ATLANTA -- The Braves entered this season with a rotation that included two highly regarded young hurlers who had combined for 45 career starts, one vagabond who had just joined his sixth organization in the past calendar year, and a rookie whose Major League experience consisted of the two starts he had made in September.
A little more than three weeks later, the Braves find themselves sitting atop the National League East primarily because of the splendid performance of a rotation that has started this season more impressively than any of the storied Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine/John Smoltz staffs that graced Atlanta during the 1990s.
"Our starters have carried us," Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. "It has been amazing. We have not swung the bats as well as we had wanted to. For us to be where we're at, it is all because of the pitching staff."
So much for the impending doom that was predicted five weeks ago, when the Braves lost Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to season-ending elbow injuries within a 24-hour span. While Medlen and Beachy are recovering from their second Tommy John surgeries, the voids they left are being filled quite capably by Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang.
While Santana and Harang have served as dependable veteran presences, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood have provided further indication that they could serve as legitimate frontline starters for years to come. As a result, the Braves have seen their rotation produce a Major League-best 1.50 ERA, despite the absences of Medlen, Beachy and Mike Minor, the proven southpaw who is expected to make his season debut next week.
This ERA is a full run better than any other Atlanta rotation has posted through a season's first 21 games dating back to 1991, when Glavine won the first of the six Cy Young Awards captured by a Braves pitcher within an eight-year span.
Beginning in 1993, the Braves enjoyed the first of the seven consecutive seasons during which their rotation included Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux. Some of those Atlanta quintets have been recognized as the finest in baseball history. But none of them produced an ERA better than 2.52 through the season's first 21 games.
"When you're on a roll, you've just got to ride the hot streak and keep it going," Harang said. "Obviously you're seeing what the other guys are doing and you want to compare to what they have done. We all want to win and that is the biggest thing."
The manner in which the rotation has formed this ERA might be even more impressive than the mark itself. The Braves have seen their starting pitcher allow two earned runs or fewer in 20 of their first 21 games. David Hale had the audacity to allow three earned runs against the Mets on April 10, during what was just his fourth career start.
The only other Major League clubs who have seen their starting pitchers surrender two earned runs or fewer at least 15 times this season are the Dodgers (17), Cardinals (16) and Brewers (16).
"Our starters have been terrific," Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I think the pickup of Santana when Beachy and Medlen both went down within days of each other was a big piece. Our front office went out and got the best pitcher available and he's been really nice to watch pitch."
Less than 48 hours after losing both Medlen and Beachy, the Braves reacted in an authoritative manner by giving a one-year, $14.1 million deal to Santana, who had been on the verge of signing with the Blue Jays. Braves chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk reacted to this signing by saying, "We're not in a rebuilding mode, we're in a winning mode."
The Braves have extended their winning ways thanks to Harang (0.85) and Santana (0.86), who own the NL's second- and third-best ERA marks. That seemingly equates to a good return on investment from a pair of pitchers who were not a part of the organization as recently as March 11.
While Santana has lived up to expectations, Harang has vastly exceeded what anybody could have envisioned when the Braves signed him to a one-year, $1 million contract March 24, hours after the Indians had become the fifth different team to bid him adieu in a span of a year.
It seems safe to say that those five other clubs are now among those bewildered by the fact that Harang has allowed one run or fewer and completed at least six innings in each of his first five starts. After carrying a no-hit bid into the seventh inning of two of his first four outings, the 35-year-old right-hander notched a season-high 11 strikeouts in Wednesday afternoon's win over the Marlins.
"It's like they put that [Braves] 'A' on and they automatically deal," Johnson said. "It's crazy."
While Harang and Santana have benefited from pitching coach Roger McDowell's skilled ability to communicate game plans with his pitchers, McDowell's most significant influences on this rotation come in the form of Teheran and Wood, who have blossomed under his direction over the past year.
Teheran ranks 10th in the NL and fourth on his own team with a 1.80 ERA through his first five starts. He delivered a three-hit shutout against the Phillies last week and then returned to the mound Monday to limit the Marlins to one run over seven innings.
Wood has lowered his ERA to 1.54 while working eight innings and allowing just one run in both of his past two starts. The 23-year-old hurler, who is just two years removed from college, showed his moxie on Tuesday night when he notched a career-high 11 strikeouts while opposing the Marlins' Jose Fernandez, who notched 14 strikeouts over eight scoreless innings.
"We just have a lot of people motivated to pitch well and it's fun to watch," Braves catcher Gerald Laird said. "It has been a lot of fun to watch."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.