The Atlanta Braves’ four-game losing steak ended on Thursday night after handing veteran starter Aaron Harang an early lead and simply letting him navigate his way through the New York Mets lineup from there. The Braves avoided the four-game sweep with the 3-1 win and now head to Chicago for a three-game set against the Cubs in the final series before the All-Star break. Here are three observations from the game:
The Braves, despite making up the half-fame deficit in the National League East race with their win in Citi Field, have a way of putting themselves behind the 8-ball this season. When things aren’t going right, they are having to battle back from early deficits, which has proven to be a difficult task for one of the lowest-scoring — albeit potent when it’s clicking — lineups around.
The Braves ranked 22nd in baseball with 113 runs scored in innings Nos. 1-3 this season — which was made even worse by the fact that they had actually been outscored in those frames (114 runs allowed) over the course of the ’14 campaign. That often makes for tough sledding for all parties involved — the starting pitchers are not given any margin for error while the offense feels even greater pressure to score. For that very reason, first baseman Freddie Freeman, one of the night’s top performers, referenced that the team has to get off to better starts if they want to avoid three-game losing streaks.
The good news is that the Braves flipped the script on Thursday night. With three runs in the first three innings (although they did allow one), Atlanta is back on the right side of the early-innings scoring differential this season. They’ll look to carry that positive momentum, if there is any from this pitching-dominant affair, to Chicago and into the second half.
"We had a couple opportunities in the first inning in the first three games of the series, and personally, me, I didn’t come through in those situations," said Freeman, who went 2 for 4 with an RBI double in the win. "We were able to get on the board early in the first three innings tonight and I think it just made everybody feel a little bit more comfortable."
Freeman ensured the early lead after shortstop Andrelton Simmons reached base on a single by jumping all over the second pitch he saw on the night, a 90-mile-per-hour two-seamer he drove into right field to plate the run and put himself back in scoring position. Jason Heyward capitalized two batters later, and the Braves, with veteran Aaron Harang on the hill, were in business. The action died down for the most part after that, but another strong pitching performance was good enough.
Freeman was pretty adamant that the reason for their aggressiveness out of the gate was not a product of facing Mets veteran Bartolo Colon (8-8, 3.99 ERA). Instead, it’s simply a philosophy the team needs to embrace more often moving forward.
"He actually is tough," Freeman said of Colon. "He can command that two-seamer and he can go from 86 (miles per hour) to 94, as you saw tonight. As a lefty (hitter), he can start it at your front hip and you give up on it right away. He can throw the four-seamer away that you think he’s gonna throw the two-seamer in, it just stays in the zone. He’s always tough."
Of course, three runs scored won’t bring up any ideas of an offensive spark for this Atlanta lineup. The good news, though, is that they are three quality outings from entering the All-Star break neck-and-neck in the NL East despite a first half defined by missed opportunities at the plate. It also sounded like manager Fredi Gonzalez is readying himself and his club for an up-for-grabs division race.
"I think it’s gonna be one of those seasons where it could be us, Washington, Miami could sneak in there, the Mets made a nice run here. I think anybody, anybody," Gonzalez said. "Somebody will get a significant injury or somebody will make a nice run and catch a team on the other side of it and you’re there."
In the meantime, Gonzalez is also attempting to prepare his team for postseason success, notably with his usage of one player in particular.
The image of Kimbrel looking on, visibly frustrated, as Dodgers hero Juan Uribe ran around the bases after his series-ending home run in the eighth inning of last season’s NLDS Game 4 remains vivid for the organization. Gonzalez has held firm to his decision to leave Kimbrel in the bullpen, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t open to the idea of using his All-Star reliever outside the ninth inning moving forward.
For the second time this season and the fourth time in his career, Kimbrel logged a four-out save. Gonzalez brought in the righty in a high-leverage situation: two men on and two outs. He responded by striking out Kirk Nieuwenhuis, resting for a minute on the bench,
"The more he can do that, the more we feel comfortable using him in the postseason that way, you know? I’m not comfortable yet using him two innings, but during the course of the year, if the situation’s right, if he hadn’t pitched in a few days, maybe you go five outs and keep working him that way," Gonzalez said. "But the pitch count is the biggest thing. Sitting down — you talk to some of those closers about coming in, they all come in pumped up in the eighth inning there and then you sit down and the adrenaline kinda goes away and you’ve gotta crank it back up in the ninth.
"So the more we can get him used to that, I think the better he’s gonna be experience-wise and the better we’re gonna be."
It wasn’t always pretty, but Aaron Harang kept runs off the board.
That could describe his most recent start — a seven-inning outing in which he walked twice as many batters as he struck out, but one where he allowed just one run to cross the plate — or his entire 2014 season to date. It’s the All-Star break now for Harang, and it’s been a rock-solid run. He hasn’t exactly built upon a very fast start, but he’s held steady. The strikeouts have gone down, the walks have gone up, but for a guy that’s essentially holding down the No. 5 spot, it’s more than acceptable.
And with a 3.53 ERA and 3.53 fielding-independent pitching, he’s gotten out exactly what he’s put in.
"He does it every time out," Freeman said of Harang. "He gives us a chance to win. He’s got the smoke-screen up there and nobody can see it and he’s getting double plays, ground balls when he needs it. He’s been awesome for us."
If you’ve tracked Gonzalez’s post-Harang-start comments over the past couple months, it sounds as if he’s getting more and more comfortable trusting the veteran. If he keeps delivering results regardless of the process, Harang will continue to get a longer and longer leash. He’s gone at least seven innings in each of his past three starts.
"The experience pays off every time," Gonzalez said. "He knows how to navigate — I use that word all the time. Colon does the same thing. We had him on the ropes two or three times, first and third, and the experience — that’s why those guys at their age are still pitching and effective and give your club a chance to win every night."