BOSTON – Anyone who watched Jair Jurrjens’ auspicious return to starting rotation on Friday night knows he was good. Really good.
He had a one-hit shutout going through seven innings before giving up a run on a couple of doubles in the eighth inning of a 4-1 win against the Red Sox. Keep in mind, it was his first major league start in two months, after 10 mostly mediocre-at-best starts in Triple-A in the interim.
As shocking as it seemed – at least for me — Jurrjens looked like he was back to his 2011 All-Star form, rather than the pitcher who went 1-5 with a 6.87 ERA in 11 starts since that All-Star break while battling an injured and weakened knee and flaws in his delivery.
I asked catcher Brian McCann if Jurrjens looked like he did in the first half last season, when he was 12-3 with a 1.87 ERA in 16 starts and the second choice for the All-Star start behind Roy Halladay.
“He looked better,” McCann said, then explained what made him think that. “He was throwing harder, and I think when you’re able to get inside on lefties with his stuff, that opens up so many different opportunities calling a game. You can go a lot more places. He’s able to get lefties to pop balls up and get it by them….
“It was great to see him back. 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.”
I’ll defer to McCann on whether Jurrjens looked better than he did early last season. I just know he looked sharp while carving up a good Boston lineup with a mix of 89-91 mph fastballs (topped out at 92), 82-84 mph change-ups and 79-81 mph sliders.
The differential between his fastball and change-up was one thing the Braves wanted him to focus on at Triple-A Gwinnett, along with consistency with his fastball velocity. He achieved both goals while working to improve the strength in his right leg, which was weakened by knee problems and resultant periods of inactivity late in each of the past two seasons.
He’s still pitching while wearing a brace on the knee, his push-off knee, and Jurrjens said his improved strength in the leg enabled him to push off the rubber and stay lower, improving his velocity and ability to keep the ball lower in the strike zone.
“When you can throw a change-up in any count and can throw a slider and 90-91 mph fastball, it looks like 93-94, and he commanded it,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He had all three pitches working. When you get three pitches working in the big leagues, you do that – you go eight innings and give up two or three hits and one run, and have the opportunity to throw a shutout…
“He really was terrific.”
Jurrjens went 7-2/3 innings and was charged with three hits, one run, one walk and four strikeouts in 103 pitches (68 strikes). He didn’t allow a hit between the first and eighth innings, only one walk and a hit-by-pitch in that six-inning stretch.
It’s difficult to overstate how important this was for the Braves, coming the day after Brandon Beachy’s season-ending Tommy John elbow surgery. The Braves lost the major league leader in opponents’ average and co-leader in ERA, but if they can add something resembling the Jurrjens of old, the one from the first half of 2011 or that went 14-10 with a 2.60 ERA in 2009, then all of a sudden there’s not the urgency to trade for a proven starter to stabilize the rotation.
Not that the Braves won’t keep looking to make a deal for a Matt Garza or Ryan Dempster (or some other pitcher) if they can swing it without giving up too much in the way of prospects, but now such a deal might make them a better rotation than they were before the Beachy injury, not merely a rotation that’s close to being as good as it was.
If Jurrjens pitches like he did last night, or close, think of how strong the rotation might be with Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jurrjens and, say, Garza or Dempster, with Randall Delgado or Mike Minor in the fifth spot. And even if the Braves don’t trade for another starter, as long as Hudson and the other stay healthy, that trio of Hudson/Hanson/Jurrjens could be solid in a postseason series, if the Braves get there.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because it’s just one start. One start that surpassed all expectations, regardless of whether or not Braves officials admit as much publicly.
That said, what we watched last night didn’t have any sort of flukey feel to it. I didn’t get any sense that Jurrjens was doing it with smoke and mirrors, that Red Sox hitters were all just having a terrible night.
In Buster Olney’s blog today on ESPN.com, he has a breakdown of what Jurrjens did well, courtesy of the folks at ESPN Stats & Info:
– He threw 37 changeups out of 103 pitches (35.9 percent), his highest percentage in four seasons. Red Sox hitters were 1-for-11 with three K’s in at-bats ending with a changeup.
