LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – With just over a week left in spring training, Jair Jurrjens finally gave the Braves reason for encouragement.
The veteran pitched six innings of three-hit ball in an 11-1 win Sunday against a Houston Astros split squad, trimming his bloated ERA by more than 2-1/2 runs in one game and pitching for the first time all spring like someone who could be the Braves’ opening day starter.
Freddie Freeman hit two home runs, Brian McCann hit his second homer of the spring and Dan Uggla hit a tape-measure homer to stay in the National League lead with six. But it was Jurrjens’ performance that gave the Braves – and the Curacao right-hander — reason to breathe a little easier as the 2012 season draws closer.
“Very important,” said Jurrjens, who gave up just one hit (a bunt single) through the first five scoreless innings, and finished with one walk and seven strikeouts in the first good start of his five Grapefruit League outings. Through five innings he had more hits himself (two) than the Astros did against him.
“I need to get ready for the season, to be ready to perform for the team and start with a good mindset,” he said. “I just think mentally I was more in the game today, more prepared. It was a little different. Just went out there and went full-out. You can see when I’m concentrating on the hitters , even though I’m not throwing that hard, still I can locate my pitches and get people out.”
Jurrjens said the difference was staying focused on hitters and not worrying about his right knee, which he injured late in each of the past two seasons, causing him to miss the crucial month of September each year. He is wearing a knee brace this season and said before Sunday he hadn’t been able to block out any doubts about the knee when he pitched.
He had a 10.13 ERA and .403 opponents’ batting average before Sunday, having allowed 25 hits and 15 earned runs in 13-1/3 innings.
On Sunday, he looked more like the pitcher who made the National League All-Star team last season by going 12-3 with a 1.87 ERA before the break. Before Sunday, he’d looked even worse than he did while going 1-3 with a 5.88 ERA in seven starts after the break.
“He command was good on both sides of the plate,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He did pretty much anything he wanted to do today with all his pitches. And the good thing was that his velocity stayed up there — 90-91 [mph], but it stayed up there the whole game. And he ran the bases, [no issues] with his knee. I hope this gets him over the edge as far as not even worrying about the knee.
“I’m really pleased and encouraged by how well he pitched. A good day all around for Jurrjens.”
Gonzalez said Jurrjens remained an option for the opening day start April 5 at New York against the Mets. Tommy Hanson and possibly Brandon Beachy seem like the only candidates for that assignment, which Gonzalez expects to announce in the next two or three days.
Uggla stays hot
A more aggressive spring-training approach at the plate has worked well for Uggla, who has a .313 average and NL-best six homers this spring. The latest was a mammoth two-run shot in the first inning Sunday that caromed of the top of a 60-foot wall and scoreboard above the fence in left-center field at Champion Stadium.
“When I first hit it, the way it was carrying in [batting practice] I thought it might get over [the wall],” Uggla said. “It was up there.”
Uggla decided this year to use his regular-season aggressive hitting approach during spring training, instead of taking more pitches to “track” balls like he did in past springs. He’s been a notorious slow starter most seasons, never more than last year in his first season with the Braves when he hit .185 with a .257 on-base percentage before the All-Star break. (He hit .296 with a .379 OBP after the break.)
He thought he’d try to avoid another slow start by getting in a groove in spring training to hit the ground running when the season began.
“I’m feeling good,” he said. “It’s a nice feeling to be squaring up balls in spring, and I’ve still got a little over a week left. Just keep working and kind of hope everything is kind of in whack when the season comes…. I’ve had four or five [homers in spring training] a couple of times, but I don’t think six.”
Gonzalez has managed Uggla for six spring trainings with the Marlins and Braves and never seen him have a spring this good.
“I’m almost wanting not to play him anymore, back him off a little bit,” Gonzalez joked.