If it’s not one thing, it’s another. There can be no baseball without worry. As the Braves finished a splendid homestand, we offer two findings:
1. The offense, for a change, looks really good.
2. Jair Jurrjens does not.
In taking five of six from the Brewers and Mets, the Braves broke double figures twice. They managed 10-plus runs only six times last season, never after Aug. 12. The influence of new hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher already is apparent. Even when Freddie Freeman couldn’t buy a hit, he was (baseball phrase) grinding out good at-bats, and the culmination came Tuesday night — an 11-pitch AB that yielded an RBI double.
Freeman had two more extra-base hits Wednesday afternoon — a double to right and a homer to left — plus a sacrifice fly. Not to get all Zen on you, but this grinding stuff works. If the Braves keep at it, they’ll hit enough to be a playoff team. Provided they pitch well enough, which might no longer be a given and which brings us to Jurrjens.
The 2011 All-Star has started three games in 2012, and only once has he made it through five innings. Opponents are hitting .362 against him. His ERA is 8.10. He has more walks (nine) than strikeouts (eight). He has yielded five home runs.
On Wednesday he needed 70 pitches over the first three innings. Three batters in the fifth, he was gone. He already had given back one lead and was in danger of surrendering another when manager Fredi Gonzalez pulled him. This meant Jurrjens couldn’t be the winning pitcher on a day his team would score 14 runs. Not a great feeling, eh?
Said Jurrjens: “What do you think?”
Then: “If I had an answer, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I’m trying to find a feel, a release, a confidence. Nothing is going my way right now.”
Yes, it’s early, but seeing Jurrjens look like the world’s most accomplished batting-practice pitcher isn’t a comforting sight. He’s the key man in this rotation. Tommy Hanson looks fine, and there’s no reason to believe Tim Hudson won’t be Tim Hudson when he returns from back rehab. Still, Jurrjens figured to be at worst the Braves’ No. 2 starter, and there’s no real fallback if he fails.
He offered no excuses Wednesday. He’s healthy again: “I feel good. I just don’t see any results.” Gonzalez suggested the rain might have had an effect, but Jurrjens brushed that gift horse aside. “Even if it bothered me, I need to make adjustments. I’m letting my team down right now. I’m overworking the bullpen. I’m not eating innings.”
The Braves have overridden his past two starts by scoring 24 runs. Here Jurrjens smiled, the only one offered by this famously sunny soul in his postgame briefing. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to complain about run support this year.”
The weird part Wednesday was that Jurrjens looked pretty good when he wasn’t looking awful. He went 1-2-3 in the first and fourth innings, but the Mets generated three base runners off him in the second, five in the third and three in the fifth. “I have it one inning, then I don’t have it,” Jurrjens said. “I have it and I lose it.”
Then, with only the slightest prompting, Jurrjens broached a subject of some external debate — his fastball. There are those who believe that because Jurrjens doesn’t throw 98 mph he cannot be considered a real ace. (Braves fans, having seen the Hall of Fame work of Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, should know better.) But after Wednesday’s struggles this craftsman sounded as if he’d begun to doubt his tools.
“A lot of people get on me about how fast I’m throwing,” Jurrjens said. “I need to go back to pitching. But [velocity] is a hot topic every time I pitch. Everyone wants to see how fast I’m throwing, and that gets in your mind.”
Nobody cared how fast Jurrjens did or didn’t throw the first half of last season. He was 12-3 with an ERA of 1.87 at the All-Star break, which makes you a big-time pitcher in any league. But he hurt his knee in August and didn’t pitch in September, and he wasn’t impressive in spring training.
After Friday’s start, Jurrjens felt encouraged. He’d thrown mostly OK, he thought, but was hurt by back-to-back Brewers homers. On Wednesday he could take no such solace. He was bad and he knew it. Deep down he must know that he will never throw as hard as Justin Verlander, but someone who won 50 big-league games by his 26th birthday should also know the radar gun can be wildly overrated.
On a dark Wednesday afternoon, Jurrjens himself pointed to the only way out: He has to go back to pitching. If he does, he’ll be fine. If he doesn’t, his team won’t be.
By Mark Bradley