The Atlanta Braves’ outfield duo of brothers Justin and B.J. Upton provided the lion’s share of the offensive production to go along with a bit of MLB history in a 3-2 win over the Houston Astros on Tuesday night. The Upton brothers’ home runs handed veteran starter Aaron Harang and his bullpen the one-run lead they needed to get the three-game interleague series off to a positive start. Here are three observations from the game.
Aaron Harang’s start against his former NL Central rivals wasn’t the sharpest of outings, but it was an effort that held Houston’s offense in check. Harang’s effectiveness was sporadic in the early going, with the surprisingly effective Astros offense threatening the scoreboard through the first four innings. However, he set down seven straight hitters in a row, including four strikeouts, to wrap up his six innings on a high note.
It wasn’t the fielding-independent gem that has helped him lead the rotation in wins above replacement for the better part of the 2014 season — Julio Teheran caught him at 1.7 WAR with his latest outing (and rightly so) — but it was exactly the kind of effort expected out of who looks to be the team’s No. 5 starter. Not overwhelming, but just enough.
Harang allowed six hits and two walks on the night, but it was how he ended the game once the Braves took the 3-2 lead that really stood out to his manager.
"He got better the last two innings for me, and I’m sure for himself too. He got better. His command got better," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "And you mentioned something about how he made a couple little adjustments, but he pitched out of trouble a little bit earlier in the game, which is good. You could see the veteran in him. He didn’t have his good stuff early on and he didn’t give in and he kept making his pitches and kept us in the game. And then all of a sudden, the fifth and the sixth inning his command got a lot better.
"I think that he was throwing over the plate. The first three or four innings it didn’t look like he had the command that he finished the game. And you know what? Pitchers struggle sometimes, whether it’s mechanically or just the feel for it. He didn’t panic."
Perhaps it’s unfair to label Harang as the de facto No. 5 guy in this rotation. After all, it’s his name that tops the team leaderboard in WAR and FIP. His WAR lists him as a top-30 pitcher in baseball thus far. He’s been one of the most valuable pitching pickups in the league this season, and through 95 1/3 innings pitched he holds a 6-6 record with a 3.78 ERA and 8.31 strikeouts per nine. So, the No. 5 label is harsh.
And yet, with second-year standout Alex Wood making his return on Wednesday, that’s pretty much the expectation level Harang’s starts now carry. He’s certainly listed behind Teheran and Mike Minor in the Braves hierarchy, while Ervin Santana’s $14 million contract and Wood’s placement as one of the organization’s most valued young players leaves Harang holding the stigma. But with lesser expectation comes greater surprise. If that’s his title, then he’s one of the best in baseball holding it thus far.
Harang’s starts are typically far from being set to cruise control. He labors, avoids significant damage, ducks and dodges and, for the most part, exits the game leaving his team in good position. Only twice in what is now a 16-start sample size has he been shelled (versus Miami and Philadelphia), a rate Atlanta will gladly accept. In fact, as mentioned before in this space, if you take away those two clunkers, Harang boasts a 2.63 ERA in his 14 other outings … numbers held by No. 1 types Jeff Samadzija (Cubs), Yu Darvish (Rangers) and Madison Bumgarner (Giants).
With Gavin Floyd out with a fractured elbow, the margin for error is even slimmer now for this Braves rotation. It likely cannot sustain another blow without making a wholesale change, so every Harang outing like the one in Houston is both welcome and needed.
The Upton collaboration has run into plenty of obstacles at the plate over the past 18 months in Atlanta, but it’s going to be a part of MLB history one way or another. In back-to-back innings, B.J. and Justin Upton went yard in Houston’s Minute Maid Park on Tuesday night, putting them in some pretty recognizable company.
The 3-2 win against Houston featured the fourth time the two brothers have homered in the same game in their career, the first since April 23 of last season, when Justin was on his hot streak and B.J. had yet to fully realize his 2013 issues with the bat. The Uptons join two sets of brothers — Vladimir and Wilton Guerrero and Jason and Jeremy Giambi — as the only family members to hit a home run in the same game on four separate occasions. The Braves are 4-0 in said games.
Bossman can chalk up yet another victory for the gene pool. Justin Upton’s reaction to passing Hank and Tommie Aaron on the franchise’s all-time list for brothers homering in the same game? Typically understated: "I didn’t even know. That’s pretty cool."
Both home runs came off veteran Astros pitcher Scott Feldman. B.J., took a 2-2 curveball to left field while Justin laced a cutter in the fourth that cleared the outfield wall in a hurry, scoring the Braves’ final run of the game. Feldman and his bullpen controlled the Atlanta lineup from there on out, but the damage was just enough.
Of any two players on the Braves’ roster that needed a pick-me-up game, the Uptons probably co-inhabited the top spot on the list. They’ve been anything but productive during the team’s recent stretch, only serving to perpetuate the team’s offensive woes.
During the month of June, no other everyday Braves player posted worse numbers entering the Houston series. For B.J., it’s been a stark reminder of just how bad things got at the plate last season, but it’s been especially concerning for Justin, who posted some of the best numbers in baseball over the first two months of the season (June numbers entering Tuesday’s game):
When two replacement-level players would basically be worth one win more than your highest-paid everyday position players, your team is going to have some problems. It’s just one of the reasons the Braves are 22-30 since their 17-7 start to the year. If the Uptons can’t get back on track — not necessarily hit a home run in the same game every other day, but at least post competent numbers at the plate — it’s going to be that much more difficult to be anything more than a .500 team.
"Both of those guys are so talented. they can really change the game," Gonzalez said. " … They’re game-changers. Hopefully we can continue to get more of those (performances)."
A good game for the history-making brothers was needed, especially on a night when the Braves mustered just six hits.
(Lineup note: Gonzalez placed B.J. Upton in the leadoff spot for the first time this season on Tuesday night, moving rookie Tommy La Stella to the No. 2 spot. The problems with this lineup order, from a purely statistical standpoint, are numerous. For one, there’s zero reason Jason Heyward, the second-hottest bat on the team behind Evan Gattis, should be batting four spots behind B.J. Despite his struggles, Justin has proven over the long haul that he deserves to hit higher in the order as well. So given La Stella’s troubles over the past week or so and B.J.’s track record, Atlanta’s lineup was pretty backward in Houston … regardless of if their newest leadoff hitter homered or not.)
The Braves’ second-year breakout star is swinging one of the hottest bats in baseball over the past month. Prior to the Houston series, according to weighted runs created, only Angels superstar Mike Trout (223 wRC+) has outpaced Gattis (212 wRC+) over the past 30 days. The serious All-Star — not to mention Home Run Derby — candidate at catcher entered the Houston series batting .372/.432/.686 with eight homers over that stretch. He’s been so vital to the Atlanta lineup that Gonzalez has found it difficult to take him out of the lineup in recent weeks.
So the arrival of the DH, which would give Gattis’ knees the night off while still letting his bat provide some firepower, was a welcome arrival on this road trip.
Then Gattis went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, just his second hitless game since May 24. He barely missed out on a home run in the sixth inning, a ball that probably would have left its share of MLB ballparks, but overall it was a forgettable night. Braves hitters are now 1 for 12 with six strikeouts in the DH spot this season. That’s good enough for the worst rate in baseball.
OK, so it’s a three-game curse.
That will probably even out over the course of this series, especially if Gonzalez slots Gattis there two more times.