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John Smoltz is ready to come back anytime and it seems the only obstacle is making a move to get him a roster and rotation spot. The Red Sox decided against putting Smoltz in a position to make his Red Sox debut his former team, the Braves. With Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, and Tim Wakefield as the probable starters against the Braves, bumping one of them for Smoltz just didn’t add up.
Dice-K and Kenshin Kawakami (3-6, 4.54 ERA, 1.44 WHIP) will face off in a battle of Japanese hurlers in the opener. Kawakami is one of the reasons behind the Braves’ interest in Brad Penny, as they feel he would be better utilized in the bullpen. With pitch charts, the Braves have observed his first 45 pitches are very good and his second 45 are where he tends to tire and fall apart. This weakness is precisely what the Red Sox have to exploit the most and could make for a big game for Sox batters.
Beckett tangles with former Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe, who is having yet another revival in his first year in Atlanta (7-4, 4.08, 1.28). Wakefield will duel with Jair Jurrjens (5-5, 2.89, 1.27), who is growing into a better pitcher seemingly with every start. He was the primary prospect the Braves sought when dealing Edgar Renteria to the Tigers after the 2007 season.
The Braves, despite being under .500, are not throwing in the towel on this season as they acquired Nate McLouth a week ago to add some speed and power to the lineup, which was much needed, as the Braves rank in the bottom third in the majors in runs, home runs, and stolen bases (a mere 20).
Typical of recent Atlanta ball-clubs is strong pitching, and this version is no different ranking eighth in the majors in ERA, fourth in quality starts, and sixth in strikeouts. The Braves combination of Mike Gonzalez (8/11) and Rafael Soriano (5/6) is among the group doing their job at a 62% clip, among the worst in the league. Soriano is, however, their ERA leader at 1.52 and sports very good ratios: 1.01 WHIP and 11.22 K/9. Gonzalez is 2.48, 1.38, 11.48, but they both seem to have trouble closing the door despite their good stuff.
Chipper Jones (.309 BA, 8 HR, 31 RBI, 30 R) and Brian McCann (.323, 6, 26, 18), despite missing some time with eye problems early in the season, are the offensive leaders. Jeff Francouer and prospect Jordan Schafer have underwhelmed, contributing to the offensive issues.
Lowe always pitched well in Fenway because he keeps the ball down and Jurrjens could give the Red Sox trouble, but the Red Sox should be able to grab two of three as Beckett tends to perform best when he has the opposition’s No. 1 opposing him.