BOSTON – Even if Braves officials hoped going in that Jair Jurrjens would pitch as well as he did Friday night, they wouldn’t have said so publicly. They would have sounded delusional.
Banished to the minor leagues for two months and brought back out of necessity following Brandon Beachy’s season-ending elbow surgery, Jurrjens came through with a vengeance, working 7-2/3 innings of three-hit ball in a 4-1 win against the Boston Red Sox in an interleague series opener at sold-out Fenway Park.
“He was terrific,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. ” He really was terrific.”
Unaffected by a 74-minute rain delay before the first pitch or pressure to prove he was ready for the recall, Jurrjens (1-2) allowed a single in the first inning and didn’t give up another hit until the eighth as he won for the first time since Aug. 11, 2011. He was charged with three hits and one run, with one walk and four strikeouts.
“It was great to see him back,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “He’s had some injuries, and obviously … it’s all about his velocity. When he’s able to get inside on guys, the way he pitches it opens up everything. It was a plus for all of us, because he’s a guy that can give us a lift for the rest of the year and beyond.”
Jurrjens was asked how it felt to be back in the big leagues, performing at a high level for a team that badly needed him to.
“Awesome,” he said. “That’s the only word I can come up with. It felt great. There’s no word to describe how good I felt.”
Jason Heyward and Martin Prado had three hits apiece and rookie Andrelton Simmons drove in two runs for the Braves, who won for the seventh time in their past eight road games and improved to 3-1 on a six-game interleague trip that began with a series win against the New York Yankees.
The Red Sox had won seven of eight games and piled up 38 hits and 25 runs in a three-game sweep of the Miami Marlins before facing Jurrjens, whose past 10 starts had been for Triple-A Gwinnett and were mostly unimpressive (3-4, 5.18 ERA).
“I guess it’s a little easier to pitch in the big leagues than it is Triple-A,” Gonzalez joked.
Indeed, the 2011 All-Star fared better against Boston hitters than he had those in the Triple-A International League. How?
“That’s a hard question to answer,” Jurrjens said. “I was just trying to simplify things as much as possible and just worry about myself and don’t try to do too much, just do as good as I could do and try to keep my team in the ballgame.
“I didn’t try to come and show anything. I just tried to come and give my team a good game. It’s not the first time I’m doing this. I don’t think I needed to show anybody. I just needed to go out there and pitch my game and have fun.”
The Braves and their front office breathed a collective sigh of relief. Beachy had season-ending “Tommy John” elbow surgery on Thursday, and the Braves are evaluating potential trade targets in the next few weeks. But they won’t be in a desperate situation to obtain another proven veteran starter if Jurrjens pitches at least close to as effectively as he did Friday.
Using a mix of 82-84 mph change-ups, 89-91 mph fastballs – he topped out at 92 – and 79-80 mph sliders, Jurrjens kept Boston hitters off balance most of the night before appearing to tire in the eighth, when he gave up a run on a pair of doubles by Will Middlebrooks and Daniel Nava.
“Command was excellent,” Gonzalez said. “He had some differential on the changeup to the fastball. Slider had tilt, and he pitched ahead in the count and made some pitches when he had to. I was looking forward to watching him pitch today, and now I’m excited about the way he pitched, and [to see him] keep going.
“I mean, this is the J.J. of last year when he was going and made the All-Star team. It’s a nice lift.”
McCann said, “He was able to work both sides of the plate tonight with both his fastball and changeup. I think he sat between 88-92 [mph], sank it, four-seamed it, then worked his changeup the same way, four-seamed it and two-seamed it. Spotted up his slider. And when he’s doing that, he’s been a top-of-rotation starter for us for four years. And to get him back, to see his velocity where it needs to be, that’s a great sign for everybody in here, including himself.”
Gonzalez said he wasn’t surprised because the scouting reports from the Gwinnett staff indicated Jurrjens was better than his numbers had indicated. Still, no one could have reasonably seen this coming from Jurrjens, who went 0-2 with a 9.37 ERA and .411 opponents’ average in four April starts before he was sent down.
Against the Red Sox he threw 68 strikes in 103 pitches. After Adrian Gonzalez’s two-out single in the first inning, Jurrjens allowed only two more baserunners before the eighth inning, that on a third-inning walk and fifth-inning hit-by-pitch.
He pointed to two things he worked on at Gwinnett as keys to his success: strengthening the right knee that sidelined him each of the past two seasons after the All-Star break, and working on his pitching mechanics that were thrown out of kilter by compensating for the knee. Jurrjens continued to wear a knee brace when pitching.
“I was not able to stay back and push off like I wanted to, which made the pitches stay up and the velocity was down,” he said of his April struggles. “There’s still a lot of room to improve, still a lot of work to do. Just going to keep working hard and keep getting ready for every start.”
The Braves took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning. After Freddie Freeman hit a leadoff single, Heyward lined an opposite-field double off the Green Monster left-field wall, Matt Diaz drove in a run with a groundout and Simmons hit a two-out RBI double to the left-field corner.
In the sixth, Heyward doubled and scored on a Simmons sacrifice fly for a 3-0 lead. Freeman added an RBI single in the ninth.
Craig Kimbrel pitched a perfect ninth with one strikeout for his 21st save.
Heyward went 3-for-4 with two doubles and has a .377 average with 12 extra-base hits in 17 June games, after hitting .200 with nine extra-base hits in 28 May games. He’s 13-for-29 (.448) with eight extra-base hits during an eight-game hitting streak, with his two-homer game Friday following a two-homer game Wednesday in the series finale at Yankee Stadium.
“It’s fun to watch,” McCann said of Heyward’s surge. “I mean, the guy can do everything on a baseball field.”