The Braves put themselves back on the right track with a 6-4 win over the Pirates on Thursday night. Here are three observations from the game:
1. Justin Upton is baseball’s Energizer bunny this month
He just keeps going and going and going and going . . .
Both Upton brothers — Justin and B.J. — sent baseballs flying out of PNC Park Thursday night, but it was Justin who stole the show, much as he has throughout the early portion of the 2013 season. It was the 25-year-old’s ninth home run of the season. That leads the majors. That’s also two more home runs than the next closest guy.
To save some significant copy on this matter, there are a few statistical highlights to mention before simply resigning to the fact that the Braves got the better end of their offseason transaction with the Diamondbacks (not to mention Chris Johnson, who is toting an MLB-best .438 batting average) and chalking it up as just another day in the life of the hottest April hitter in baseball. Let’s see:
— As Mark Bowman of MLB.com mentioned after Upton’s fifth-inning shot, the longest stretch the left fielder has gone without a home run this season is 18 at-bats. Eighteen. The other homer-less stretches are as follows, respectively (in terms of at-bats): one, five, three, three, six, five and five.
— How long did it take Upton to hit his ninth home run in 2012? Oh, you know, just August. We’re 15 games in and he’s on pace — presumably an unsustainable pace — to hit 97 home runs in 2013. (Quick hint: That would be a record.)
— Ryan Klesko and Andres Galarraga better make some room. With one more April home run, Upton will join the former Braves as the only players in franchise history to hit double-digit home runs in the first month. He has 11 remaining games to join the “exclusive” club of powerfully fast starters.
While it’s true that Upton is just the premier highlight of a lineup that is posting franchise-record power numbers (29 home runs in 15 games), the immediate returns he has provided has to give the organization an ultra-positive vibe moving forward. Coming from a situation where he had, at some point and for some reason, acquired negative labels, Upton entered this season playing like he has something to prove.
He’s proving it.
2. When compared to the rest of the Braves’ rotation, Julio Teheran certainly looks like the rookie
First things first: It is not necessarily a negative statement to say a rookie is pitching like a rookie. And that’s Teheran, a 22-year-old still searching for consistent command to go along with his top-of-the-line stuff. This is normal territory.
The biggest problem for Teheran, at least through his first three starts, is that he’s trying to keep pace with what has been the baseball’s best pitching staff. Teheran has given up 13 runs in 16 innings this season. Paul Maholm, Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor have combined to give up just 12 runs in 76 1/3 innings pitched.
When the other four starters are posting Phil Niekro-esque numbers, the weakest link is going to look like a weak link.
But it’s important to differentiate between the two.
Teheran finished Thursday’s outing with five innings pitched (87 pitches), seven hits, three walks and four strikeouts. He gave up all four Pittsburgh runs before the bullpen once again came in to close the door.
The young righty struggled early again against the Pirates, giving up a sac fly and a solo home run in the first and second innings, respectively. He has now allowed seven runs in the first two innings this season. That’s something he, manager Fredi Gonzalez, pitching coach Roger McDowell and his designated catcher Gerald Laird will surely address in coming starts.
For now, patience.
Not everyone can be Dwight Gooden.
3. Evan Gattis brought his lumberjack ways to the Steel City
With the game tied 4-4 in the eighth inning, Gonzalez originally sent out infielder Ramiro Pena to pinch hit for reliever Anthony Varvaro. The thought process was predictable: Using Gattis, the roster’s lone backup catcher, could put the team at (minimal) risk were Laird to get injured. But something made the third-year Braves manager change his mind. (For what it’s worth, Gonzalez acknowledged that Blake DeWitt would have been the emergency catcher in a worst case scenario.)
Maybe it was intuition.
Maybe Gonzalez felt more comfortable throwing a power hitter out there with a runner in scoring position.
Maybe it was a flair for the dramatic; playing up to a Hollywood script.
Whatever it was, Gonzalez backtracked and sent Gattis, his 26-year-old rookie and burgeoning cult hero, up to the plate to face Pirates reliever Jared Hughes. As if there was any other way this chapter of the storybook 15-game run Gattis is enjoying could end, he sent it over the left field fence, sneaking it just inside the foul pole.
It was his fifth home run in his first 48 major league plate appearances.
“I think it’s his first pinch-hit appearance and it’s a home run. So yeah, that’s gonna be all over the wire if it’s not already,” Gonzalez said. “We felt that whatever we had on the bench at the time he was gonna give you a pretty good at-bat . . . He didn’t hit it real well, it got in on him a little bit. But he’s such a big, strong guy he got it out.”
That he did.
And, as he said in postgame interviews, the Paul Bunyan lookalike is just enjoying the ride.