Notes: Franco back for playoff push
Braves to lean on 49-year-old vet for leadership, clutch hits
ATLANTA -- Fresh off his mini-tour of the Minor Leagues, Julio Franco rejoined the Braves on Saturday with the intent of proving a 49-year-old man can make a difference in a pennant race.
Whether or not the Braves should still be considered legitimate postseason contenders will be better understood over the next five days, when they conclude their current series against the Mets and then begin a three-game series against the Phillies.
Entering Saturday, the Braves trailed the Mets by 5 1/2 games in the National League East race. In addition, they sat 3 1/2 games behind the second-place Phillies, who are also just two games back in the Wild Card race.
"If you're in the pack during the pennant race, within 3 1/2 or four games, and you play good baseball in September, you will win," said Franco, who has learned a few things about pennant races since making his Major League debut in 1982. "It's as simple as that."
While their hope of sweeping this current three-game series against the Mets was destroyed Friday night, the Braves still could escape this weekend just 3 1/2 games out of first place with 25 games left to play. Three of those remaining games will pit them against the Mets.
As for the Wild Card race, the Braves entered Saturday trailing the front-running Padres by 5 1/2 games. While the deficit is the same, the challenge is different than the division race because of the fact that there are five teams in front of them in the Wild Card race.
"I don't think we can talk about the Wild Card, just given the dynamics of it," said John Smoltz, another seasoned postseason race expert. "There's too many teams. Somebody is always going to win. ... We don't play any of those teams. There's no ability for us to affect that race."
While he knows Mark Teixeira will be playing first base on an everyday basis, Franco has reason to believe he can make a difference for the Braves, who have seen their pinch-hitters bat just .205 this season. Since July 1, they've hit just .182 (18-for-99).
After being released by the Mets in July, Franco joined the Braves and proved that he could still be productive when given regular playing time. When he was designated for assignment to create a roster spot for Teixeira, the 49-year-old wonder agreed to stay sharp while playing some games at the Minor League level.
In preparation to rejoin the Atlanta roster when it expanded with September's arrival, Franco played four games for both Class A Rome and Triple-A Richmond. In the process, he hit .296 (8-for-27).
"It was just a matter of staying sharp, and the only way you can do that is by playing," said Franco, who hit .333 in the final eight games he played with the Braves in July.
Escobar bruised: When he arrived at Turner Field on Saturday afternoon, Yunel Escobar was sporting a noticeably swollen left elbow that prevented him from getting full extension while swinging the bat. Thus, he was replaced at shortstop by Chris Woodward.
Escobar, who may be able to return to the lineup on Sunday, was hit with pitches on the elbow on both Wednesday and Friday night.
Ring and Pena also added: Franco wasn't the only addition to the expanded roster on Saturday. Joining him were the suddenly versatile Brayan Pena and left-handed reliever Royce Ring, who could prove to be a valuable lefty specialist.
After being optioned to Triple-A Richmond in mid-May, Pena, who began this season as Atlanta's backup catcher, began playing a number of different positions. He gained comfort at both corner positions in both the infield and outfield.
In 94 games with Richmond, the switch-hitting Pena batted .301 with six homers.
"In my bag, I have like five gloves," Pena said. "I'm ready for whenever the skipper needs me. I'm so happy to be here. I'm very thankful for the opportunity that they've given me to be back in the big leagues."
Ring, who was acquired from the Padres at the trade deadline, surrendered five earned runs and nine hits in the final three innings that he completed for Richmond. Still, in 15 appearances in the Braves system, he limited left-handed hitters to a .158 batting average.
Pena described Ring, who throws with a sidearm delivery, as a fierce competitor who isn't afraid to attack left-handed batters on the inside corner of the plate.
"He's pretty good, especially against left-handed batters," Pena said of Ring, who has combined for 41 Major League appearances with the Mets and Padres over the past three seasons.
Coming up: The Braves will conclude their three-game series against the Mets on Sunday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. ET. They'll send Smoltz (12-6, 3.06) to the mound to oppose Tom Glavine (11-6, 4.15).
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.