– Eighteen of his 34 pitches with two strikes were changeups (52.9 percent). Boston hitters were 1-for-12 in two-strike at-bats, including 0-for-7 against the changeup.
– Red Sox hitters were 0-for-13 with three strikeouts in at-bats ending with a pitch down in the zone or below, including 0-for-7 vs. the changeup.
– Jurrjens threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of 28 hitters, went to 2-0 counts on just two hitters, and had no 3-0 or 3-1 counts all night.
• Road machine: Friday night’s win was the seventh in their past eight road games for the Braves, who’ve done most of the things right on the road that they’ve struggled with at Turner Field.
The Braves are 7-1 with a 2.41 ERA, .272 batting average and 44 runs in their past eight road games, compared to 1-6 with a 4.43 ERA, .249 average and 14 runs in their past seven home games. They won Tuesday and Wednesday at New York against a Yankees team that had won 10 in a row before those losses.
Atlanta opened the season with four consecutive losses on the road, against the Mets and Astros. Since then through Friday, the Braves went 23-11 with a 3.33 ERA on the road, scoring 165 runs with 41 homers in those 34 games.
• Sometimes the best trade… Most of us didn’t rip the trade when it was made, nor did we find much to praise about the deal at the 2010 July 31 non-waiver trade deadline that sent to Braves lefty relief prsopect Tim Collins, outfielder Gregor Blanco and reliever Jesse Chavez to Kansas City for outfielder Rick Ankiel and veteran reliever Kyle Farnsworth.
In retrospect, it reminds me of the saying about how sometimes the best deal is the one you didn’t make.
Ankiel and Farnsworth both had expiring contracts, and neither was re-signed by the Braves after the 2010 season. Other than Ankiel’s big homer in the division series, he and Farnsworth did little to help the Braves in that year’s playoff push and first-round postseason loss to the Giants.
Ankiel hit .210 with two homers and a .651 OBP in 47 regular-season games for the Braves, and went 2-for-12 with a solo homer — admittedly a potentially huge one at the time — and one RBI in the division series.
Farnsworth had a 5.40 ERA in 23 regular-season appearances for the Braves, then pitched two scoreless innings in two appearances in the division series.
Of the three the Braves gave up, Chavez has continued to struggle with the Royals and Blue Jays. No loss there.
Blanco has done a few things. He had a .348 OBP and .717 OPS with 10 stolen bases in 49 games in 2010 with the Royals, and currently has a .351 OBP, .755 OPS and 12 stolen bases in 61 games (224 plate appearances) with the Giants.
He made recent headlines in San Francisco for his spectacular diving catch in center field that helped preserve Matt Cain’s perfect game.
But the one guy in that entire deal that had a lot of us wondering what the Braves were doing was Collins, especially since Braves officials had praised him and talked him up so much after getting him just a couple of weeks earlier from Toronto in the deal that sent Yunel Escobar and Jo-Jo Reyes to the Blue Jays in return for Alex Gonzalez, Tyler Pastornicky and Collins.
The 5-foot-6 Collins was described as a freak of nature, throwing hard (upper 90s) and piling up strikeouts in the minors, including 108 strikeouts in 71-1/3 innings in 2010 at the Double-A and Triple-A levels.
Then the Braves traded him two weeks after getting him, sending him to the Royals.
As a rookie in 2011, Collins had a 3.63 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 67 innings of 68 relief appearances. And this season, he’s taken it up a notch or three, posting a 2.27 ERA in 32 appearances and leading American League relievers with 51 strikeouts in 35-2/3 innings (Craig Kimbrel is fourth in the NL with 44 strikeouts in 27 innings).
Collins’ past 18 appearances have been almost Kimbrel-ian: 0.93 ERA, 19-1/3 innings, eight hits, two runs, nine walks, 29 strikeouts. (I said almost Kimbrel-ian.)
Sometimes, the best trade is one you didn’t make. But that’s easy for me to say.
