The Atlanta Braves prefer the view from this side of a late-game comeback. After blowing three leads in their previous series, the Braves rallied against the Miami Marlins in the seventh inning on Friday night, winning 3-2 and recapturing the division lead. Here are three observations from the game:
Julio Teheran’s night started with a sight that has become all-too-familiar to National League pitchers: a baseball soaring into the seats at Marlins Park, superstar outfielder Giancarlo Stanton trotting around the bases. If Stanton is not the most dangerous power hitter in baseball right now, he’s easily in the top five, and Teheran, who has given up his share of early home runs this season, discovered that the hard way (although Mike Minor certainly could have clued him in during pregame warmups) in the first inning on Friday night.
Spotted a first-inning 2-0 lead, the Marlins could have piled it on. They own one of MLB’s best home records and they entered the games scoring the second-most runs inside friendly confines (156, four runs behind the Rockies) and this easily could have been one of those terribly cliche "tip your cap" games for Teheran.
But, as has become custom not only for Teheran but the rest of the rotation this season, the start’s wheels remained firmly on the axle. Things never got out of control and the young star kept Atlanta within striking distance through 7 1/3 innings of work. Stanton’s two-run home run provided the only runs the Marlins, who swept the Braves in their last visit to Marlins Park, put on the board on Friday night.
Really, that was the last time Miami even threatened the scoreboard.
Teheran allowed just four more baserunners the rest of the night, even retiring 12 straight Marlins at one point that set up the come-from-behind opportunity. The 23-year-old righty added five strikeouts and kept his ERA at 1.83, still the second-best mark in baseball.
"Other than that (pitch to Stanton), I thought he was in command of the game the whole time," manager Fredi Gonzalez Gonzalez said after the 3-2 win. " … The more he goes out there, the more impressed I get by him — about his demeanor and the way he goes about his business and I think you just watch him grow up before your face."
This post-Teheran start stuff is getting repetitive, but the value-oriented metrics still do not love the young frontline starter. His strikeouts are still rather low, his opponent batting average on balls in play suggests some good luck and he’s stranding runners at a potentially unsustainable pace given his K rate. On a per start basis, the metrics like Aaron Harang, Ervin Santana, Alex Wood and Gavin Floyd better this season. Even Craig Kimbrel, who is now just one save shy of John Smoltz’s franchise record, owns a higher WAR than Teheran this season, despite pitching fewer than 20 innings so far.
That’s all well and good, and as someone who utilizes these metrics on a daily basis, there’s plenty of merit there.
Still, Julio Teheran is this team’s No. 1 starter until proven otherwise on the field. His recovery against the Marlins served as the 10th time in 12 starts that he has held an opponent to two runs or fewer. He goes deeper into ballgames than any other pitcher on the staff, and he’s becoming more and more effective in those extended outings. His ERA from his past three starts: 0.81. That’s highlighted by a 5-to-1 K/BB ratio, and basically equates to just one damaging mistake — that "nothing" slider to Stanton — in three straight winning efforts.
(Also of note: Teheran doubled his season hit total with a 2-for-3 night, including an seventh-inning double that provided the game-tying run. All-around effort.)
"I thought that him and (catcher Evan) Gattis got on the same page right after that first inning. And they started talking, and you could see them talking on the bench, working a different game plan," Gonzalez said. "And I always talk to Gattis about this: you can have the best-laid gameplan, but the first time you make that — first inning, sometimes your pitchers don’t have the repertoire that the game plan calls for. And you’ve gotta make an adjustment. And then maybe later on, the fourth or fifth, you get those pitches going again."
The Braves have already guaranteed themselves the franchise’s worst monthly record since the September 2011 collapse, but after a frustrating four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox earlier in the week, a comeback win in hostile territory was just what the doctor — or Gonzalez — ordered. The last visit to Miami was a three-game disaster, so the potential for more trouble was very real. And when the Marlins took that 2-0 lead in the opening frame it looked like an extension of the problematic stretch the team finds itself in this month.
With the win, the Braves are now just 12-16 in May, but it catapulted them back into sole possession of the NL East lead, one game ahead of the Marlins. And though the third-lowest scoring offense still cannot seem to find any sort of consistent rhythm, Gonzalez walked away from the win in much higher spirits.
"It was a good outing. Real proud of the way we bounced back after yesterday’s loss against the Red Sox," Gonzalez said. "You know, for only getting three runs I thought we hit the ball harder than any other game this year. We were hitting rockets right at people all night long."
The Braves put 12 baserunners on base (eight hits, four walks) and received production from all parts of the lineup, with the strange exception of Freddie Freeman, whose ineffectiveness against the Marlins this season is reaching increasingly odd levels for last season’s top-five MVP candidate. Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton produced at the top, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons and rookie Tommy La Stella drew walks on hitless nights and even starter Julio Teheran got into the action.
The runs aren’t coming, but it was an acceptable night for an offense that can use any and all pick-me-ups.
Even when the surface offensive numbers do not follow the traditional definition of success, especially the success of a team’s everyday leadoff hitter, it’s worth noting that Jason Heyward is an excellent baseball player. Not just good. Excellent. His defensive numbers are all but unmatched in 2014, and while his batting numbers may appear unassuming at first glance, he’s been an absolute weapon in Gonzalez’s offense — just check out the 15th-best WAR in baseball for some confirmation.
Heyward now finds himself in a similar zone to the one he was in last season when he first stepped into the No. 1 spot in the lineup, sparking the Braves’ best run of 2013. He’s been both table-setter and run producer. He’s getting on base and hitting for power. And after entering the month of May with a hitting slash line of .202/.288/.313 — well below his expected rate of production — his bat is now catching up to his league-leading work with the glove.
Following Friday’s two-hit night, including an seventh-inning triple that drove in the game-tying run (the later scored the game-winner), Heyward’s offense is well within range of being labeled "very good to great." His sub-.250 average may not convey it, but he’s one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball. (If still cling to the belief Jordan Schafer is this team’s best option at the top, I can’t help you.) So what’s going right? Well, it’s the same thing that Heyward always seems to credit when things are going well.
"Timing," Heyward said. "Again I keep (saying) timing is a good thing — when you have good timing you hit the better pitches to hit. You don’t miss them and you’re able to put them in play."
Sounds easy enough.
After his hot month of May, Heyward is now hitting .248/.333/.359 with five home runs and eight stolen bases — good enough for a very respectable 98 weighted runs created (wRC+). It’s a season that’s somewhat reminiscent of his excellent 2012 campaign, one in which his average (.269) hid the fact that he was one of the 10 most valuable players in the game. His power numbers were better — he ended up with 27 home runs and .479 slugging percentage — but, at this rate, he has a real opportunity to post a higher OBP and better defensive WAR.
Heyward is the only player in the top-50 in wins above replacement with a sub-100 wRC+. It takes a special type of all-around contributor to be this valuable when the offensive numbers are lagging behind. And when the hits start coming in … watch out.