Braves lineup lives up to billing in opener
ATLANTA — They ran onto Turner Field amid fireworks and confetti raining down, the sounds of a marching band that stood in center field bellowed, while the sellout crowd of 51,456 chanted and tomahawk chopped.
It was the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day that greeted the Braves, punctuated by appearances of greats Dale Murphy and Phil Niekro, while Chipper Jones, in his first year of retirement, threw out the first pitch.
But as Tim Hudson fired a ball to Phillies outfielder Ben Revere at 7:14 p.m., the buildup was over and the realities of the season started to take shape. And no reality is more important than this: Atlanta is going to score, and in bunches.
“We can do that,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “It’s nice to see.”
Freddie Freeman homered in the first inning as part of his three-hit, three-RBI night, Dan Uggla delivered a home run in the second and Justin Upton did so in the fifth as the Braves beat the Phillies 8-5.
“That’s just something that’s just beginning,” Freeman said. “We’ve got a very balanced lineup 1 through 8. It’s going to be tough for pitchers to get through us.”
It is, of course, just one game. If this were a marathon, the Braves would be just a few hundred yards in, barely breaking a sweat. But on this night, against this opponent, it’s a win that could be seen as paramount to a statement.
The Nationals open the year as the favorites in the East after winning the division by four games last year and they only grew stronger in the offseason, adding center fielder and lead-off man Denard Span and bolstering an already potent bullpen with Rafael Soriano.
The Phillies, too, have been bandied about as contenders in the division, with some of the Braves saying as much. But Atlanta, boasting the youngest Opening Day roster in the majors with an average age of 27.79, showed it too is built to challenge for the East as the Braves pounded out 10 hits.
“We had some opportunity early on in the game,” Justin Upton said. “Freddie picked me up a couple of times and everybody started swinging the bats pretty good and we got some knocks and were able to string some hits together.”
Especially when they needed them most.
Hudson got off to a solid start, allowing a run and three hits through the first four innings, but he ran into trouble in the fifth.
He allowed a one-out single to Hamels, walked Ben Revere and then yielded a single to Jimmy Rollins to load the bases, and Chase Utley made him pay. The second baseman delivered a two-run single to trim the Braves’ lead to 4-3, and Hudson left after 90 pitches over 4 1/3 innings, yielding six hits in all with three strikeouts and three walks.
But the Braves responded thanks to one of their biggest offseason acquisitions.
Justin Upton, who was acquired this offseason along with his brother, center fielder B.J., parked a 1-2 pitch from Hamels into left-center for a solo home run that pushed the Atlanta lead to 5-3.
Opening Day had surprises — less heralded newcomers Gerald Laird and Chris Johnson each went 2-for-3, Laird added an RBI single in the sixth and Johnson scored as Atlanta pulled ahead 7-4 and Uggla, who hit .200 this spring, was 1-for-3 with two runs. Some things went as expected, with closer Craig Kimbrel shutting down the middle of the Phillies’ order — Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard — to seal the win.
Let’s be clear, though: This is a team that’s success will, more than anything, be predicated on its power at the plate.
The Braves hit 49 home runs in spring training, which was tied for second in the majors and trailed only the Mariners (58), and seven of those blasts came from Freeman. They also produced 184 runs, fifth-most in the National League.
This was an offense built to light up the scoreboard, and Monday was simply a taste of what’s to come. Atlanta jumped on Hamels for more home runs than he allowed in his first four starts of 2012 combined and more than the Braves registered in their last seven games versus the three-time All-Star.
“It’s going to be great to watch all year,” Hudson said. “I feel very happy with what we’re throwing out there one through nine. I’m excited to see what we’re going to do all year.”
But strikeouts, which plagued the Braves last year as they struck out a record 1,289 times, reared their head again. They fanned a collective eight times, though as Uggla said, those Ks may just be a necessary evil with this team.
“We’re still competing and trying to cut down on strikeouts, but we’ve got a lot of power,” Uggla said. “We’re not trying to hold back. If it causes some strikeouts in situations, then that’s what it’s going to have to take because we have the power to go blow-for-blow with anybody.”
That was evident on Opening Day. It was one game in 162, but so far the new-look Braves are exactly as advertised.