Braves offense never gets going in Opening Day loss

B.J. Upton was 0 for 4 with a pair of strikeouts as the Braves were shutout in Milwaukee.

Benny Sieu/Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Heyward’s ground-ball single shot down the middle, dribbling into center field. For a Braves offense that will be relied upon early to provide consistent run support, it was a strong start.

But the bats largely went cold from there, five scattered hits all the offense could muster against the Brewers in Monday’s 2-0 Opening Day loss. They went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and stranded seven in all.

In the feast-or-famine approach of 2013, it was most certainly the latter.

It worked to perfection last season; 96 wins and a National League East title. That’s because a Braves offense that produced a league-best 181 home runs and the lows of a franchise-record 1,384 strikeouts could replay upon a starting rotation that led the majors with 102 quality starts.

But the upheaval that hit the staff in March, seeing Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen lost for the season to Tommy John surgeries and the Braves riding a four-man rotation for the opening weeks of Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Aaron Harang and David Hale — only one of whom, Teheran, was a lock to make the April staff back in February — have this offense needing to ease the transition until Mike Minor, Ervin Santana and Gavin Floyd can return.

On this day, it wasn’t there, and in the grand scheme of a 162-game season, rash judgments based on this outing are baseless. But it was made all the more confounding considering the way Tehran pitched in his first Opening Day start.

The 23-year-old allowed Teheran two runs and seven hits in six innings, striking out two and walking one. He did his part to put an offense that, a year ago, was fourth in the NL with 4.25 runs per game, to deliver a win.

"Yeah, I mean regardless of the injuries we’ve had with our staff, I’ve always put a lot of importance on these early games," said second baseman Dan Uggla. "Everyone’s always like, ‘It’s early, it’s early,’ but…. And Julio pitched great. He pitched good enough for us to win. All these games are important early on, man. But they got a big hit when they needed it and made pitches when they needed to and made a play when they needed to."

But outside of Heyward’s leadoff hit, the Braves could scattered four more hits, a pair by Andrelton Simmons, Chris Johnson’s double and Justin Upton’s single in the ninth, as Yovani Gallardo walked two with four strikeouts over six innings. Fourteen times, the Braves were ahead on counts and three times they were up 3-0 or 3-1, only to come up empty.

"You go up there, your third at-bat and (Gallardo) will throw you something completely different," said Chris Johnson, who went 1 for 4. "Where did that come from? … He’s one of the tougher guys in the league."

As for B.J. Upton and Uggla, they of the forgettable ’13’s and the most discussed Braves of the offseason, it was an inauspicious start.

Despite leading counts 3-0 and 2-0 — the first of which came following Heyward’s leadoff single — No. 2 hitter Upton struck out. He would go 0-for-4 and left three runners stranded; as did Uggla, who was 0-for-4, though he wasn’t among strikeout victims.

Oddly, it was the ninth loss in 11 games for the Braves at Miller Park, a place they’ve struggled to generate much of any offense. Since 2011, Atlanta has averaged 1.8 runs per game in Milwaukee and hit .206. So from that end, it was simply more of the same.

"Just a baseball thing," Uggla said. "We as players don’t look too much into that. Like, I had no idea they had done that to us until you just said it. We always look at each game like we’re going to go out and win it. We don’t look at what happened last year or the day before. You go out and try to win the game."

But a shutout — the fifth in the past seven games against the Brewers — was a rough start for a club looking to avoid the fate of the team that entered last spring as defending East champs.

The Nationals were sub-.500 in April, including losses in 14 of 24 games from April 5-30, a stretch that ended with back-to-back losses to the Braves in Washington, D.C. By that time, Atlanta — 17-9 for the month — was up by 6 1/2 games. Of course, the Braves never looked back, winning the division by 10 games.

There were positives to take from the opener, besides Teheran and Simmons delivering two of the five hits, including Fredi Gonzalez making history in becoming the first manager to issue and win a challenge in the expanded replay system. Ryan Braun was initially ruled to have beaten Johnson’s throw to first base in the sixth inning, and after a 58-second review, the call was overturned.

Atlanta’s offense, on the whole, wasn’t among those highlights. The Braves will look to turn things around with Alex Wood, the other member of the rotation who is expected to be leaned on during these initial weeks, on the mound.

Last season, the Braves scored 3.8 runs per game with Wood on the mound in his 11 starts, a figure that was below the league average of 4.0.

Tuesday, Wood and the bats will be searching for something, anything. It’s stadium where they’ve found very little of either over the last three years — and a stretch where circumstances and injuries mean they likely can’t afford a slow start.