8/23/2013 8:51 P.M. ET
Pitching can carry Braves without injured Heyward
Beachy's health may prove pivotal in Atlanta's World Series chances
By Terence Moore / MLB.com
His glove is slick, and his arm is superb. He also was sizzling during the last few weeks with his bat. Still, the Braves can survive without Jason Heyward just fine, thank you.
Well, sort of. You can't ignore how Heyward exploded offensively after he moved to the Braves' leadoff spot in late July. During that stretch, he hit .341 with five homers -- including two during a near-comeback thriller for the Braves last weekend against the Nationals -- six doubles, a .414 on-base percentage and a lot of shivering pitchers on the mound.
More impressive, the Braves went 19-4 with Heyward at the top of the lineup, and to hear his teammates tell it, his spark triggered the inferno that often has been the Braves' offense these days.
But you know what? It wasn't as if the Braves lost another pitcher when the Mets' Jonathon Niese hit the right side of Heyward's jaw with a fastball Wednesday in New York. That's why those into chopping and chanting around Turner Field should cringe more over the following: Braves starting pitcher Brandon Beachy is heading back to see Dr. James Andrews Monday about his aching elbow. Hitting is nice, but pitching is better in the Major Leagues, especially if you wish to capture a World Series title.
Ask the Giants.
Nearly a year ago, when the Giants entered the stretch drive of the regular season in mid-August, Melky Cabrera made northern California a little chillier after a 50-game suspension for using a banned substance. He was among baseball's elite hitters with more hits than anybody in the game, and he owned the second-best batting average in the National League at .346. He also was named MVP of the All-Star Game.
Giants officials sighed, and then they shrugged. When they had a chance to activate Cabrera for the 2012 postseason, they didn't. They knew their success or failure in October depended more on the arms of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla than the swings of Cabrera.
You know the rest. The Cabrera-less Giants celebrated their second championship in three years.
Going further back, there was 1972, when future Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson was evolving into "Mr. October" long before his pinstriped days. He was a rising outfielder for the A's at the time, and he did much to push Oakland toward an ALCS victory over the Tigers by stealing home in the clinching game. He hurt his hamstring along the way, so he couldn't play in that World Series against the Reds. It didn't matter, because Jackson's mostly average-hitting teammates still had Rollie Fingers, Blue Moon Odom, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and others to form one of the game's most stifling pitching staffs. And, yes, those A's won that World Series -- despite all of those mashers on Cincinnati's Big Red Machine and despite no Jackson.
Get the idea? The Braves do, which is why they aren't panicking at the moment when it comes to Heyward, their Gold Glove right fielder who was in the midst of his fourth Major League season. After praising Heyward and mentioning he would be missed, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told the truth -- he said his team has capable replacements, and they do. They will move Justin Upton from left field to right, which only makes sense. Prior to joining the Braves before this season from the Diamondbacks, Upton played right.
Elsewhere, Justin's brother, B.J., will continue in center. But he will rotate at times with Jordan Schafer, who is a capable leadoff hitter and who also can play left. So can third-string catcher Evan Gattis, the Braves' 27-year-old rookie with the captivating story. He worked odd jobs when he wasn't homeless during a long stretch out of baseball, and he battled suicidal thoughts along the way to a drug rehabilitation center. He can hit like crazy in the clutch. Then there is switch-hitting rookie Joey Terdoslavich, who can play either left or right.
Terdoslavich isn't Heyward, but before Heyward's explosion as a leadoff hitter, he wasn't exactly Hank Aaron. Try Mario Mendoza, even though the offensively-challenged infielder never played for the Braves. He nevertheless inspired the so-called Mendoza Line, which refers to those hitting .200 or lower, and Heyward joined teammates Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton below that line for much of the season.
Such dysfunctional hitting for the Braves set the foundation early and often for a flawed offense that trails only the Astros for most strikeouts in baseball. The Astros also join the Braves and the Phillies in a three-way tie in second place behind the Marlins for getting shut out for the most times this season (15 to 12) as a Major League team.
All of that said, the Braves have more victories than any other team in baseball, and they own the biggest lead of any division leader. It was 14 games over the Nationals entering Friday.
We're back to pitching. Only the Pirates' 3.18 ERA is lower in the Major Leagues than the Braves' 3.20. Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Alex Wood lead a solid group of starters for the Braves, and their bullpen is the game's best with virtually unhittable Craig Kimbrel (40 saves, 1.05 ERA, 78 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings) as the closer.
There isn't a dark side to the Braves' pitching, but they could lose a bunch of light in a hurry for several reasons. For one, their staff ranks among the youngest in baseball, and it is without the leadership (and the highly effective right arm) of 38-year-old starter Tim Hudson after he suffered a gruesome leg injury earlier this summer. Plus, Hudson and ace setup pitchers Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty are among the six players the Braves have lost overall to season-ending surgery. There also is Paul Maholm, among the few Braves starters who have struggled mightily for long stretches. He has a 5.63 ERA in his last 11 starts after he was clobbered this week by the Cardinals.
Beachy, who underwent Tommy John surgery 14 months ago, has a 2.73 ERA over his last four starts while striking out 18 and walking three in 26 1/3 innings. That was before the Braves decided to put him on the 15-day disabled list Friday. If he has to miss even more time, the Braves will be in trouble.
In contrast, no Heyward? The last I checked, he hasn't started or relieved in a Major League game.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.