(Updated at 11:15 p.m.)
On a night when Jair Jurrjens attempted to continue his season with an arm that has seemed just this side of bionic, the Braves supported him with a starting lineup that seemed just this side of Gwinnett.
Three starters (Martin Prado, Jason Heyward, Nate McLouth) were on the disabled list. Another one (Freddie Freeman) was scratched just before game time with an oblique strain. A fifth regular, Brian McCann, was just being rested – presumably in a protective bubble.
This isn’t the ideal way to attack a division race, but then probabilities seldom entered the equation last year.
Here’s the issue: The Braves have left themselves little margin for error. So on nights when one of their pitchers proves to be less than spectacular, which was the case Tuesday with Jurrjens, they’re pretty much sunk.
They opened a nine-game homestand with a 4-3 loss to the New York Mets. Maybe it’s time to go back on the road.
It says something that Jurrjens, the Braves’ best pitcher, can have his worst night of the season and still allow only four earned runs. It also says something that four runs isn’t going to be good enough when a team’s starting lineup shows these batting averages: .235, .180, .266, .276, .264, .295, .227, .196, .125.
“I know we’re not blowing away teams,” said Dan Uggla, whose eighth-inning homer remarkably closed the Mets’ lead to one run (made possible by the fact New York stranded 13 base runners). “But this doesn’t define us.”
Maybe it won’t all season, but it does now. When Freeman was injured in batting practice, the need for a great performance by Jurrjens became that much more urgent. Didn’t happen. He didn’t have his control, walking a season-high five batters. He wasn’t able to get ahead of hitters and then nibble at the corners from both sides of the plate, as he has most of this season. He allowed a season-high four earned runs (albeit, hardly a collapse) in a season-low 5 1/3 innings.
“It was one of those games where you know what you’re doing wrong and you’re trying to fix it but you just make it worse,” he said.
Jurrjens has been a wonder to watch this season. In his first 11 starts, he had a majors-best ERA of 1.82 — something that had been achieved to this point of a season by only four previous Braves pitchers: one Hall of Famer (Phil Niekro), two future Hall of Famers (Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine) and a guy named Buzz (Capra, who also was pretty good).
This is when a Braves fan sits back and thinks, “We’re set.” The team’s two best starting pitchers have been the young ones: Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. Both had 8-2 records with ERAs belonging in lights. This is when you believe: All will be well. Because at some point, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe will catch up with these two — and soon, maybe somebody will even hit the ball for more than two games in a row.
A recent six-game winning streak notwithstanding, the Braves just aren’t there yet.
Jurrjens left in the sixth inning. He somehow trailed only 4-1, having worked his way out of several jams. But by the time Fredi Gonzalez pulled him, he had thrown 104 pitches.
Nobody is going to complain. Jurrjens already has exceeded his win total of a year ago (7-6). He may very well be this team’s ace for the rest of the season. He has been this season’s bonus baby. He started this season as a question mark, his ERA ballooning from 2.60 in 2009 to 4.64 last year.
Many of his problems were related to injuries, mostly knee and hamstring that limited him to 20 starts (down from 34). But it wasn’t just that. He had showed up for the season a little out of condition, soft both mentally and physically.
He admitted it when he arrived at spring training this year, having slimmed down. He said he realized that he needed “to be smarter,” adding, “That’s things you learn, how to work out, how to take care of yourself better. I’m a little bit more mature now …”
The Braves are a little sensitive to poorly conditioned players from Curacao. Andruw Jones’ slipped in that area late in his career. So Jurrjens’ wake-up call was important.
“I think he’s in better shape this year,” Hudson said. “Disappointment from the season before for a professional athlete will drive you in the offseason. You’re hungry to prove to yourself and other people that you’re better than that.”
Jurrjens’ resume to this point suggests that what happened Tuesday was an aberration. But if the Braves can’t pose a greater threat at the plate, they’re giving their pitchers little room for error.
By Jeff Schultz