Even as we celebrated the Braves’ embrace of the Good At-Bat and the Sustained Rally, an ominous note went unheard. They were scoring so many runs and winning so many games that we — well, some of us — didn’t grasp that the only way they were winning so many games was by scoring so many runs. But the offense has begun to wane, as offenses will, and we’re forced to confront a rather stark reality:
The team that believed it had great starting pitching doesn’t have very good starting pitching.
The Braves awoke on Memorial Day, the first checkpoint of the baseball season, with the 13th-best ERA for starting pitchers in the 16-team National League. On cue, Tommy Hanson went out and threw … well, you couldn’t call it a game, him being gone after recording 10 outs (while yielding 12 baserunners). He left with his team down 5-0, and soon it would be 6-nil and another game was gone, the eighth in a row for these suddenly buffaloed Bravos.
Nine days ago the Braves led the NL East by 1 1/2 games. Today they’re tied for last, having been passed by three clubs and caught by Philadelphia. We can cling to the crutch of injury/illness — Chipper Jones on the disabled list for the ninth time since 2006; Freddie Freeman not being able to see straight, Brian McCann getting sick — but the Phillies and Nationals have been missing guys, too. (And the Cardinals won here Monday without benefit of Lance Berkman and David Freese.)
Difference is, the Phillies and Nationals have outpitched the Braves. The Mets, who have the fourth-lowest ERA in the five-team division for starting pitchers, have posted 29 quality starts. (At least six innings worked with three or fewer earned runs.) The Braves have managed 20, which puts them next-to-last among NL teams.
Mike Minor hasn’t won since April 19, Randall Delgado since April 17. Jair Jurrjens was demoted to Gwinnett on April 24, and here’s where his failure shows. At his best, he’s not just a starter but a top-of-the-rotation guy. Today the Braves’ No. 1 starter is Tim Hudson, who’ll turn 37 in July and who has had two major surgeries since 2008, and No. 2 is Brandon Beachy, an undrafted free agent. Put simply, there’s not the across-the-board quality you’ll find in Philadelphia’s rotation or even Washington’s.
“Starting pitching sets the tone,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said Monday, and the tone the Braves have set has been as mellifluous as a kazoo. The Braves played 36 innings over the long holiday weekend; they led after three of the 36.
Hanson needed 19 pitches Sunday to muster an out, and by then the Cardinals had loaded the bases. He would wriggle free then, and again in the second inning. In the third he yielded four runs despite a gift from Carlos Beltran, who broke for home when no squeeze was forthcoming. Hanson was done four batters into the fourth, having been touched for Rafael Furcal’s homer and then walked the next two.
Hanson: “A lot of our loss today was about me not being competitive and giving us a chance to win.”
Someone asked Gonzalez if he felt this rotation, as constituted, has what it takes to sustain a first-rate team. “In the long run, I think it will,” he said.
But what’s he going to say? “Anybody got Roy Oswalt’s cell number”? These non-quality starts didn’t just commence when Chipper got hurt and Freeeman’s vision got fuzzy; they were happening all along. But the Braves were hitting then. They’re not now. And they’re not apt to hit much when they play within the NL East, where everybody else can really pitch. (Chipper himself was sounding that note before Opening Day.)
The Braves have played 14 games against divisional brethren; they’ve won four. They’ve done great work against other good clubs — sweeping the Cardinals in St. Louis, taking a road series from both the Dodgers and the Rays — but they’ve been overmatched by the East. They’ve scored way more runs than any team in the division. They just haven’t pitched well enough. That has to change.
Said Brian McCann: “We need that big outing, that big knock.”
And that’s the way it has to begin, yes. But a rotation works only if it, duh, rotates. Are there enough quality starts in Hudson, Beachy, Hanson, Minor and Delgado — a quintet that, with Jurrjens’ four starts added in, has generated only 20 of those in 50 games — to drive a playoff run? Probably not. Someone else will be needed. That someone could be a rejuvenated Jurrjens, or the rookie Julio Teheran, or even the out-of-work Oswalt.
Hitting’s nice. A good bullpen is a must. But we Atlantans know better than anyone that the 162-game season is a ultimately a test of starting pitching. Through 50 games, the Braves haven’t even achieved a gentleman’s “C.” Said Hanson, trying to accentuate the positive: “We’re still above .500.”
Yes. By two games. After being 26-16 on May 20. If this rotation doesn’t stabilize, look out below.
By Mark Bradley