You gotta take chances as a GM, and not every deal is going to work out in your favor.
By the way, here’s a link to a story on Blanco and the winding path he took to making that terrific catch that shows up nightly on ESPN’s Plays of the Day (it keeps beating out the latest play of the day in fan voting)….
• Speaking of Kimbrel: He notched his NL-leading 21st save on Friday with another perfect ninth inning, and in his past 16 games Kimbrel has converted 12 of 12 saves while allowing no runs, three hits and two walks with 25 strikeouts and an .058 opponents’ average. That is total dominance.
In 22 night games (through Friday) he has a 1.23 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 22 innings.
With runners in scoring position, Kimbrel has limited hitters to 1-for-17 with one walk.
In any situation with runners on base, hitters are 4-for-35 against him, with five walks and 16 strikeouts.
• Hot/not: The Jason Heyward June surge continued with a 3-for-4 night and two doubles in Friday’s win, giving him a .377 average that’s the third-best in the NL this month behind Joey Votto (.451) and Andrew McCutchen (.378).
Heyward is 23-for-61 in 17 games this month entering Saturday night’s nationally televised tilt with the Red Sox, with 12 extra-base hits (four homers), 11 RBIs, a .406 OBP and .721 slugging percentage (1.127 OPS).
He was 13-for-29 (.448) during an eight-game hitting streak through Friday, with eight extra-base hits and an .897 slugging percentage. Heyward was 7-for-11 in his past three games with two doubles, a triple and two homers.
Martin Prado had a .356 average (52-for-146), 15 extra-base hits, 12 RBIs and a .913 OPS in his past 36 games, including 19 multi-hit games. Prado was 6-for-10 with two doubles and a homer in his past two games before Saturday.
Rookie sensation Andrelton Simmons had a double and two RBIs Friday to give him a .433 average (13-for-30) with six RBIs in his past nine games. Against lefties, Simmons has hit .357 (10-for-28) with a .387 OBP and .571 slugging percentage since arriving from Double-A. (The Braves face another lefty, Franklin Morales, on Saturday.)
Simmons was 5-for-12 with runners in scoring position, including 4-for-8 with two out. His RBI double Friday came with two out in the fourth inning for a 2-0 lead.
In the No. 8 position in the lineup, Simmons was 15-for-34 (.441), compared to 4-for-25 (.160) in the seventh spot. He batted ninth Friday, his first time in any spot other than seventh or eighth.
On the other end of the heat spectrum: Dan Uggla was 5-for-47 (.106) with one homer and five RBIs in his past 15 games through Friday, including 3-for-33 (.091) with one RBI, nine walks and 15 strikeouts in his last 10 games.
And Eric Hinske, since his four-hit game at Colorado on May 4, was 4-for-58 (.069) with no extra-base hits, one RBI, seven walks and 20 strikeouts in his past 28 games through Friday.
• Let’s close with a tune by the mighty Clash from their eclectic, sprawling and highly underrated Sandinista album. You can hear it by clicking here.
“HITSVILLE UK” by The Clash (Strummer, Jones)
They cried the tears, they shed the fears
Up and down the land
They stole guitars or used guitars
So the tape would understand.
Without even the slightest hope of a 1000 sales
Just as if there was a Hitsville in UK
Know the boy was all alone, till the Hitsville UK.
They say true talent will always emerge in time
When lightening hits small wonder
It’s fast rough factory trade
No expense accounts, or lunch discounts
Or hypeing up the charts
The band went in ‘n’ knocked ‘em dead in 2 min. 59.
No slimey deals, with smarmy eels – in Hitsville UK
Let’s shake ‘n’ say we’ll operate in Hitsville UK
The mutants, creeps and muscle men
Are shaking like a leaf
It blows a hole in the radio
When it hasn’t sounded good all week
A mike ‘n’ boom, in your living room – in Hitsville UK
No consumer trials, or A.O.R. in Hitsville UK
Now the boys and girls are not alone
Now the Hitsville hit UK.
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog