(Updated: 10:45 p.m.)
At some point, Tommy Hanson probably started wondering if he was doing something wrong. Didn’t his teammates like him? Was it the way he dressed? Was he not using enough soap? Was it his breath? His politics?
OK, so maybe every Hanson start hasn’t left scorched earth in opposing clubhouses like some projected after his rookie season. But he has been pretty good, and the thing keeping him from winning more games has been relative abandonment from teammates.
“No, I don’t take it personally,” Hanson said laughing Tuesday night. “I know they’re out there trying.”
The Braves played “the perfect game” (Chipper Jones’ analysis) Tuesday. An offense that had gone 17 consecutive innings without scoring put up five runs by the fifth inning against Florida. There was defensive wizardry, particularly by shortstop Alex Gonzalez, leading manager Fredi Gonzalez to crack, “It looked like he was showing off a little.”
But mostly there was Hanson. After two shaky outings this season and only three wins in his previous 22 starts — largely the residual of poor run support — Hanson looked the dominant pitcher most have projected him to be in his career. He held the Marlins scoreless on four hits in his seven innings, struck out five and didn’t allow a runner past second base.
The Braves won 5-0. They also got reaffirmation that, yes, Hanson is all that.
As Jones said later when asked about the Braves finally getting Hanson some runs to work with, “Yeah, but Tommy set the tone early. He came out and was locating his fastball, got some strikeouts and let us know that they weren’t going to score too many tonight, and that any help we gave him would be appreciated. We obliged the second time [through the batting order]. It was pretty elementary after that.”
Nate McLouth doubled in a run. The Braves had three consecutive two-out hits in the third. Jason Heyward homered in the fourth. Brian McCann homered in the fifth.
It’s a wonder Hanson didn’t faint.
The three wins in his 22 previous starts might have cast Hanson as a train wreck, but that wasn’t the case. He went 3-10 despite a solid ERA of 3.49. His average run support in those games: 2.7 per game. He had one five-start stretch last season in which he pitched at least six innings, allowed one or zero earned runs and went 0-2 with three no-decisions. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the first time that has happened since earned runs became an official statistic back in 1913.
When you have “Elias Sports Bureau” and “1913” in the same sentence, you’ve accomplished something rare. Then again, “accomplished” probably is the wrong verb.
Media and fans have a tendency to build up great prospects, then expect too much too soon. When Hanson went 11-4 with 2.89 ERA as a rookie — despite allowing seven runs (six earned) and three homers in his debut against Milwaukee — many probably projected a string of 20-win seasons after.
That didn’t happen. But seeing Hanson’s record drop from 11-4 as a rookie to 10-11 last year to 0-2 this year set of alarms. Was he not going to be the next great thing?
“He’s fine,” pitching coach Roger McDowell said. “Obviously when you’re a pitcher, you’re going to struggle at some point, and that’s when you have to start making adjustments. … You’ll have five really good starts, five really bad starts and you have to figure out your other 25. Huddy [Hudson] and Derek [Lowe] are good examples of veteran guys who know how to pitch and stay in games.”
Hanson missed some time in spring training with a sore back and was having difficulty with pitch location in his first two starts. If it took him a little longer to get going this year, it wasn’t a problem against Florida. He had three strikeouts in the first two innings, confidently pitched out of the few jams he got in and was helped by two double plays. The early runs also helped.
“It changes the game when you have lead,” he said. “It felt great.”
It was a comfort he could get used to.
By Jeff Schultz