After the Braves lost starting pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to elbow surgeries during spring training and then opened the season with starters Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd on the disabled list while late signee Ervin Santana worked on his arm strength in Triple-A, the team’s hope was for a patchwork rotation to tread water until reinforcements arrived.
Through the first week of the season, Braves starters — Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, rookie David Hale, journeyman Aaron Harang — lead the major leagues with a 1.63 ERA. How’s that for treading water?
Only the Padres have scored fewer runs than the Braves, who have 15 runs in six games. But behind that surprising rotation and a typically stingy bullpen, the Braves went 4-2 with two series wins on their season-opening trip to Milwaukee and Washington, easing some concerns of a fan base wondering if they could hold it together early on.
“What else can you ask — two runs allowed at most,” said shortstop Andrelton Simmons, referring to a Braves staff having allowed two or fewer in every game, good for a 1.56 overall ERA that ranked second in the majors. “You’ve got to win (with that), especially with this team, with our offense, the expectations that we have for ourselves.
“We’re playing pretty good defense overall. Just got to swing the bats a little better. That will come.”
The Braves play their home opener Tuesday against the Mets on a night when Hank Aaron will be honored before the game on the 40th anniversary of his historic 715th home run. Another Aaron — Harang, who was signed March 24 after being released by the Indians — is the Braves’ starting pitcher.
The first of the reinforcements arrives when Santana joins the rotation for his Braves debut Wednesday. Minor is expected to come off the DL to start April 23 or April 25.
When it was announced two weeks ago that Harang would start the home opener, a collective groan came from Braves Country. But like the rotation and pitching staff in general, Harang stepped up in a big way during the road trip.
The stocky 35-year-old silenced some skeptics by taking a no-hitter to the seventh inning of a 1-0 win against the Brewers and Matt Garza, who also threw a no-hitter for six innings. (After losing two of three to the Braves, the Brewers swept the Red Sox in Boston and had a majors-best 1.45 ERA.)
“Our pitchers are doing exactly what they did last year, letting us (hitters) kind of ease into it and get going,” said Braves third baseman Chris Johnson, whose home run accounted for the only run in Harang’s win. “We’re also going up against a lot of tough (opposing pitchers) too. They’re stepping up to that challenge. Hale did amazing. Harang did amazing. Julio’s Julio, so we’re kind of getting used to seeing Julio dealing. … But it’s huge for us.”
Johnson said those words Sunday morning, before Wood pitched a seven-inning gem against the Nationals in the 13th start of his career. Wood took the 2-1 loss, but allowed only four hits and two runs in seven innings, retiring 18 of 19 batters in one stretch when the only Washington base runner reached on an error.
The Nationals were eager to make a statement in their home-opening series, after sweeping the Mets to start the season. But the only statement made was by the Braves, who could win a series in Washington by taking the first two games with Hale more than holding his own against Jordan Zimmerman and Teheran out-pitching Stephen Strasburg.
The Nationals averted a sweep Sunday, but Wood was sharp and has a 1.93 ERA and .180 opponents’ average in two starts.
“It’s still early,” said Wood, a 23-year-old with perspective. “Guys are feeling good, I think we’ve done a real good job so far. But it’s a long season, so it’s one of those things where it’s great to get off to a good start like that as a group. And after that, you’ve just got to come in and do it on a consistent basis.”
Yes, the Braves would’ve liked to sweep the Nationals again in D.C., as they did twice in 2013. But all things considered, they’ll take two series wins on the road.
“Oh yeah, 4-2, especially with the injuries we’ve had,” said veteran backup catcher Gerald Laird, who caught Harang at Milwaukee. “We had some young guys come up and step up and pitch real well. We have some guys in the bullpen pitching well and we have our starters with Hale and obviously Woody in his two starts. We knew what we were going to get from Julio.
“From what I’ve seen, we’ve got guys that are going out there and competing, throwing strikes and they don’t look scared out there. They look like they’re in control.”
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