Tommy Hanson lived up to the hype as a rookie. In 2010, he might establish himself as an ace for the Atlanta Braves.
Hanson will make his season debut Thursday night as the Braves look to complete a season-opening three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs.
A top pitching prospect coming into last season, the 23-year-old Hanson backed up the high praise. The right-hander was called up in June, and went 5-0 with a 3.00 ERA in his first eight starts before finishing the season with an 11-4 record, a 2.89 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 21 games.
At Turner Field, he was 7-2 with a 3.13 ERA in 11 appearances.
A 22nd round pick by Atlanta (2-0) in 2005, Hanson spent the offseason improving his change-up to complement his other three pitches.
“(The changeup is) just a feel pitch,” Hanson told the Braves’ official Web site. “It has to come out of your hand a certain way. That’s something I always battled with, because it was inconsistent coming out of my hand. Sometimes the pressure would be on different fingers.
“I feel really good with the grip I have now, and the way that I’m throwing it feels a lot more comfortable than last year.”
He’ll try to keep the Cubs (0-2) off-balance while helping Atlanta to its first 3-0 start since 2007 and first sweep of Chicago since May 26-28, 2006.
Chipper Jones got the Braves closer to matching that feat, connecting for his first homer of the new season – a two-run shot in the eighth to rally them to a 3-2 win Wednesday. That came two nights after Atlanta rolled 16-5 in the season opener.
“You just felt like that was an opportunity to at least get the game tied,” said Jones, who had 18 homers and 71 RBIs last year for his lowest totals since becoming a full-time player in 1995. “I’m not thinking homer there. I’m thinking get the run in, hit the ball in the gap.”
Atlanta’s bullpen is off to a strong start, allowing four hits in seven scoreless innings. Billy Wagner has been a big reason for that, surrendering one hit in two innings and getting the save Wednesday, his first since undergoing left elbow surgery after the 2008 season.
Wagner, sixth on the all-time saves list with 386, signed a one-year contract with Atlanta after acting as a setup man in 17 games with Boston and the New York Mets last season.
Unlike the Braves, the Cubs’ bullpen is off to a rocky start, getting tagged for 10 runs and six walks in 8 2-3 innings so far.
“We’ve played two games,” manager Lou Piniella said Wednesday. “We’re not in our 22nd game or our 42nd game, for God’s sake. It was just a tough loss. Let’s leave it at that.”
Piniella will give Randy Wells his first start of the season after he shined in 2009. The right-hander was recalled from the minors in May, and went 12-10 with a 3.05 ERA in 27 starts becoming the first Cubs rookie to get at least 10 wins since Kerry Wood in 1998.
Wells was almost unbeatable during a nine-start stretch from June 21-Aug. 3, going 8-1 with a 2.85 ERA. That included a 4-2 win over the Braves on July 6 as he allowed two runs in six innings.
He was even better in his only start at Atlanta, yielding two runs and two hits in seven innings of a 6-5 12-inning loss June 2.