Four starts into his return to the major leagues, Jair Jurrjens has won three games. He’s limited each of his four opponents to three runs or fewer, while going seven or more innings twice. He’s put up a 2.13 ERA compared to his 9.37 ERA over his first four starts of the season before his exile to the minors.
Jurrjens’ results are markedly better, his velocity is up a few notches, and some momentum is building for the 26-year-old who makes his fifth start back Tuesday night against the San Francisco Giants.
Catcher Brian McCann says Jurrjens’ improved velocity has allowed him to work inside more to hitters. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is happy to see better separation between the speed on his fastball and change-up. Third baseman Chipper Jones just wants to see more consistency with all of the above.
“JJ has to locate,” Jones said. “If he does not locate, he’s going to get hit. When he’s on the edges consistently in and out with his fastball and his change-up and backdoor-ing that slider, he can be very, very good.”
If no one is completely sure what to make of Jurrjens just yet, the same can be said about his team.
The Braves (49-39) enter the Giants series on a season-high seven-game winning streak. Their weekend sweep over the Mets moved them 10 games over .500 for the first time since May 20, when they were 26-16. The Braves then lost eight in a row.
This team still has plenty to prove and plenty to do. They were three games behind Washington in the N.L. East, pending the outcome of the Nationals game Monday night in Miami.
This week they play a pair of division leaders, first with three games against the NL West-leading Giants at Turner Field, followed by four games in Washington, including Saturday’s doubleheader.
They’ve got the July 31 trade deadline coming up and will continue to explore adding another proven arm to the rotation, while also factoring in the kind of impact Ben Sheets can have after his six shutout innings in his return to the majors Sunday.
Meanwhile, Jurrjens is just doing what he’s done since he first took the mound again June 22 in Fenway Park the night he threw 7 2/3 strong innings against the Red Sox in place of injured Brandon Beachy. He’s focusing on the hitter and not worrying about things he cannot control.
“I’m just trying to have fun,” Jurrjens said. “It’s been stressful for two years now. I got to a point where whatever is going to happen; I’m not going to be able to stop it anyway. Just go out there have fun, give my team a good game.”
Problems with his right knee cut short each of Jurrjens’ past two seasons. In 2010 he missed the end of September and the playoffs. After offseason surgery, Jurrjens came back to make his first All-Star team last July. But his 2011 season was halted again by knee troubles, and this time he missed the last six weeks of the season.
He was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett in late April, and since then he’s worked on strengthening his knee and trying to get out of bad habits the discomfort caused with his mechanics. He also had to come to terms with his own frustrations. He said Gwinnett Braves pitching coach Marty Reed called him on it.
“He’d say ‘You’re down here for a purpose, to get better, and get back up there to help you team,’” Jurrjens said. “’If you’re getting frustrated over every small thing, you’re not going to give yourself a chance to see the improvement. It was not easy. We had a couple long talks.”
Jurrjens had another long talk with former Brave John Smoltz the night he made a book-signing stop at Coolray Field. Jurrjens said Smoltz told him he knew what it felt like to struggle with mechanics and lowering his arm angle as a result of an injury.
“(He said) ‘Keep working hard, it’s going to come back,’” Jurrjens said.
Two days later Jurrjens got the positive reinforcement he was looking for when he threw eight shutout innings against Rochester.
Jurrjens struggled in his next start against Charlotte (10 runs, six earned) but was pitching sick. Two outings later he got called back up to the majors.
Jurrjens’ workout program includes more running, and he’s doing squat exercises, even after he pitches. He said his regimen is an intense as any he’s ever done in-season. And he’s not seeing fluid buildup in his knee anymore, on airplane flights or otherwise, which translates to feeling stronger on the mound.
“I can drive myself again where I want to go,” Jurrjens said. “And the delivery is getting more consistent every time I go out there.”
Jurrjens first four starts in April
0-2 9.37 ERA 16 1/3 IP 30 H 5 HR 10 BB 10 8 K .411 opponents’ ave.
Jurrjens’ four starts since returning to rotation
3-0 2.13 ERA 25 1/3 IP 24 H 1 HR 5 BB 10 K .247 opponents’ ave.