The Braves bullpen could not close out Aaron Harang’s second no-hit bid already this season, but there was plenty of good news coming out of Citi Field for the Atlanta franchise on Friday night following a 6-0 win over the New York Mets. Here are three observations from the game:
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez called it "chasing the dragon" following Harang’s latest bid at a no-hitter, and he wasn’t going to let his surprisingly effective starter wear out his arm in pursuit. With 121 pitches in the books, Gonzalez made the executive decision to not allow his veteran to head out for the eighth inning, despite him holding the Mets’ lineup hitless through the first seven frames.
Harang’s outing was far from perfect game territory — he walked six, including four batters in his final two innings pitched — but it was enough to prompt the question: Was there any thought to letting him go as far as he could without allowing a change to the hit column?
"Not at all. I want him pitching 27 more times," Gonzalez said of the decision. "If it was the ninth inning going out, you know what, yeah. Maybe think about it a little bit. … I’m pulling for him. I wanna see him throw a no-hitter. But I think it gets to a point where you gotta worry about 25 more starts. You gotta worry about his longevity and all that kind of stuff. I think we made the right decision and it doesn’t matter who comes in and tells me different."
Harang did not seem to fight the decision too hard: "It’s Fredi looking out — he wants me to pitch the rest of the year. He doesn’t want to skip me the next start because I’ve got 150 pitches and then I’m not the same. … As a manager, I know it’s the hardest decision he’s ever gonna have to make."
Harang said that he lost track of the possibility in the early going due to his walk count, but that he caught on in the later innings. He said that if he was through eight frames, even with 121 pitches, he was going back out on the mound no matter what.
The no-hitter was broken up in the subsequent inning when reliever Luis Avilan gave up the lone base knock to All-Star third baseman David Wright.
Harang’s outing had the potential to be the 15th no-hitter in franchise history and its first in 20 years: former Braves starter Kent Mercker accomplished the feat on April 8, 1994, against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s a strange thought that this Braves organization, one blessed with the talents of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, among others, has gone so long without holding an opponent to zero hits, but those are the breaks.
The last Braves player to carry a no-no through seven innings was Julio Teheran last season, his rookie season, against the Pirates at Turner Field. The Braves have had one combined no-hitter in their history, and it was on the mind of Gonzalez as he turned to his bullpen to hold on.
"I was kinda thinking, you know, after I took him out, there’s a picture in our training room where there’s three guys (former Braves pitchers Kent Mercker, Mark Wohlers, Alejandro Pena) who threw a combined no-hitter," Gonzalez said. "And I was thinking, ‘Well, maybe we can replace that picture.’ That’s what I was thinking when we brought (Avilan) in there."
This isn’t Harang’s first time around this particular block this season.
In his season debut against the Brewers — a debut that followed him being informed he would not make the Cleveland Indians rotation and being picked up for cheap by Atlanta general manager Frank Wren — Harang made it through six innings without giving up a hit, too. In total, he’s given up just nine hits in 25 2/3 innings this season, helping him to hold opponents to an MLB-best 0.70 ERA. It’s a remarkable start and one that perfectly encapsulates the surprising effort from a Braves staff that lost both Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery before the season even began.
The result thus far: Braves pitchers were tied for first in the majors in wins above replacement (2.7) entering the New York game. That will only improve from here. Every single Braves starter, from Teheran to free agent pickup Ervin Santana to rookie David Hale, holds a sub-.300 ERA and, somehow, it all just keeps getting better.
At this rate, perhaps that no-hitter-less streak falls in 2014, too.
"(Harang) didn’t need any help from us," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "He was phenomenal today. He’s been phenomenal all four starts so far."
Despite Harang’s seven-inning no-hit bid, the outcome of this game was still in jeopardy in the top of the eighth inning. The Braves’ offense to that point was just as inept with runners in scoring position as it had been in the final two games in Philadelphia, and it seemed like it could have easily turned into one of those unfortunate situations where a pitcher (or a pitching staff, in this case) flirts with a no-no but still loses the game.
Freeman kept that from happening by sparking an eighth-inning scoring rally that put the Mets away for good.
After B.J. Upton led off the inning with a walk — he reached base three times on Friday night, giving him nine straight games he’s reached safely; this is, with few exceptions, some of the best baseball he’s played in an Atlanta uniform — Freeman stepped in looking to further tack on to his impressive track record against Atlanta’s NL East foes. He entered the game hitting .313/.379/.563 with 12 home runs, 46 RBI and a 124 OPS+ in 232 plate appearances.
He did indeed tack onto those numbers with a by-the-skin-of-his-teeth home run off Mets reliever Gonzalez Germen, driving Upton home and giving the Braves the cushion they needed.
"I didn’t think it was gonna go out, not with this weather," Freeman said.
The Braves kept the damage coming off doubles by Dan Uggla and Jordan Schafer in the eighth and a sacrifice fly from Justin Upton in the final frame. But it was Freeman (again) who got it all going.
Freeman now has 13 home runs and 48 RBI in his career against the Mets, his best totals against any other team. It’s a rate that has brought about Chipper Jones references, even from fellow Braves players and coaches, and maybe they’re onto something.
"Maybe Chipper gave him some pointers," Gonzalez said.
In his fifth season in the majors, it’s still surprising whenever Jason Heyward goes through the types of hitting slumps he finds himself in right now. As one of the premier athletes in baseball and one of its most effective all-around players when he’s on, the hitting numbers have yet to really catch up over the course of an entire season. That’s not to say Heyward isn’t effective — far from it; he was one of the most valuable players in the game in 2012 and was tearing up opposing pitching last year before getting hit in the jaw by a pitch from none other than Jonathon Niese, the Mets pitcher on Friday night.
But he’s hitting just .136/.271/.254 with two home runs for a meager 43 OPS+, the lowest rate of his career to date. He’s not the prototypical leadoff hitter and he’s not producing like one yet, though he proved himself more than capable in that spot during the Braves’ Waffle House-inspired winning streak (and thereafter), so perhaps it was for the best that he received a scheduled night off in New York.
Shortstop Andrelton Simmons got the start at the No. 1 spot in his place. But after a 1-for-5 night, Simmons, a former minor league batting champ who challenged for the leadoff spot early last season, was not an immediate elixir to the team’s top-of-the-order woes. Behind Simmons and Heyward, Atlanta has received just nine hits out of the top spot this season, the lowest total in baseball, right behind the Cincinnati Reds and rookie speedster Billy Hamilton.
Overall, the Braves boast some of worst leadoff numbers around during the early going of this season.
Though Simmons and Upton, whose bat continues to improve following another two-hit game, are hitting the ball well, it would be difficult to see the Braves ending the Heyward experiment at the leadoff spot before the month is over. Gonzalez tinkers with his lineup quite a bit, but there is an organization trust — for good reason — that the right fielder’s bat will come around.
And as long as the Braves continue to fill in the wins column (and bid for no-hitters), he’ll have some time to get his numbers back up.