Harang’s surprising dominance continues as Braves edge Marlins

Aaron Harang is the first pitcher to open a season with five starts of six or more innings and one or fewer runs allowed to start the season since Pedro Martinez in 1997.

Daniel Shirey/Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — "We’ve got Cy Harang out there," Braves fan Kyle Mote said from his vantage point in the Turner Field outfield.

Discussing postseason accolades is premature, but a month ago, Aaron Harang and Cy Young in the same sentence would have seemed downright laughable.

Harang, the 35-year-old who was told he didn’t have a place in the Indians’ Opening Day rotation and signed with the Braves seven days before the season, continued to look dominant Wednesday. He walked off to handshakes as his teammates gathered on the mound, having struck out 11 Marlins over six-plus innings, yielding one run and six hits in a 3-1 win.

"I wasn’t even keeping track; I couldn’t have told you how many strikeouts I had," Harang said. "That’s pretty cool to go out there and go double-digits in strikeouts."

The victory came via Evan Gattis’ pinch-hit, two-RBI double in the eighth inning and was punctuated by Craig Kimbrel righting the ship with his sixth save of the season. But Harang set the tone as he continued to be one of the most stunning stories of the season’s opening month.

The 13-year veteran, who had a 5.40 ERA last season, has five games of six or more innings and one or fewer runs allowed to start the season. That’s been done just eight times in history, most recently by Pedro Martinez in 1997. Twice in Harang’s five outings, he’s flirted with a no-hitter, taking bids into the seventh inning April 2 vs. the Brewers and last Saturday against the Mets.

"He’s pitched really, really well," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. "You feel good; he gives you a great opportunity to win a ballgame every time he goes out there."

While his ERA rose from 0.70 to 0.85 as Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI double in the sixth inning, Harang continued to lead the National League in that department, 0.01 ahead of teammate Ervin Santana and the Reds’ Alfredo Simon. He trails only the Blue Jays’ Mark Buehrle, another surprise, who leads the majors at 0.64.

Harang struck out seven of the first 12 batters he faced and didn’t allow a runner into scoring position until the sixth inning, when Stanton followed Jeff Mathis’ bunt single and a Marcell Ozuna hit with his seventh double of the season. But Harang minimized the damage, striking out Jones to end the inning.

"You have to go out and be aggressive," Harang said. "If you’re not trying to pound the strike zone and get that first strike, you’re not able to work and make the hitters go after your pitches. When you fall behind, you have to start throwing pitches over the middle, and that’s when you get hurt."

It’s been eight years since Harang led the NL in strikeouts with 216, but against the Marlins he produced his 14th game of 10 or more strikeouts and has 32 on the season. His strikeout of Jones in the sixth came on a 93-mph two-seam fastball, and Harang sat at 90 or higher for most of the day. It’s the first time he’s done so with consistency since 2010, when his average fastball was at 90.5 mph.

"I felt good. I was attacking the zone," Harang said. "Gerald (Laird) and I were on the same page right away, and I guess we’re trying to keep everything rolling."

That Harang is having success in a Braves uniform shouldn’t come as any surprise, given the franchise’s track record of finding gems, either hidden or cast aside.

The Braves landed David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro and Jordan Schafer off the waiver wire and last season acquired veteran Freddy Garcia, who was toiling in the Orioles’ farm system, for cash considerations. He would go on to start in the NL Division Series.

Harang is the latest find and at first, he brushed off any notion of pitching with a chip on his shoulder.

"No…. I guess you can look at it that way. I know I didn’t have a lot of teams calling this offseason, so there might be a little something there, ‘Hey, I can still do this.’ I’m just going to go out there and keep doing what I’m doing."

The Braves had their eyes on Harang over the offseason, but with a rotation that at that time included Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, there was little space for Harang. That changed as Medlen and Beachy were lost to Tommy John surgery, and as the spring came to a close, the Braves pounced on Harang after he exercised a walk clause with the Indians.

"We’ve liked him for the whole winter, and the opportunity came to be four days before spring training ended," Gonzalez said. "We got him, and good for us."

The Braves’ starters lead the majors with a 1.51 ERA and are the only team below 2.20. They’ve done it with Medlen, Beachy and Minor out, and young stars Teheran and Wood have provided consistently strong outings. Santana boasts a 24-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Harang? He’s something else entirely.

Throughout the rotation’s April dominance, he says he’s simply trying to keep the momentum going. The Braves’ staff is nearing full strength with Santana in the fold and Gavin Floyd and Minor close to returning. Harang is making his case to stick around when the reinforcements arrive.

"You don’t want to be the lame duck out there," he said. "You feed off the other guys and try to go out and do the same thing. We’re having a lot of fun out there right now."