Three Cuts: Gattis, Braves hold off Angels in series opener

Braves catcher Evan Gattis hit his 14th home run on Friday night, the most among MLB catchers.

Dale Zanine/Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves put a difficult end to their seven-game West Coast road trip by jumping all over the Los Angeles Angels on Friday night, scoring four first-inning runs and winning 4-3. Aside from a brief hiccup in the eighth inning by rookie reliever Shae Simmons — against the likes of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, no less — the Braves controlled the game throughout. Here are three observations from the interleague matchup:

Braves catcher Evan Gattis chuckled when asked if during the game he thought the team’s four first-inning runs, highlighted by his three-run home run, would be enough to seal the win on Friday night. His first three words summed up the situation perfectly: "Coming from Colorado… "

The Braves’ pitching staff was just coming off a road trip in the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field, so all expectations were thrown off for Gattis & Co. They gave up 28 runs in their final three games in Denver, all before coming home to face the Angels’ touted 2-3-4 trio of the best player in baseball (Trout) and a combined four career MVP awards (Pujols, Josh Hamilton). But any lingering effects of the West Coast swing passed by unnoticed at Turner Field. Braves starter Aaron Harang pieced together another strong outing and the Angels finished the game with six hits and four walks while striking out six times.

"Aaron gave us a terrific chance to win the ballgame. To maneuver through that lineup, he did a terrific job. He really did," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. " … He’s pitched about as good as anybody in the major leagues. Sometimes we don’t — I don’t know exactly how that he’s left while leading the game, but he’s pitched really good."

What Gonzalez was referencing was the fact that Harang had not won a game since May 11, despite allowing just three or fewer earned runs in all but one of his past six starts. He hasn’t been the dominant force he was through his first five outings, but his latest performance was reminiscent of that stretch. He allowed just one run over six innings pitched, scattering four hits and three walks. He now owns a 5-5 record with a 3.20 ERA and 3.00 FIP. Once again, not bad for the veteran.

"I was just able to mix in some pitches. Get ahead early was the big thing we went over on the scouting report. Lately, the last couple outings, I’ve been falling behind and having to pitch from behind," Harang said. "Today I was able to come out and get strike one and then try and get strike two right away. Try and put them in a hole, make them hit my pitch."

The Angels tacked on two runs in the eighth inning off Simmons, but the first-year guy was able to work out of the jam, hand the ball off to Craig Kimbrel, and call it a night. Kimbrel struck out two of the three batters he faced for career save No. 158 — just another night at the office, holding onto a one-run lead in a low-scoring game.

Evan Gattis is not on a long-term contract. He’s still learning his defensive position. He’s been in the majors for less than 600 plate appearances, so the sample size on his productivity is still limited. But in his first season as Atlanta’s starting catcher, he has not only reinforced the Braves’ wisdom behind letting Brian McCann receive a lucrative contract elsewhere but he is forcing his way into the future decision-making of general manager Frank Wren.

It’s going to be a pivotal decision, too, because he looks a potential long-term piece.

In 2015, Braves top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt, the defensive stalwart to Gattis’ powerful bat, is expected to be promoted to the big leagues full-time. The team’s depth at the position was one of the reasons the franchise could allow McCann to head to New York. But now the starting catcher position does not look to be as open as it did this time last year when Gattis was filling in wherever the Braves could fit his bat, mainly in left field in the latter half of the year. This does not look like Bethancourt’s job to lose.

After hitting his 14th home run of the ’14 campaign — and coming a couple feet away from No. 15 — Gattis’s bat is all but irreplaceable in this lineup right now. He finished the night 2 for 4 to extend his hit streak to 13 games. He’s one of the top power hitters in baseball and, as he discussed earlier in the season, with greater comfort comes greater production. His numbers keep improving. When asked what’s working for him at the plate, his answer was pretty fitting: "Everything right now. It’s good to keep it going."

Just take a look at how he stacks up with a few of the top catchers around (entering Friday’s games):

Sure, Posey is in the middle of the worst offensive season of his career (so that’s not a completely accurate depiction) and Molina brings much more on the defensive side of the ball, but Gattis has put himself in the conversation as one of the most dangerous offensive catchers around. And while he’s certainly not on Lucroy’s level of discipline at the plate, he more than makes up for it with his power: the next-closest catcher has just nine homers.

Which brings back the question: how will the Braves front office handle the Gattis-Bethancourt situation?

Bethancourt’s bat is still considered to be his biggest question mark. It is getting better — his numbers are up to .271/.300/.372 with two homers — but Gattis brings much more at the plate. Bethancourt may never reach this level of productivity. Can Bethancourt’s bat improve as quickly as Gattis’s defense? How much offense should an organization give up for a top-tier defensive catcher?

The most obvious solution for the team would be to partially platoon the position next season, not unlike how they are handling the catching duties with productive backup catcher Gerald Laird this year. Giving Gattis another 100-plus games and letting Bethancourt fill in every fourth day or so could be useful. The question is, with one of the top catching prospects in baseball, how long will the franchise see value in keeping Bethancourt in a backup role — especially if Gattis continues to improve?

This is obviously a good problem to have. Dealing with a logjam of 20-something talents is better than the alternative, which would be having either nothing or a high-priced option signed to a long-term deal past his prime. But as Gattis continues to put baseballs over outfield walls, helping to carry the middle of this Braves lineup, it puts a brighter spotlight on how the organization approaches the position moving forward.

The offense scored in bunches during the opening frame, but it didn’t take long for potentially bad news to arrive.

C.J. Wilson plunked Jason Heyward on the right hand with his second pitch of the game, causing the right fielder to exit the game the following inning. The good news: X-rays came back negative. Heyward is officially listed as day-to-day.

"Got me pretty square," Heyward said after the game, pointing at his knuckles. "When it happened, didn’t feel it a whole. It got worse quickly as time went. Got ice on it right away and, you know, I kinda knew that I had to smart about it and take better care of it.

" … It honestly felt worse than I thought it would."

There is some ugly recent history with Heyward getting hit by a pitch. The Braves’ 2013 season hit a rough patch when Heyward’s jaw was fractured by a Jonathan Niese fastball on Aug. 21. He returned for the final nine games of the season, but the Braves struggled without him in the lineup.

In games Heyward started last season, the Braves went 66-31. Without him listed on the staring lineup? 30-35. He’s an important piece — some would argue the most important piece — and any time he misses will be noticeable.

Backup outfielder Jordan Schafer played well in Heyward’s absence, tallying a hit and a stolen base, but he’s a substantial downgrade from one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball and a perennial Gold Glove candidate. Heyward wouldn’t rule out playing in Game 2 of the series, but he said he’ll leave it up to Gonzalez and his staff.

"That won’t be my call," he said. "The player always wants to be back out there, but that won’t be my call."