Julio Teheran keeps pace with Scherzer despite shaky Opening Day start

ATLANTA — Julio Teheran’s four-season push for No. 1 status in Atlanta has experienced its ups and downs. His Opening Day start against the division rival Washington Nationals was no different.

Following a disappointing season in Shelby Miller’s shadow, Teheran returns to the 2016 fold as the unquestioned staff leader for a team searching for pitching answers. For a group rounded out by low-ceiling veterans and unproven 20-somethings, he’s the Braves’ surest bet. The franchise has prioritized young pitching over the past two offseasons and one of baseball’s premier farm systems is poised to start churning out arm talent by midseason, but the most pressing question for the current rotation remains open-ended: Can Julio Teheran make the leap?

Making his third consecutive Opening Day start, Teheran’s first test came against annual Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer, reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper and another potential pennant contender in Washington. The results? Scherzer out-pitched him, Harper put one in the stands and the Nationals, through no fault of Teheran’s, stole a 4-3 extra-inning win to ring in the new season.

"I did everything that I could to keep my team in the game," said Teheran, who posted a 4.04 ERA in 2015, his worst career mark in three full seasons. "I mean, I gave up two homers, but I was trying to fight."

Teheran found himself in fairly exclusive company up until last season’s setbacks. In the previous two seasons, he was one of only nine 25-and-under pitchers to collect five or more wins above replacement, joining the likes of Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner and Jose Fernandez. Teheran posted a 3.03 ERA in 400-plus innings over that stretch.

Essentially, other than Tigers starter Rick Porcello, every other pitcher on the list found another gear.

His path does not get easier. If Opening Day rotations hold, Teheran is slated to face Scherzer, Carlos Martinez, David Price and Zack Greinke in his first seven starts — four of the top 20 qualified starters last season in terms of ERA and fielding-independent pitching. Injuries, off days and manager preferences prevent nonstop high-profile matchups over the course of a 162-game season, but these are the types of situations aces find themselves in.

If he’s going to push his way into the upper echelon, it’s going to happen while squaring off against the upper echelon.

"The way the schedule lines up, he’s probably going to hook up with a No. 1 for at least the first month. Then after that it kind of spreads out a little bit," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Not everybody’s Cy Young. And guess what? You’ve got to beat Cy Young every once in a while."

Teheran didn’t beat the 2013 AL Cy Young winner, but he did keep pace.

There were hiccups along the way — Harper, his long-standing NL East foil, homered in the first; Nationals newcomer Daniel Murphy followed suit in the fourth to carry Teheran’s struggles against left-handers into the ’16 campaign — but Teheran allowed two earned runs in six innings to exit with a no-decision. The 25-year-old allowed too many base-runners (eight), but four strikeouts, an induced double-play and a successful pick-off helped mitigate the damage.

The ugliest part of the outing came in a 30-pitch first inning, where the best hitter on the planet punished a slider, but Teheran settled from there.

"Six innings after, what, a 30-pitch first inning? To get us through six was huge," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "I thought he threw the ball well after the first inning. Made a couple mistakes to Murphy and Harper, but other than that it seemed like he was in control. He was in control of his emotions. He threw the ball well. The problem is you’re facing Scherzer."

Added Teheran on the mid-game adjustment: "Trying to work less. Trying to put the ball in play, make them (make) contact, something that I wasn’t doing the first few innings trying to strike people out. And I was using a lot of pitches. That’s something that I changed the last three innings, last four innings."

Teheran remains a valuable asset for Atlanta. He’s signed to a team-friendly deal through 2020 and, barring a collapse, he should at least remain a quality rotation option for the foreseeable future. Eventually, though, the franchise needs to know if he can fill that No. 1 void. In that sense, the clock continues to tick.

Teheran’s 2016 season got off to a shaky start on Monday, but after a strong spring and being handed the leading role in an uncertain rotation, he’s going to keep getting his opportunities in high-profile matchups. The jury is still out if he can rise to the occasion.