File photo . Top prospect pitcher Julio Teheran is one of the many reasons the Gwinnett Braves entered the All-Star break with the team's best-ever record.
By Ben Beitzel
It's a question that begs asking, but is tough to answer, and Dave Brundage does his best to deflect, obfuscate or talk around an answer, because the real reason seems unknowable.
The question: "What is different about this Gwinnett Braves team when its on the road?"
At first, the G-Braves manager tried the tougher opponent at home route. It made sense early on, but at the All-Star break, other than Gwinnett's rival atop the International League South Division the Durham Bulls, the G-Braves actually faced the teams with the top records in the league equal or more times away from Coolray Field.
As things evened out, the records grew apart. At the All-Star break, Gwinnett is 20-25 at home and a blistering 30-16 on the road. In May and June, Gwinnett rattled off a pair of seven-game winning streaks. Of the 14 games, five were won at Coolray Field. They hit better on the road, .264 team batting average vs. .250, and they pitch better on the road, 2.84 team ERA vs. 3.50 at a park built for pitchers.
Perhaps Brundage's most recent attempt to laugh off the question makes the most sense. They are just fed too well at home.
And no matter what the reason, if there is just one or any, this team overcomes it. Ninety-one games into the 144-game Class AAA season, Gwinnett is a half game behind the Durham Bulls for first place in the IL South, tied for first in the wild card and its 50-41 record is the team's best at this point in its three seasons since the move to Gwinnett. And that includes a playoff team in 2009.
It has league-leaders in pitching and hitting categories, has players with big-league experience throughout its roster, sent four players and a trainer to the All-Star game and will have at least one player break the Gwinnett mark for home runs in a season. Not too bad with 53 games left to play.
Pitching, pitching everywhere
Consider this: Of Gwinnett's starting rotation to begin the season, one pitches consistently out of the Chicago Cubs' bullpen, another retired midseason and two others disappear on occasion for spot starts in Atlanta.
Through all the abrupt changes and adjustments, pitching coach Marty Reed and the arms he commands have a league-best ERA of 3.17, 32 points better than runner-up Pawtucket. Top prospect Julio Teheran leads all IL pitchers with a 9-1 record and a 1.79 ERA, a more consistent Todd Redmond is tied for the most starts with 18 with two complete games and closer Jairo Asencio is second with 15 saves, despite accumulating 101/3 big-league innings so far this season.
And then there is the middle relief. Despite losing Scott Proctor and Corey Gearrin to the big club and Steven Marek to Tommy John reconstructive surgery, the group never let its ERA rise above 3.00 in any month. Yohan Flande transitioned from long relief to starter, and Steven Shell has made three spot starts, helping erase the memory of opening day starter Rodrigo Lopez, now with the Cubs, and the abruptly retired Jacob Thompson.
Pop at the plate
Despite the poaching of a minor league slugger in the G-Braves' first offseason, long balls never really caught on at Coolray Field. Perhaps it was the unfriendly dimensions or a class of players with eyes on doubles more than blasts, but home runs were infrequent at best during the first two seasons. So few so, that the franchise leader in the short history was Freddie Freeman with 18.
Freeman's mark is more than in jeopardy this season.
With 56 games remaining, newly-crowned triple-A Home Run Derby winner Stefan Gartrell is one away from Freeman's mark since joining Gwinnett in early April. Teammate and fellow Home Run Derby participant Mauro Gomez is two back with 15 homers and up-and-down big leaguer Brandon Hicks has squeezed in 14 in his 55 games in Class AAA.
And it's not just the long ball.
Gartrell leads all of the IL with 43 extra-base hits and has no triples. Mauro Gomez is fourth in the league in total bases with 158.
Dominating the division
With the IL following Major League Baseball's lead with an unbalanced schedule, the majority of Gwinnett's games come against division rivals Durham, Norfolk and Charlotte. Against those teams the G-Braves are 20-12, their best record against any division this season. They've lost just once to Norfolk and twice the Charlotte in 17 meetings.
Against Durham, which leads Gwinnett by a half game for the division lead, the G-Braves are just 6-9, but when they wrapped up a short two-game series earlier this month, that ended home games against the Bulls. The final six games are all at Durham.
And that, for whatever reason, is good for the G-Braves.