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Julio Teheran makes his living on the cusp.
As he opened his fifth full major-league season — his third as Atlanta’s No. 1 starter — at Citi Field on Monday afternoon, the 26-year-old All-Star could glance across the diamond at his New York Mets counterpart as the company he’s looking to keep. There are, of course, not-so-subtle differences between Teheran and Noah Syndergaard, owner of baseball’s highest WAR among pitchers in his age-23 season. Teheran does not possess the overwhelming power arsenal of the Mets superstar, forcing him to better command the edge of the strike zone and make fewer mistakes.
In his fourth consecutive Opening Day start, Teheran did just that.
The Atlanta Braves dropped their 2017 opener with a 6-0 loss in Queens as their bullpen, hampered by defensive gaffes, imploded in the seventh inning, but their de facto ace matched Syndergaard pitch for pitch. Teheran tossed six shutout innings with six strikeouts before being replaced with a high pitch count. Mets hitters tallied three walks and four hits against him yet could not deliver in key moments as Teheran found his rhythm approximately midway through his outing.
“He’s our ace,” Freeman said, “and he pitched like it today.”
The toe-to-toe showdown between NL East pitching standouts (Syndergaard also pitched six scoreless frames, showcasing a scary changeup to complement his velocity-crazed repertoire before leaving with a blister on his middle finger) extends Teheran’s stretch of dominance over the division rivals. In his past six starts against New York, he’s allowed just three earned runs in 43 innings.
He now claims a 2.21 career ERA against the Mets — making him the Tom Glavine to Freeman’s Chipper Jones in terms of Metropolitan preeminence.
Fastball command proved an early concern for Teheran as pitches piled up in the early innings, even getting away with a few missed targets from catcher Tyler Flowers, but by the fourth inning — a frame in which he ran into some trouble — Teheran was living on the black. His slider-changeup combination was even more consistent, keeping hitters off-balance at the bottom of the zone. In true Teheran fashion, he outperformed his peripherals in the outing, running up a (still very effective) 3.44 fielding-independent pitching to along with his perfect earned run average. At times, such as this showdown with Lucas Duda with two runners on, he dazzled with his location and sequencing:
How to get out of trouble, vol. 117: pepper outside with heat, stay low on slider then change eye level high and inside. pic.twitter.com/sNwyIxWBB6
“It’s just a shame that Julio again threw the ball so well and didn’t get anything for it,” manager Brian Snitker said.
As the Braves’ transfusion of veterans now takes the stage for the first time — Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia and R.A. Dickey, respectively, are on tap for opposing hitters — Teheran remains the lifeblood of Atlanta’s rotation. If this rotation’s ceiling hinges most notably on promising right-hander and fifth starter Mike Foltynewicz, Teheran is in charge of the floor. With outings similar to this every fifth day, Atlanta has a foundation to build around. He’s entering his prime years, and until reinforcements bubble up (and develop) from baseball’s best collection of pitching prospects he remains Snitker’s most reliable option.
Starting pitching was this team’s major weakness last season. John Hart and John Coppoella reinforced this notion over the offseason, devoting $33 million in new money to the issue. The problem can certainly not be attributed to Teheran, an affordable 3.2 WAR pitcher who made his second career All-Star appearance. Still, jumping out to a good start on the mound, regardless of yet another instance of fruitless run support for one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball last season, was the primary silver lining at Citi Field on Monday — setting aside Freeman immediately establishing his NL MVP candidacy — and assuming the lineup and bullpen can rediscover at least some of their second-half effectiveness the Braves will be in better shape than they were in Game 1.
Julio Teheran is on the cusp of baseball’s upper echelon once again. He’s comfortably in the league’s top 40 entering the 2017 campaign; he’s now pushing for the top 20. Maybe higher. It’s a daunting climb.
In his showdown against Syndergaard and the Mets, he showed why it’s at least within his reach.