After making things interesting in the eighth inning, the Braves held on to beat the White Sox 5-4 in Comerica Park Friday night. Here are three observations from the game:
1. Brian McCann is setting himself up to make some serious money this offseason
White Sox pitcher John Danks kept making mistake after mistake against McCann in the sixth inning, leaving off-speed pitches up in the zone, but kept narrowly escaping as the Braves catcher fouled them off. However, on the final pitch in an 11-pitch at-bat, the seven-time All-Star made Danks pay.
When the misplaced changeup landed in the right field seats, McCann's 2013 home run total bumped up to 13 in 210 plate appearances -- not Evan Gattis power efficiency, but certainly respectable for a guy coming off his least productive (and injury-restrictive) season to date. To date, the 29-year-old is hitting .290.371.546, good enough for the highest WAR (2.2 entering Friday's game) on the roster.
"On a guy like Danks, you have to let the ball travel. If you go out and get the ball, you're going to roll over like I did my first two at-bats," McCann said. "So that AB, I tried to tell myself let the ball get deep. I was covering away and he hung a changeup middle-in and I was able to put a good swing on it. He didn't want to put it there."
From a player's perspective, the resurgence -- or, perhaps, the return to full health -- could not have come at a better time. McCann's impending free agency has always been one of the biggest decisions the Atlanta franchise was going to face after this season; now, with his production back up to All-Star levels, it's unknown whether that decision is made more or less difficult.
Here's the thing: At a 12 million rate this season, McCann is the third-highest paid player on the roster (and certainly the most productive of the top three so far). With his present numbers, he's going to fetch at least that much money per year this time around, but likely more. Perhaps the most convenient comparison for McCann would be the extension Cardinals All-Star catcher Yadier Molina signed in March 2012 heading into his age 29 season: a five-year, 75 million deal that looks like quite a bargain at the moment, as he's developed into one of the game's most valuable catcher. There's no reason to believe that if McCann keeps at his current pace, he couldn't sign a four- or five-year deal worth 15 million per or higher, especially for an American League team looking to solidify its DH spot.
Would the Braves bite at that rate? Could they get a hometown discount? With potential extensions coming up for many of the team's younger standouts, it's unclear how much financial wiggle room the organization has to work with here. Fifteen million is a hefty price tag, particularly with younger catchers waiting in the wings and no DH spot to fill.
Either way, it's great for McCann -- and Braves, at least for this season. If McCann can continue to team up with Freddie Freeman to provide the much-needed stability through the middle of the lineup, the consistency that, at times, disappeared during the first half could help Atlanta cruise to the division title.
"We're playing good baseball this whole season. We're getting consistent pitching and I think we're gonna swing the bats a lot better in the second half," McCann said.
2. After closing the first half strong, Tim Hudson could be poised for yet another strong July and August
In his final five starts heading into the All-Star break, the 38-year-old veteran pitched very, very well: 32 23 innings pitched, 3.03 ERA, four quality starts. The Braves went 4-1 in those starts -- Hudson (sorta) improved his personal record from 4-6 to 6-7 -- as Hudson lowered his ERA from 4.41 to 4.02. At the break, he was the second-most valuable pitcher on the team in terms of WAR (1.4) behind only Mike Minor.
He continued the trend Friday night against an old enigma, pitching 7 13 innings to reach .500 for the first time since June 6. Though he allowed 10 base runners (eight hits, two walks), his ground ball-inducing ways led to two double plays and he was able to limit the damage to four earned runs. That may not sound like a dominant performance -- and it's not -- but he held the White Sox scoreless in six innings, only running into trouble in the eighth before Luis Avilan entered the game.
"I saw him commanding all of his pitches, really. A couple of the base hits that he gave up early were ground ball base hits," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "When he's doing that, you feel like at least the sinker is working."
It was Hudson's first win against the White Sox since 2002 when he was a member of the Oakland Athletics. His 5.15 ERA versus the AL's Chicago franchise is his fifth-worst rate against any opponent.
In the months of July and August, Hudson is now 78-23. He's en route toward more of the same.
3. Could Chris Johnson actually win the batting title?
If that seems like a strange question to ask of a career .287 hitter, then perhaps you need to take a gander at the NL batting race. Johnson falls just shy of the qualifying amount of plate appearances (according to FanGraphs entering Friday), thanks to an early-season platoon situation with the since-departed Juan Francisco, but assuming he'll be the Braves' everyday third baseman from here on out he could very well make a run at the title.
Lowering the qualifying mark to 200 plate appearances, Johnson ranked fifth in NL batting, trailing only Molina, Allen Craig, Troy Tulowitzki and Michael Cuddyer in the first half. His .330 average was just 11 points off the pace, too.
Well, take another look.
After his 3-for-4 night against the White Sox, Johnson's average is back up to .336 -- and no, it is not lost on me that batting average does not carry nearly as much weight as we like to assume, but as long as we are handing out MVP awards for merely reaching the Triple Crown, it's worth mentioning that a relatively unknown commodity could claim a league's top mark -- which, after Friday's games, matches Tulowitzki for the third-best mark.
"He gives you good at-bats," Gonzalez said of Johnson's surprise production. "He gives you really, really good at-bats. This last one with a runner on-base in the ninth was a big one."
It was Johnson's eighth game this season with three hits or more.