Three Cuts: Braves fall to Marlins in Fernandez-Wood pitching duel
ATLANTA — In one of the best combined pitching performance in recent memory, the Miami Marlins, behind superstar Jose Fernandez, blanked the Atlanta 1-0 on Tuesday night. Here are three observations from the game.
Forget all other dominant pitching performances in the 2014 season. Forget any shutouts and complete games. Forget the early-season performances of Andrew Cashner, Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Yu Darvish, Martin Perez or even Miami’s own Henderson Alvarez. Forget all of it.
Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, in a staggering performance that stands out in a growing line of staggering performances from the 21-year-old right-hander, delivered the singular pitching effort of the season to date in a 1-0 win against the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night.
On a per inning basis, no other starting pitcher has put together a more devastating start than Fernandez did against the Braves, tying a career-high with 14 strikeouts over eight innings of three-hit work, befuddling major league hitters in the process. He did not even give up a free base in the process. The Braves fought for their three singles, then the door was shut.
"This is the third time we’ve seen him and you see you all the films and all the stuff last year, but he is good," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He’s got the capability of running those types of games out every time he goes out. He’s got 97-, 98-, 99 miles per hour early on the in game with a — commands his breaking ball, commands his fastball. Holds runners, you can’t even steal off him. … He’s pretty darn good."
Braves third baseman Chris Johnson, one of the two Atlanta hitters to reach base against Fernandez, called him the best pitcher in baseball.
"Coulda been the 99 (mile-per-hour fastball) he was throwing up there. Both sides of the dish, 99, slider that feels like it’s starting in their dugout and ends up on the outside corner. You catch him on a day like, it’s tough. When he makes a mistake, you can’t miss. And today we did," Johnson said. "From when I started playing baseball, I don’t think I’ve seen a pitcher that good. It stinks he’s in our division."
Even scarier news for opposing hitters: the young starter was not exactly feeling 100 percent before the first pitch.
"My breaking ball in the bullpen was horrible, horrible," Fernandez told reporters after the game. "But I thought to myself that when they say, ‘Play ball,’ it gets better."
He’s right about that. His manager, Mike Redmond, called it the best game of his career.
This is typical praise that gets heaped on Fernandez, who has been nothing short of sensational since his NL Rookie of the Year season in 2013. Following his gem against the Braves, which did not even include a walk, he now boasts a 1.99 ERA and a strikeout rate of more than 13 batters per nine innings. His 1.46 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) now leads all qualified pitchers. If he has a flaw, it has not come up on film yet — he’s allowed three runs or more in just six of his 33 career starts, and yet Tuesday marked the 11th time he’s been taken out with zeros across the board.
In terms of game score, the Bill James-created statistic that grades individual single-game performances, Fernandez’s 14-strikeout, zero-walk effort was not the preeminent outing of the 2014 season. Two others have bested him, both coming in nine-inning shutout affairs (game score):
But those scores are also reflections of game situations, as Redmond used his closer, Steve Cishek, in the ninth inning of the one-run game (Cashner and Cueto were both handed leads of four-plus runs). Up to that point, as Johnson said, Fernandez was cruising virtually untouched through every part of the Braves’ lineup — even two of the most productive hitters in baseball, middle-of-the-lineup power bats Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton, combined to strike out six times on the night. Twelve of the 14 strikeouts came on swinging misses, too. He wasn’t just tallying Ks, he was making very capable hitters look incapable of piecing together good at-bats.
It was a special performance, albeit not a one-man show.
Miami was held to one run for a reason.
Braves starter Alex Wood did his best to hang with the Marlins star throughout the contest, tossing up a gem of his own: he tied his own career high by striking out 11 Marlins batters, going eight innings and allowing just four hits (two of which did not even leave the infield) and one earned run. He did not walk a single batter.
In fact, Cishek and Braves reliever David Carpenter did not allow a walk, either.
