The good news about the Braves as of late? 2 series have passed and they haven't been swept in either of them! Considering that the 3 previous series resulted in sweeps, that's really good news! The bad news? They are now about to square off against, by record, the best team in baseball: The Oakland Athletics. This is after taking a series victory over the 1st place Nationals (because of course) and losing 3 out of 4 to the 1st place Dodgers (because, again, of course). The fact that the Braves are 3-4 over that stretch is nice when you look at it in a vacuum, but in the midst of a playoff race where wins are seemingly coming at more of a premium than ever before, it's not so nice, and instead of being in a position where it'd be a pleasant boost to take a couple of wins over the A's, they're now in a position where they have to do so.
The 3 starting pitchers who the Braves will be facing this weekend are Jason Hammel, Sonny Gray, and Jon Lester. Hammel is the clear weak link in those 3 names, as he had a bit of a rough adjustment period with his new team following the blockbuster trade that included Jeff Samardzija joining him on his journey to Oakland (and the Braves won't be facing Samardzija. Thank goodness because I shudder to think of what he'd do against the Braves and their current state of offense). With that being said, after having rough starts against the Orioles and the Astros, Hammel has had 2 straight successful starts, and appears to be settling into his groove. The Braves caught Hammel earlier this season when he was a Cub, and Hammel held the Braves to 2 runs and struck out 5 during 7 innings of work. Of course his offense failed him because it's the Cubs, but as you'll see later on, he probably won't have that problem now that he's with Oakland.
Saturday's starter, Sonny Gray, has been lights-out as of late. Over his last 8 starts, Gray's ERA and FIP have been 2.19 and 3.37, respectively. This is including a start where he got absolutely shelled by the Tampa Bay Rays, so the fact that the numbers are still that low with that bad start included is pretty encouraging for the A's, and not so encouraging for the Braves.
Then there's Jon Lester, who is currently in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career. With the Red Sox, he was one of their lone bright spots in what was turning out to be a pretty feeble World Series title defense. Now? He's become a vital cog in the A's rotation, one with World Series aspirations that will be a force to be reckoned with come postseason time. Nearly every stat of Lester's is at career-best numbers: His K-BB% is a whopping 19.8% (for reference, his career average in this category is 13.5%), his HR/9 is at 0.49 (again, obliterating his career average of 0.81), his K/9 is at 9.24, and his ERA and FIP are at 2.51 and 2.53, respectively.
Just last week, he pitched a complete game shutout against the Minnesota Twins. Lester is on right now, and is probably chomping at the bit to face of against a Braves offense that hasn't been as bad as it is right now since 1989.
Speaking of offense, this is, as Hulk Hogan would say, where the power lies. The A's as a team are hitting .251/.326/.397 with a wOBA of .321, a wRC+ of 106, and a team fWAR of 22.1, which puts them second in all of baseball. There are 7 A's players with over 200 plate appearances and a wRC+ over 100, compared to the 5 (Heyward, Freeman, J-Up, Gattis, and La Stella) on the Braves. Josh Donaldson is the clear leader around here, but Brandon Moss and Derek Norris have not been too far behind Donaldson in offensive production. What sets the A's apart from the Braves is that there isn't a black hole of stink in their lineup. If you make a mistake against these guys, someone in the lineup is going to make you pay, which means that it's crucial for the Braves' 3 starters for the weekend (Alex Wood, Julio Teheran, and Mike Min-- Ah jeez, Mike Minor gets to face this team) and the defense to keep the mistakes to a minimum.
As far as the bullpen is concerned, according to fWAR, their bullpen is actually on equal footing with Atlanta's, so that might be a position where the Braves may have an advantage. A slight advantage, but an edge nonetheless. Once again, it'll be on the Braves starters to make sure that the currently-anemic offense is still in it late with a chance to take a victory. If not, this could be another long series for Atlanta.
If it sounds like I'm being pessimistic for this series, it's because I am. The A's offense outclasses the Braves in every facet, they're also a better defensive team, and any time the pitching matchups for a series in 2014 includes "Mike Minor," you're going into that series shorthanded on starting pitching. The only thing trending in the Braves favor for this one is that the A's are actually going into this series a bit cold, as they've lost 4 out of their last 5. Other than that, with the way the Braves have been playing as of late against teams not from our Nation's capital, this team has given us every reason to be pessimistic as fans. However, all we can do is hope for a turnaround, and this would be a very nice (if unlikely) time for that turnaround to begin.
Friday, August 15th at 7:35 PM EST
Jason Hammel (OAK): 9-9, 3.60 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 1.05 HR/9, 1.6 fWAR
Alex Wood (ATL): 8-9, 3.08 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 9.15 K/9, 1.6 fWAR
Saturday, August 16th at 7:10 PM EST
Sonny Gray (OAK): 12-6, 2.86 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 7.9% HR/FB%, 2.7 fWAR
Julio Teheran (ATL): 10-9, 3.06 ERA, 3.44 FIP, 2.00 BB/9, 2.4 fWAR)
Sunday, August 17th at 8:05 PM EST on ESPN
Jon Lester (OAK): 13-7, 2.51 ERA, 2.53 FIP, 25.4 K%, 5.4 fWAR
Mike Minor (ATL): I'm not typing this out because then I'll get depressed, so here's a link to his fangraphs page.