Braves need to hit, defend well behind makeshift rotation

It’s always preferable for a major league team to come out of the gate with its offense clicking and defense playing fundamentally sound. It helps avoid putting undue early pressure on a pitching staff, and can keep a team from falling several games behind and playing catch up to the division leader.

But seldom has this seemed as crucial for the Braves’ hitters and defenders at the beginning of a season than now. The Braves need to pull together to assure the team keeps its collective heads above water until an injury-riddled starting rotation gets some established arms off the disabled list later in April.

“I think as a core, our offense definitely has that mentality,” Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. “To go out and try to get off to a hot start, so that we can buy some time and get all these horses back in the rotation, and then we can kind of gel together and go about this thing.”

Julio Teheran, the only one of the Braves’ four incumbent starting pitchers who made it through the spring without injury, makes his first career opening-day start Monday when he faces Milwaukee ace Yovani Gallardo at 2:10 p.m. at Miller Park, where the Braves are 2-8 in the past three seasons.

Kris Medlen was originally scheduled to start opening day, but Medlen and starter Brandon Beachy walked off the mound with elbow injuries on consecutive days March 9-10. Both required season-ending Tommy John surgery.

“We have a lot of confidence in the guys that we have,” Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said of the makeshift rotation. “It sucks to lose the guys that we did, but at the same time everybody’s got to get their chance somewhere or another. We expect our guys that are getting a chance to step up and do what they need to do.”

The Braves start the season with a two-city, six-game trip to Milwaukee and NL East rival Washington. Most pundits have picked the Nationals to unseat the Braves as division champions after the rash of pitching injuries, which also included starter Mike Minor’s shoulder tendinitis at the beginning of spring training. The left-hander couldn’t work out in January following emergency urinary-tract surgery, and when he resumed throwing he tried to do a bit much too soon.

The starting-rotation situation and depth of the pitching staff should improve considerably, the Braves say, with the addition of Ervin Santana to the rotation on April 12 and the additions after April 20 of both Minor and veteran Gavin Floyd, who’s recovering from Tommy John surgery.

But until then, no one can be sure quite what to expect from half of the opening four-man rotation – rookie David Hale, who has pitched in just two major league games, and 35-year-old journeyman Aaron Harang, who signed last week.

If the Braves can score enough runs to give their pitchers a little wiggle room, and play sharp defense to avoid giving away extra outs, they can enhance the chances of getting through the next couple of weeks without things getting ugly.

“I think it makes it extra important to win early, to get off (well),” Braves catcher Evan Gattis said. “Get some quality starts from those guys. To me, you’ve got to win early.”

Monday marks the first opening-day start for Teheran at any professional level, while Gallardo starts his fifth consecutive opener for the Brewers. The Braves will start second-year left-hander Alex Wood (11 career starts) in Game 2, and in the series finale they’ll start Harang.

After an off day Thursday, the Braves will start Hale on Friday in in front of a packed house at Nationals Park.

“It’s out of our hands,” Braves right fielder Jason Heyward said of the injury bug and why the Braves haven’t spent a lot of time talking about it. “Every team has injuries, everybody goes through it. We have to go forward, put it to the side. Obviously you feel terrible for those guys on your team because you don’t want to see anybody get hurt. But it’s part of the game.”

Uggla said, “Everybody understands what the situation is. As far as stressing we need to do this or we need to do that, no, we’re not doing that at all. We know what’s in front of us.”