That the two teams combined for 28 strikeouts and zero walks on the evening was worth a piece of history in its own right: it is the first time since 1914 two teams have combined for that many strikeouts without allowing a single base on balls. It certainly was not a good night to be carrying a bat, even if the Marlins did sneak in that lone run thanks to back-to-back hits from Giancarlo Stanton and Casey McGeHee in the fourth inning. The game lasted just over two hours, leaving both clubhouses to admire the collective feat.
"Maybe this is one of those games that you watch on ESPN Classic three or four years down the road and you say, ‘Well OK, that was nice to see.’ … I haven’t seen two pitchers hook up like they did today since that (Roy) Doc Halladay-Josh Johnson, one guy went a perfect game, the other guy went I think a two-hitter (Johnson allowed just one hit), and that was one of those classic games. And this one I think ranks up there."
Prior to the meeting of two of the best young pitchers in the National League, if not all of baseball (and given their track records, it’s probably the latter), there was a side-by-side graphic comparing Wood to Fernandez, begging the simple question: who is pitching better? The short answer, despite his less-impressive ERA, is Fernandez, and judging his latest masterpiece there are few pitchers in baseball even in the ballpark.
But ignore that 2-3 record; Alex Wood has been very, very good.
He just hasn’t received much help.
Following his previous outing in which A.J. Burnett and the Phillies bullpen blanked the Braves’ offense in Philadelphia, Wood again found himself at the losing end of a 1-0 affair. It was particularly unfair in this instance, for rarely has the second-year lefty looked better.
"It was my first start why I really commanded the inner half and up and down and kinda had all three (pitches) going," Wood said. "My fastball, I thought, was really good tonight. And when you command it like that obviously I think I have a really good chance to win."
In short, Wood, 23, is improving on basically a start-to-start basis right now, and though he may not quite be in the Fernandez category, he’s proven he is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with just about anybody, Marlins’ so-so lineup notwithstanding. He’s now shut down the Brewers, Nationals (twice) and Phillies, three of the 11 highest-scoring teams in baseball, so Miami was not a blip on the radar. It’s a trend that merely culminated in a strikeout-heavy gem. The recurring problem: there are only a handful of MLB pitchers receiving less run support than Wood’s nine runs in 35 innings pitched — a number which should even out in time.
""Woody matched him pitch-for-pitch, really," Gonzalez said. "It’s a shame for him to lose 1-0."
With recovering starter Mike Minor making one more rehab start this weekend before his expected return date to the rotation, along with Gavin Floyd’s continued progress while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the general opinion is that the Braves will eventually be opening up two spots in their rotation to make room. That space-saving effort likely starts with rookie starter David Hale — either by moving to the bullpen or staying stretched out at Triple-A Gwinnett — being ousted for Minor. But short of his oft-discussed innings limit this season, there is absolutely no reason Wood should lose a starting spot to Floyd in the immediate future.
He has earned his spot — and then some. Coming out of Tuesday night’s game, Wood owns a 1.54 ERA, a 2.76 FIP and a 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 35 innings pitched. Barring another unforeseen scorching start, Floyd will not be matching those numbers.
There is little questioning the effectiveness of this Braves’ offense when it is clicking. Top-to-bottom, there’s potential.
Freeman and Upton, barring their outing against a certain Marlins pitcher, boast some of the best individual numbers in baseball. Jason Heyward is dangerous and his bat is coming around at the top of the order, Chris Johnson, Evan Gattis and Andrelton Simmons are capable hitters and B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla are producing at a higher rate. When things are going well, the Braves are putting up 10-run efforts against the likes of Nationals standout Gio Gonzalez.
And yet 20 games into the season, one-fifth of their games have ended in scoreless fashion. It’s a similar trend to last season, when Atlanta was shutout 17 times.
Entering Tuesday’s game, the Braves were already striking out more and walking less (on a per plate appearance basis) than last season’s team — although the overall run production pretty much holds constant. Those rates will dip even lower now. Feast-or-famine is the buzz phrase for this offense, and as April comes to an end, it still holds true.