Braves’ strong pitching could get stronger when Beachy returns

As strong as the Braves’ pitching has been so far this season, they have at least one reason to believe it could get even stronger in a couple of months.

Braves pitcher Brandon Beachy sat at a table in the middle of the visiting clubhouse Sunday morning, bearded, in shirt and shorts and his customary workout headband, worn Karate Kid-style tied in back.

Nearly 10 months into what’s usually a 12-13 month rehabilitation from Tommy John elbow surgery, the right-hander is in terrific overall condition and feels his pitching elbow getting stronger during bullpen sessions about every four days.

“I’m pleased with where I’m at,” said Beachy, 24. “I’m pleased that I don’t have to try to get a guy out right now, but I’m pleased with where I’m at in the process.”

He’s still aiming for a return before the July 15-18 All-Star break. The Braves haven’t given a specific timetable or how they plan to make room for Beachy, who was among major league leaders with a 2.00 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 81 innings (13 starts) before he got hurt.

Nor are they expected to announce any plans before a decision would need to be made. As team officials usually say in cases where there will seemingly be too many players pitchers for one spot: A lot can happen between now and then, and such matters often take care of themselves due to injuries, underperformance, etc.

“I’m still hoping for right around a year,” said Beachy, who had surgery June 21, 2012.

He has been used strictly as a starter in the majors, and was 7-3 with a 3.68 ERA in 25 starts as a rookie in 2011.

Beachy said being able to travel with the first-place Braves makes it easier to get through the final stages of his rehab.

“It sure beats sitting at home on the couch watching it,” he said. “Makes it way easier. I’m here on a daily basis, interacting with the guys, working out next to them. It’s better than being back by myself….

“It’s fun. We’re dominating. Everyone’s doing their thing. We’re winning games.”

Lock-down bullpen: The Braves reduced their majors-leading overall ERA to 1.82 with Sunday's shutout, and Atlanta's relievers shaved theirs to 1.30, also the best in either league.

The Braves bullpen hasn’t allowed any of its 14 inherited runners to score this season, the only team in the majors that can make that claim. Two of those came Sunday, when starter Paul Maholm left with two runners on base in the eighth inning.

Rookie left-hander Luis Avilan walked Bryce Harper to loaded the bases before getting an inning-ending groundout, and Cory Gearrin pitched perfect ninth to complete the four-hit shutout.

“I was sweating a little bit today,” Maholm said, smiling. “But no, whenever those guys come in, it’s all the confidence in the world with whoever is out there. Every one of them that’s out there has great stuff.”

Manager Fredi Gonzalez knocked on the wooden desk in the visiting manager’s office at Nationals Park when someone mentioned the inherited-runners stat to him Sunday.

“You know I don’t like talking about that because next week it’ll be something different,” he said. “But we’ve got guys down there you can match up with, with (Eric) O’Flaherty and Avilan from the left side, and (Jordan) Walden can get lefties out. (Craig) Kimbrel at the back end, Gearrin with the righties…. It’s a nice bullpen.”

The relievers’ .188 opponents’ batting average was third-best in the majors before Sunday.

Pounding Gio: The Braves pounded out seven hits and seven runs in five innings Sunday against Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez (1-1), who hadn't allowed seven runs in a start since September 2010. He gave up just six hits and one run in 11 innings of his two previous starts this season.

B.J. Upton set the tone by lining a double to left field on the first pitch of the game.

“It’s important to get out to a fast start, especially against those guys,” said Upton, who faced Gonzalez when both were in the American League, and was 1-for-11 against him before Sunday. “They’re a very good ballclub, and the goal is to pretty much not let Gio get settled in. If he can get settled in, he can be pretty darn good.”