Braves certainly look good for second best

Atlanta off to good start despite makeshift rotation

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionApril 6, 2014 

WASHINGTON -- The Braves don't have a marketing stamp nearly as cute and snappy as " Natitude," and they certainly don't qualify as the darlings of the sports media or oddsmakers, who almost universally have declared the Washington Nationals to be superior beings once again.

But for a bunch that most consider the division's second-best, the Braves are doing a nice job of impersonating the better team.

The Braves, who were 13-6 against the Nationals a year ago, are now 2-0 against them this year going into Sunday's game. They won, with a little bit of good fortune, the opening game of this weekend series on Friday 2-1. They won again Saturday, this time more decisively, 6-2, even after an early 2-0 deficit and going against Stephen Strasburg seemed to project a different ending.

But we're learning something about reliability of projections. The Braves didn't project as a 4-1 team after five road games with a patchwork pitching staff. It's early. We can't know what's going to unfold the rest of the season. But this wasn't the way "experts" scripted the beginning of the season for the Braves.

The Nationals didn't project as a team that would unravel at home, and yet they did it Saturday with two errors (leading to three unearned runs) and the mighty Strasburg getting run out after allowing four straight hits in a four-run fifth.

"That was great -- we hadn't really been lighting it up offensively," said Dan Uggla, who contributed a two-run single.

Nationals fans welcomed home a team that swept the New York Mets in Gotham to open the season, crushing Mets' pitchers with 22 runs and 35 hits. They didn't expect this. They didn't expect Strasburg to allow a two-out, run-scoring to the opposing pitcher, Julio Teheran. They didn't expect the one-walk, four-hit, four-run fifth that gave the Braves a 6-2 lead and chased Strasburg.

They booed. They left early. There's your Natitude.

Then there was Teheran, who walked the first batter he faced and allowed a two-run homer to Adam LaRoche in the first inning, but blanked Washington on two hits over the next six innings. The closest the Nationals came to another run was in the fifth, when B.J. Upton fired a missile from center field to throw out Jose Lobaton, who was trying to score on a fly ball. (Also noteworthy for Upton: He had two hits after a 1-for-16 start.) Manager Fredi Gonzalez allowed Teheran to come back out for the seventh inning despite his pitch count being at 97, and Teheran responded with only his second 1-2-3 inning.

Gonzalez, alluding to Teheran's rebound from the first inning, said, "When his back is against the wall, he seems to elevate his game."

The Braves trailed 2-0 and stranded two base runners in the first and third innings against Strasburg. But in the fourth they got some help. With Justin Upton on second base and two outs, Andrelton Simmons hit a ground ball to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whose throw sailed to Bethesda. That brought home one run. Then Teheran blooped a single to right field for another unearned run.

Strasburg wasn't overwhelming in his opening-day start in New York, allowing four runs and a homer in six innings in Washington's 9-7 win. But he was positively underwhelming in this one. He struck out B.J. Upton to open the fifth inning, but then walked Freddie Freeman and allowed four consecutive singles (Chris Johnson, Justin Upton, Uggla, Ryan Doumit) for three runs and got the hook. Simmons' sacrifice fly brought in the fourth run of the inning. That was more than enough.

Teheran continued this remarkable run by the Braves' supposedly depleted pitching staff. Through five games, they have a majors-leading ERA of 1.43. The unlikely four-man rotation of Teheran, Alex Wood, Aaron Harang and David Hale has allowed five runs in 31 2/3 innings (1.42).

Mike Minor, whose first start probably won't come for another two to three weeks because of shoulder tendinitis, said Saturday that he was initially frustrated by his own situation, but that feeling quickly dissipated.

"The team's winning, so obviously they don't really need me," he cracked. "It makes you feel a little better that the team's not struggling."

It's also clear that Braves' pitchers have been fueled by all of the doubts echoed about the remaining staff's ability, following spring injuries and free-agent departures.

"It's really early, but we've played some good teams and we've played well against them," he said. "It's the same thing every year. We don't get a lot of credit, just because we don't have any big-name guys. Our hitters are all of our big names."

Not if this continues.

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