PITTSBURGH – If it had come down to the final regular-season series with Tommy Hanson competing for a spot in the Braves’ postseason rotation, his performance Tuesday night against Pittsburgh might have eliminated him from contention.
But it’s been clear for some time that Hanson wouldn’t start if the Braves made the postseason, and his work in an insignificant 5-1 loss to the Pirates served only as a reminder of issues that have plagued him during a disappointing year that began with his one-car accident in spring training. It’s been a different kind of painful at times during the ensuing months.
Hanson (13-10) was charged with five runs and nine hits in six innings, including a two-run homer by Garrett Jones during a three-run fifth that gave Pittsburgh a 5-1 lead before a sparse crowd at PNC Park.
“Wasn’t the way I wanted to end it,” said Hanson, who allowed a Starling Marte double to start the first inning and a run in each of the first two innings. “The first two innings were tough, and then so was that fifth. Not the way I wanted to finish, but it is what it is. And I’ve got to try to learn from it and try to make adjustments and try to get better.”
After a loss in Monday’s series opener ended the Braves’ chances of catching National League East leader Washington, manager Fredi Gonzalez started bench players at six positions Tuesday — or seven positions including catcher David Ross, whose role has grown in recent weeks due to Brian McCann’s injuries.
Jose Constanza had two of the Braves’ eight hits, and Freddie Freeman was ejected for arguing a checked-swing call in an eighth-inning pinch-hit appearance, the second ejection of Freeman’s major league career.
The Braves already secured the top wild-card slot and will play St. Louis in Friday’s Wild Card game at Turner Field, with the winner advancing to a division series starting Sunday. The Cardinals lost to Cincinnati on Tuesday but clinched the other wild-card spot when the Dodgers lost to the Giants late Tuesday.
“We accomplished what we wanted to,” Gonzalez said. “Got our bench guys some good at-bats. [Lyle] Overbay had some great at-bats, and [Eric] Hinske had a big at-bat [pinch-hit double] against a left-hander. [Tyler] Pastornicky had a couple of good at-bats, and Rossy….
“We’ll run our starters out there for a couple of at-bats [in Wednesday's regular-season finale], and hopefully we’ll come out of it healthy. And get a win, too. That would be nice.”
Hanson went 3-5 with a 5.69 ERA in his last 13 starts, including 1-5 with a 4.99 ERA in nine starts since returning from a stint on the 15-day disabled list for a strained back. The six innings he worked Tuesday made it his longest start in his past eight.
“Just left some balls over the plate,” Gonzalez said. “I think at the beginning of the game he had three 1-2 [count] hits.”
Asked if he saw any progress from Hanson since mid-season, Gonzalez said, “Well, he ended up with, what, 13 wins? A guy that might not have had the best stuff of his career, he still found a way to win some ballgames, which is good. You like to see that stuff.”
After going 10-4 with a 2.44 ERA and in 17 starts before the 2011 All-Star break, Hanson is 14-13 with a 4.96 ERA in 36 starts since. He’s been slowed at times by shoulder and back ailments, possibly contributing to the decline in his fastball velocity, or at least to his inability to get back the low- to mid-90s fastball he had in his first two seasons in the majors in 2009-2010.
“I felt like I made some adjustments and they were fine in spring training,” Hanson said. “And then I had to make some more adjustments because I wasn’t pitching the way I wanted to pitch. I feel like you always have to make adjustments and you always have to try to find a way to get better. I’ve been trying to do that all year.”
The right-hander worked during the offseason trying to smooth out a hitch in his delivery and quicken his time to the plate, but his throwing motion remains unorthodox and teams with good base-stealers continue to take advantage. The Pirates stole three bases, and after each of the first two that runner scored from second base on a hit by the next batter.
“It’s something that [pitching coach Roger McDowell] is on him all the time about,” Gonzalez said. “And we’ve gotten him down to 1.3, 1.4 [seconds to the plate]. But I don’t know how much quicker you can get him without re-doing the whole delivery and the arm, and then you’re getting into some areas where he might get hurt, changing arm angles this late in his career. But it’s something that definitely could use some work.”
Hanson has allowed 31 stolen bases this season, second in the NL behind Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett. Twenty two percent of runners who reached first base against Hanson this season attempted to steal second, the highest rate in the majors.
Among NL starting pitchers, he began Tuesday with the second-highest opponents’ on-base percentage (.343), third-highest opponents’ slugging percentage (.460) and fifth-highest opponents’ batting average (.269).
“I just think his fastball command, when it’s not on, that’s the times he gets hit,” Ross said. “But Tommy’s a really good pitcher, really valuable to us. Tonight his slider was a little flat, fastball location was just OK. And they took advantage of it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting ahead of hitters in certain situations, and holding guys on, just little things like that”