The Braves lost eight games in a row. Then they won eight of nine, the final six in succession. Over those 17 games they went from leading the National League East by 1 1/2 games to falling into a tie for last place to reclaiming second behind Washington. And if you’ve ever wondered — and this being baseball, you should never wonder — about the importance of starting pitching, that dizzying span left no doubt.
Over the eight-game losing streak, the Braves’ starting pitchers worked one quality start and compiled an ERA of 6.29.
Over the six-game winning streak, those starting pitchers worked four quality starts and mustered an ERA of 1.79.
Same team, same pitchers. But: Different pitching, different results. And now, 60 games into the 162-game season, we have our answer. If this rotation holds up its end, the Braves are a playoff team. (They entered Monday’s game against the imperial Yankees atop the NL wild card standings by percentage points.) If not, no soap.
Good starting pitching is the rising tide that lifts all boats. The hitters relax. (Over the six-game surge, the Braves’ biggest deficit was two runs; over the eight-game slide, their biggest lead was two runs.) The relievers are deployed as a matter of choice, not necessity. The manager looks like the smartest man this side of Steve Spurrier.
Speaking of which: The winning streak ended Sunday, when the fill-in starter Julio Teheran couldn’t make it through the fifth and the long reliever Livan Hernandez lasted just long enough to end all hope. On Monday morning, the Braves’ manager was walking to the dry cleaners when a man seated outside a bagel place said, “You look like Fredi Gonzalez.”
Said Gonzalez: “So I’ve been told.”
Upon exiting the cleaners, Fredi Gonzalez conceded that he was indeed Fredi Gonzalez. To which the man said: “So what happened yesterday?”
Said Gonzalez: “You do know we’d won six in a row? You must be a football fan.”
After the eighth consecutive loss last month, Gonzalez was asked if he felt his rotation was good enough. “In the long run, I think it will [be],” he said, and the short term made him seem a prophet. Four of the five starters won during the six-game stretch, and the exception was Brandon Beachy, who leads the league in ERA.
Gonzalez, speaking Monday: “I’m not saying this rotation is up there with Spahn and Sain.”
A visitor noted that, since the mythical third starter behind Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain was Pray For Rain, that mightn’t be the best example.
Gonzalez, trying again: “I’m not saying this rotation is up there with Palmer and Cuellar and McNally and Dobson — the four 20-game winners [for Baltimore in 1971] — but it’s a solid rotation. It can put together long winning streaks.”
Indeed, it just did. The Braves looked so good over those six games you couldn’t believe the same team had just gone a week without winning. But that’s what starting pitching will do. Said Chipper Jones: “It’s the most important thing.”
(Also worth noting: The starting pitching perked up at the exact moment Andrelton Simmons, a massive defensive upgrade over the demoted Tyler Pastornicky, made his big-league debut. Coincidence? Or cause and effect?)
This being baseball, however, last week’s feats are yesterday’s news. Monday’s game had the feel of a big deal. Plenty of Yankee fans arrived early to watch Jeter and A-Rod and (nod to Yankees announcer John Sterling here) and the Grandy Man take batting practice. Outside was the surest indication that distinguished guests were in town: Parking rates around Turner Field had been doubled.
“Even though they’re not wearing pinstripes [the Yankees' road uniforms are gray flannel], they still carry 27 world championships,” Gonzalez said. “I wasn’t born yet, but it’s like traveling with the Beatles.”
For the record, Gonzalez was born Jan. 24, 1964 — 16 days before the Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” But we’ll give him a pass, and we’ll close with his capsule look at the series ahead. “It’ll come down to who’s going to pitch [better],” he said. “It always comes down to who’s going to pitch.”
Randall Delgado started Monday’s game and left after five innings with the Braves trailing 3-0. He’d generated 11 baserunners, needing 110 pitches to record 15 outs. That said, it could have been worse. Delgado freed himself from pickles in the third and fifth, registering key strikeouts of Raul Ibanez and Nick Swisher.
“He minimized damage,” Gonzalez said of Delgado. Then: “We saw this earlier in the season, and he’d give up a grand slam.”
If it wasn’t a quality start, neither was it an abject horror. It also wasn’t good enough. The Braves would have needed a shutout just to force extra innings. Game 1 to the Yankees, and here’s your matchup for Game 2: CC Sabathia versus Mike Minor. Whoa, Nelly.
By Mark Bradley