Three Cuts: Offense helps Harang as Braves sweep Cubs

Braves catcher Evan Gattis leads all MLB catchers with eight home runs this season.

Dale Zanine/Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves officially placed a nine-game struggle in the rearview mirror over the weekend, capping a three-game home sweep of the Chicago Cubs with a 5-2 win on Sunday afternoon.

The team’s pitching continued to find success against the Cubs’ lineup, but it was Atlanta’s offense that showed some signs of life in the series finale. Here are three observations from the game.

Just minutes after Jason Heyward launched some insurance into Turner Field’s outfield seats, providing the Braves offense with its first five-run outing this month, the stadium speakers began playing Simple Minds’s "Don’t You Forget About Me." Inadvertent? Probably. But the Breakfast Club anthem’s title lyrics did speak to how the team’s recent run production could warrant opposing pitchers to be a bit dismissive, especially with outfielder Justin Upton, the team’s most productive bat to date, sitting on the bench dealing with back spasms.

Heyward and the offense picked up some of the slack in the 5-2 win, though, and even if five runs seem fairly ordinary for teams like the Rockies or White Sox (or many other teams outside of Atlanta right now), it felt like a substantial step forward for this group. The offense wrapped up its day with three free bases and seven hits, including home runs by Heyward and Evan Gattis.

For Gattis, it was the eighth homer of the campaign, the most among all major league catchers despite splitting time more than the other league leaders (Buster Posey, Jarrod Saltalamacchia). As for Heyward, the seventh-inning shot gave him his third home run of the season and his first since April 9.

"Feels like it was longer than that," Heyward said.

The Braves entered the game with the fewest runs scored in all of baseball, ranking just behind the Padres … and well behind the Astros and Cubs. The truth of the matter is that the Braves haven’t been quite that ineffective at the plate, but when it comes to the standings, results are results. It was just the seventh time in the past 23 games Atlanta (21-15) scored four or more runs. That’s pretty tough to do when Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman are hitting like they have been over the course of the season in the middle of your lineup.

"It’s always nice to contribute to (the offense), take some pressure off the next person," Heyward said. "We all go up there and we wanna fight, we wanna fight and get the job done, but it’s nice to have it come from different places."

Added manager Fredi Gonzalez: "Our offense helped (starting pitcher Aaron Harang) a little bit. Gattis, right after we gave up two runs to tie the game, Gattis got us right on the board, took the lead. Then the big two-run home run there in the ninth to give us a cushion. It was nice. It was nice to get back and finish the home stand with a little momentum."

It also had to feel nice for Harang, who entered the game as one of the least-supported pitchers in baseball — in terms of average runs scored per start — right alongside teammates Alex Wood and Julio Teheran. As Gonzalez referenced, the game could have devolved into another slug-it-out pitching duel after Harang gave up the game-tying double to Nate Schierholtz in the fourth. But Gattis stepped in quickly and the offense kept putting together solid at-bats.

The NL East-leading Braves stranded fewer than five runners for just the fifth time this season, including a final tally of 3 for 6 with runners in scoring position, and a season-low four strikeouts. The Braves are among the league’s worst in each of those categories, so to watch them put together a solid day against Cubs starter Edwin Jackson was encouraging for Gonzalez and his staff.

Harang is going to have to answer "prove yourself"-type questions from here on out if he keeps piecing together solid outings, which is certainly better than the alternative. After another quality start — he went six innings and allowed just two earned runs on six hits against an underwhelming Cubs lineup — it appears that the veteran’s nine-run blemish in Miami was more hiccup than a rapid devolvement back to uninspired expectations.

He’s now allowed just four earned runs and struck out 15 batters in his past two starts, with both starts coming at Turner Field.

"He knows how to maneuver himself through a lineup. He did a nice job. Punched out nine guys, and it’s nice to see a veteran work," Gonzalez said. "He’s not gonna light up the radar gun, but he’s gonna get some people out and have some swinging misses."

There were some trouble spots that he had to fight through, too.

In the third inning, the Cubs put two runners on with just one out before Harang struck out the Nos. 1 and 2 hitters in the lineup, Ryan Kalish and Chris Coghlan. The Cubs capitalized in the fourth inning on Schierholtz’s double, but it could have been much, much worse: there were zero outs when the Cubs’ right fielder reached second base. Harang responded with three straight strikeouts to exit the frame.

"I was able to just bear down and make some good pitches and keep them off balance, get them looking for maybe something else. The cutter to Schierholtz, I was trying to backdoor it and it just cut a little more than I wanted it to — right into his swing path — with the two runners on.

"I was able to shut it down after that."

Harang’s strikeout numbers, as evidenced by those high-leverage situations, have continued to pour in. Working with a repertoire that’s not quite as fearsome as it was during his Cincinnati days, Harang is touching up opposing lineups’ K-rates. With his nine punchouts on Sunday, he’s nearing 10 strikeouts per nine innings, which is already a career-high rate (Harang’s best MLB strikeout rates):

He’s walking more guys than he was back in those years, but it’s a trade-off the Braves are more than willing to accept right now given his 2.98 ERA and 2.52 FIP. Those years account for four of his five best seasons in the majors — an average of 3.55 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs — so if that’s in the ballpark of his season-long production, it remains an absolutely steal for Atlanta this season.

(For comparison’s sake, Mike Minor’s WAR last season was 3.4. And he was the most productive pitcher on a 96-win team.)

At the beginning of the month, in announcing a three-year contract extension (plus a fourth-year option) for their surprisingly successful third baseman, general manager Frank Wren made it very clear the organization does not expect Johnson to challenge for the National League batting title year in and year out. That was a relief because — outside of the fact that shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and, really, the rest of the Colorado Rockies look to make that chase even more difficult this season — Johnson was producing far below that benchmark.

At the time of the press conference, he was hitting .255/.279/.351 with just one home run … and that was coming off a night where he reached base in each of his four plate appearances. He followed up the announcement with two straight 0-for-4 nights, which is more a product of unfortunate timing than anything, but his offensive numbers were far below Wren’s projections.

Fast forward nine days and Johnson is right where he’s expected to be.

After a two-hit game against the Cubs on Sunday, his sixth multi-hit game in May, Johnson is hitting .279/.304/.349. That’s still only good enough for 82 weighted runs created (wRC+) — in other words, still below league average and 45 points behind the pace he set for himself last season — but that’s a sharp uptick in performance over the past few weeks.

And, as referenced above, the Braves offense has needed as much help as it can get.

"I’m not really shooting for a certain set of numbers. Just trying to feel good at the dish and get into my plan and stuff that I like to do. Try to stay away from what the pitcher’s trying to get me to do. So it’s a work in progress. I had a slow start, but hopefully it keeps going," Johnson said. " … The approach doesn’t change. You just get better at that approach. You get locked in at that approach, if that makes any sense."