Top three in rotation carrying Braves' staff
Hanson, Beachy, Minor have been catalysts to Atlanta's success
LOS ANGELES -- There was uncertainty surrounding the Braves' rotation entering this season. Tim Hudson was set to spend most of the first month on the disabled list, and Tommy Hanson had just experienced an accelerated Spring Training that had been delayed by a concussion. The most dependable components of the rotation were Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy, who had combined for 51 big league starts.Yet as Atlanta enters April's final weekend with 12 wins in its past 15 games, the only apparent concern in the starting-pitching department focuses on Jair Jurrjens, who was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett this week. His spot in the rotation will be filled by Hudson, who will make his 2012 debut on Sunday afternoon against the Pirates. "The starters have been the catalysts," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "They've been the ones that have carried us. Minor and Beachy to this point have been our stalwarts. Tommy has done a good job of anchoring this staff. He's been a horse through his first four or five starts. We've just been kind of biding our time until Huddy gets back." The Braves certainly did not anticipate having to send Jurrjens to the Minors just nine months after he had entered the All-Star break with the National League's best ERA. But the fact that there is still so much excitement about the rotation is a credit to the depth of talent that exists within the starting staff.
It looked like it might be a rough opening month when Atlanta went through the season's first seven games without one of its starting pitchers recording an out in the sixth inning. But Minor altered the course with a 7 1/3-inning gem against the Brewers on April 14.When Beachy and Hanson followed with strong efforts, it marked the first time the Braves had three consecutive starts last at least seven innings since May 14-17, 2011. After Randall Delgado and Jurrjens took their turns, this trio turned the same trick the next time through the rotation. "When you've got five guys going out there and pushing themselves to give you quality starts every night, you're going to win a lot of games, especially with the offense we have here," catcher Brian McCann said. "If we have both sides of the game going, we're going to be tough to beat."
As the Braves totaled 45 runs during a five-game winning streak last week, their offense justifiably gained plenty of attention. But the consistency the rotation has provided over the past two weeks has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated by a bullpen that was obviously overtaxed last year.
Even with Jurrjens making two early exits during this span, Atlanta's starters have combined for 73 2/3 innings in the past 12 games. In the midst of last year's late-season collapse, the Braves saw their starters total 63 1/3 innings in the final 12 games.
Atlanta's relievers worked a whopping 45 1/3 innings during that span that was highlighted by the fatigue closer Craig Kimbrel and setup man Jonny Venters experienced at the end of a long season.
As the bullpen has totaled just 32 1/3 innings in these past 12 games, "Everyday Jonny" Venters has come to appreciate the benefits of some occasional rest. Coming off last year's Major League-high 85 appearances, he is currently on pace to make a more reasonable 68 appearances this year.
An improved offense and a better structured bullpen have also lessened the early strain placed on Kimbrel, Venters and Eric O'Flaherty. But the tone of the most recent games has been set by the consistency Hanson, Beachy and Minor have provided in Hudson's absence and amid Jurrjens' struggles.
"This rotation can be really good when they're all hitting on all cylinders," Jones said. "It all starts with the pitching. If you give me a choice between [offense and pitching], I'm taking pitching every day. They've been doing a good job of getting us to what I think the strength of our team is, and that is the big three down [Kimbrel, Venters and O'Flaherty] in the bullpen."
Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell spent time during Spring Training challenging the young members of his rotation to gain a better understanding of specific game situations and the lineups that they would be facing. Instead of simply attacking on a pitch-by-pitch and hitter-by-hitter basis, he wanted his pitchers to have a strong feel for the makeup of the lineups they will face and a better understanding of the intent behind pitch selection and location.
"We have a smart staff," Minor said. "Overall, all of our pitchers are pretty intelligent, and they have all grasped that idea of thinking when they're out there, instead of just throwing the pitches."
No longer bothered by the right shoulder discomfort that sidelined him during the final two months of last season, Hanson has started to round into form during his past two outings. The success Minor and Beachy have enjoyed is evidenced by the fact that both have a sub 1.00 WHIP through their first four starts.
Beachy had surrendered just one earned run this year before allowing two in Wednesday night's strong 6 1/3-inning effort against the Dodgers. Minor has posted a 1.69 ERA and limited opponents to a .208 batting average in his past three starts. Not bad for a pair of pitchers who had approached the 2011 season ready to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation.
Now with Hudson coming back with the confidence that his surgically repaired back will provide him the relief he did not feel the past couple of years, the Braves have even more reason to feel good about a rotation that has managed to ease the concerns that were present at the start of this month.
"There's nothing like that feeling -- coming to the ballpark and knowing that you've got a great chance to win the ballgame because your pitcher is going to keep you in the game," Jones said. "I feel that way one through five. Not many teams out there can say that."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.