'Plan B' pitching staff effective in opening series
With planned starters injured or unavailable, veteran Harang steps up
MILWAUKEE -- The Atlanta Braves were on "Plan B" with their starting rotation Wednesday. It was a lot better than many clubs' "Plan A."
Aaron Harang was signed on March 24 by the Braves, the same day the Cleveland Indians released him. It had become apparent that the Braves were going to start the season without the services of at least three of their projected starting pitchers.
Harang has been around the block often enough. Wednesday was his 320th big league start, but he did not have a particularly good 2013. If people viewed him as a stopgap starter, that would be understandable.
But on Wednesday, Harang threw a no-hitter at the Milwaukee Brewers through six innings at Miller Park. This turned out to be a necessity, because Matt Garza gave up the same number of hits for the Brewers over the first six innings.
The difference was a Chris Johnson solo homer with two outs in the seventh. That -- and 2 1/3 spotless innings from the Atlanta bullpen -- added up to a 1-0 Braves victory, as well as a victory in the opening series.
For the record, Braves starters gave up three runs over 19 2/3 innings in this series. The club gave up a total of four runs in three games, and all of this was accomplished in a hitter-friendly park against what is regarded as a difficult lineup.
The Braves have had admirable organizational pitching depth in the past. This year, even in the face of two starters lost to Tommy John surgery, and even more starters unavailable for the start of the season, their pitching depth is once again on display.
"We don't have enough depth -- nobody does," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said with a smile. "We've kind of so far survived. It's only three games into the season, but we haven't missed a beat.
"You know, we've got a good scouting department and a good player development department. "
Wednesday's game was a special sort, because of the double no-hitter through six innings. The intensity was building, the drama was building, and neither Harang nor Garza had given any indication of wilting.
"Those are fun games to play," Harang said. "Fun games to play in and fun games to pitch. It was just a lot of fun today."
Harang finally gave up two singles in the seventh. With runners on first and third and two outs, Harang was due to face the left-handed-hitting second baseman Scooter Gennett. Gonzalez went to left-hander Luis Avilan out of the bullpen, figuring that the Brewers would counter with right-handed-hitting Ricky Weeks.
"I think we had a little bit of history on it," Gonzalez said. "And at that point, Aaron was at 97 [pitches]. And we've got one of the best left-handers; you don't mind letting him face a righty, because his numbers are pretty darned good against righties. So I liked that matchup a lot better."
The manager was right. Weeks tapped out tamely to third base. The inning -- and Milwaukee's only solid scoring chance of the game -- were both over.
David Carpenter gave the Braves a one-two-three eighth inning. With a 1-0 game in the balance, it then became time for Mr. Inevitable, Craig Kimbrel, who has 141 saves in 156 save opportunities.
Tuesday night, Kimbrel had pitched the bottom of the ninth and struck out the side. Here, facing the top of the Milwaukee order, Kimbrel got Carlos Gomez when right-fielder Jason Heyward made his second terrific catch of the day on a short fly ball. Kimbrel then struck out Logan Schafer and got Ryan Braun on a line drive to center.
Kimbrel has fanned 43 percent of the batters he has faced in his career. By striking out just once against him Wednesday, maybe the Brewers had won some sort of moral victory, beating the national average. But the real victory belonged to Atlanta, just as it does more than 90 percent of the time when Kimbrel pitches the ninth.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke marveled at the way Kimbrel confounded his hitters.
"He was 96-98 [mph Tuesday night]," Roenicke said. "We've had guys, when [Alfredo] Figaro was here, he was 96-98. But then why are the swings so different?
"There's something about the way the ball comes out [of Kimbrel's hand] and what happens at the plate. He got a couple of strikeouts on 96 [mph]. We have some guys who throw 96, but it's a different 96. He's got life on it. He's got good command with it. And it's hard to teach those things, it's just the way the ball comes out."
In the same way, the Atlanta pitching staff, even the guys in "Plan B," stopped what was supposed to be a capable Milwaukee offense.
"I think our offense is going to score runs, and when we don't, I'm disappointed," Roenicke said. "Sometimes, you look at the other pitcher; I've seen Harang before, and this was a really good ballgame for him.
"I know Atlanta doesn't have a lot of the guys they thought they'd start the season with, but they still pitched well. They always have."