25 games, the Braves have assumed an identity that completely contrasts the one they had while losing just two of their first 15 games. But they might provide a better sense of their true identity with the return of Jason Heyward, who has been sidelined since undergoing an appendectomy on April 22.
When Heyward makes his expected return to the lineup for Friday night's game against the Dodgers at Turner Field, it will mark the first time this season the Braves have had their projected lineup at full strength. Six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann returned to Atlanta's lineup last week after missing the season's first month while recovering from right shoulder surgery.
"We're in first place and we haven't really been healthy," McCann said. "It just shows you that a lot of guys stepped up and played huge roles in the team's success. I think once we get full strength and get a chance to play with each other for an extended time our offense will click a little bit more and we'll win a lot more games."
Despite losing five of their last six games, the Braves will enter Friday with at least a half-game lead over the Nationals in the National League East race. They owned a season-high five-game advantage after sweeping the Rockies in a doubleheader on April 23. But they have lost 13 of the 20 games that have followed.
Friday's game will also be just the 15th played at Turner Field this season. The Braves have played a Major League-high 26 road games and they have spent 28 of the past 38 days on the road.
"We've had a tough schedule up to this point," McCann said. "We've been on the road basically the whole year, which is going to make for a good summer because we're going to be home a lot. If we stay where we're at, once the schedule gets in our favor, I think we'll be in good shape."
While the Braves have already completed two 10-game road trips, half of MLB's other 30 teams entered Thursday having played fewer than 20 road games this season.
The Braves proved perfect through the six-game road trip that pitted them against the Marlins and Nationals in early April. They then returned to Atlanta for just two days before going 3-7 on a trip that included stops in the cold climates of Pittsburgh, Denver and Detroit.
"We've taken it in the shorts with our schedule," Braves pitcher Tim Hudson said. "There's no doubt about it. But what are you going to do? Complain about it? We've got to go out there and play our ballgames. At the end of the season, we're going to have 81 at home and 81 on the road. I'd rather be doing this now than in August when your body is really tired."
Regardless of where they are playing, the Braves have got to gain more consistency from their free-swinging offense that has scored seven runs or more in 10 games and been shut out in six others.
While Justin Upton has hit .286 with a Major League-leading 13 home runs and 1.032 OPS, his brother, B.J. Upton, has struggled mightily, hitting .145 with three home runs and .486 OPS. Heyward hit just .121 with two homers and a .519 OPS in the 17 games he played before being placed on the disabled list.
Obviously, the Braves have not yet come close to receiving the kind of production expected from this "dynamic outfield trio" that was formed when the Upton brothers joined Heyward this year. But their nearly perfect run through the season's first two weeks provided enough cushion for them to endure the constant blows they have endured over the past month.
"It's a long season," Justin Upton said. "We're still in May. We're getting a couple pieces [Heyward and Brandon Beachy] back pretty soon. Jason is a superstar. Those are at-bats that you miss. We'll see what happens when he gets back. Hopefully, things will start to click for us and we'll get some regularity."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.