Power aside, pitching key to propelling Braves
Atlanta has hit 20 homers, but MLB-leading 1.82 ERA main reason for success
ATLANTA -- Justin Upton has strengthened the belief that he is a man on a mission, and Evan Gattis has allowed Braves fans to forget about the fact that their six-time All-Star catcher will likely be sidelined at least until the end of April.
Despite the fact that B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla are all hitting below the Mendoza Line, the Braves have still managed to score at least six runs in half of their first 12 games. They have masked the early struggles endured by these high-profile players with the benefit of 20 home runs, the second-highest total compiled through the regular season's first two weeks.
This early-season power surge conjures memories of the old Nike commercial that featured Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, saying "Chicks dig the long ball." But like the great Atlanta teams that featured Maddux and Glavine, this year's Braves bunch has relied on great pitching.
The 11-1 record the Braves carried out of this past weekend's sweep of the Nationals has been significantly influenced by the pitching staff's Major League-leading 1.82 ERA. Opponents have scored more than two runs just three times during this 12-game span, and two of those occasions came while rookie Julio Teheran was taking his turn as the rotation's fifth starter.
"We've got all of this power and all of this balanced lineup and all of this offense," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But it's going to be about the pitching at that end of the year."
The Braves are just the second Major League team since the start of the 2004 season to win 11 of its first 12 games. The last team to do so was the 2009 Marlins, who were also managed by Gonzalez.
Well aware of the decline the Marlins experienced during the final 150 games of that season, Gonzalez can take solace in the fact that his current pitching staff is more experienced and proven than the one he utilized in Miami four years ago.
The Braves' starting rotation led all National League teams with a 2.67 ERA during the final two months of last season. This year's rotation is identical, minus the fact that the declining combo of Ben Sheets and Tommy Hanson has been replaced by the promising Teheran in the fifth spot.
Led by Paul Maholm, who has not allowed a run in 20 1/3 innings over his first three starts, the Braves' rotation ranks second in the Majors with a 2.06 ERA. Atlanta's starting pitchers limited opponents to a .162 batting average and compiled a 1.12 ERA in the just-completed perfect six-game road trip.
"There are not any big names like [Stephen] Strasburg and [Gio] Gonzalez," right-handed pitcher Kris Medlen said. "[The Nationals] have a great rotation over there. But I think ours is equally as great. We just don't have the same big names. But within this clubhouse and organization, we know what kind of quality we are throwing out there every day."
Much of this year's fanfare has centered around Gattis, who has four home runs through his first 34 career at-bats, and Justin Upton, who is just the 32nd player since 1916 to have at least seven home runs through his team's first 12 games. The only other Braves players to homer that frequently within the same span were Eddie Mathews in 1959 and Dale Murphy in '85.
But Maholm has also enjoyed a special start to the season. The veteran left-hander is the sixth pitcher in the live-ball era to begin a season with three consecutive scoreless starts of five innings or more. The only other pitchers to do so since 1966 were Woody Williams (2003) and Zack Greinke ('09).
"Pauly has been outstanding, unbelievable," B.J. Upton said.
Some of the rotation's success is a credit to the bullpen, which has compiled a Major League-best 1.30 ERA. Atlanta's relievers have not allowed any of the 14 runners they have inherited to score this season. No other Major League club's relief corps has stranded each of the runners it has inherited.
Leading the way for the Braves in this category is left-handed reliever Luis Avilan, who has stranded each of the seven baserunners he has inherited. Avilan's emergence and the offseason acquisition of former Angels closer Jordan Walden have allowed Atlanta to compensate for the absence of former All-Star setup man Jonny Venters, who is sidelined with a sprained left elbow.
"From top to bottom, we're really good," closer Craig Kimbrel said. "There isn't a guy we wouldn't put in a certain situation. I don't think there are too many other bullpens that would say the same things."
While surrendering just one hit and keeping opponents scoreless through his first six innings this year, Kimbrel has continued to serve as the top-flight closer that he was the past two seasons. The Braves have also continued to be encouraged by the contributions of top setup man Eric O'Flaherty, who has allowed two earned runs despite limiting opponents to three hits in his first six innings.
"You're going to have good days and bad days," Medlen said. "There are going to be days when we give up 10 runs as a staff. But you've just got to try to simplify it. We've got a bunch of starters who go out there and compete. You just try to keep the game as close as possible and give the game to the bullpen, which has been unbelievable the past couple of years."
Those bad days have been few and far between for the Braves this year. It appeared they were destined for one when the Nats scored four runs in the first two innings against Teheran on Friday night. But the rookie right-hander and the bullpen combined to allow just two more hits while blanking Washington over the final eight innings of a 10-inning Atlanta victory.
"There's no doubt we would like this to continue," pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "But the reality is we're going to have some bumps in the road. Hopefully, those bumps are not significant. We've just got to take it one day at a time."