Three Cuts: Braves fall to Phillies in pitchers’ duel

Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown's eighth-inning score provided the Braves-Phillies series finale's lone run on Thursday afternoon. 

H. RUMPH JR/AP

The Atlanta Braves’ offense again made life difficult on its starting rotation in a 1-0 loss to the division rival Philadelphia Phillies, getting shutout for the third time in its first 15 games and nullifying another excellent start from young pitcher Alex Wood. Here are three observations from Atlanta’s fifth loss of the season:

The Braves boast the best rotation ERA in baseball because of pitching performances like the one Alex Wood posted on Thursday afternoon. And the one Julio Teheran put up on Wednesday night. And the one Ervin Santana put up…

This could go on and on.

Through the first 15 games of the season, a Braves starter has held an opponent to one run or fewer 10 times. That was good enough for the best ERA (by a long shot: the starters’ microscopic 1.62 ERA was nearly a run per nine innings better than the Athletics’ 2.48) and the sixth-best wins above replacement. Wood’s complete game lowered it to a 1.58 ERA and, barring a ridiculous run of shutouts, it’s hard to imagine it getting any lower. But, then again, it’s not easy to picture the likes of Wood, Teheran and Santana getting shelled any time soon.

Following Teheran’s complete game shutout against the Phillies, Wood pitched eight frames in a losing effort, allowing just one earned run on a bloop single in the eighth, striking out seven and walking just one in the process. But despite a lack of offensive support and his fifth consecutive start allowing two runs or fewer dating back to last season, it was that one walk that Wood fretted over in the aftermath.

"The only mistake I thought I made in the bottom of the eighth is letting myself get so deep in the count with (pinch hitter Ryan) Howard. You can’t walk him. He’s the guy that you wanna face, lefty-lefty matchup right there," said Wood, who boasts a 1.67 ERA and 3.49 FIP this season. " … Howard’s been on the bench all day. You’ve just gotta go right at him. It’s inexcusable."

Wood was also hard on himself concerning a missed sacrifice bunt opportunity late in the game, but it’s becoming more and more clear that this Teheran-Wood duo could be a righty-lefty, top-of-the-rotation nightmare for opposing hitters sooner rather than later. Those two have not missed a beat following their excellent rookie seasons, and watching manager Fredi Gonzalez leave them in late in ballgames (they’ve combined to go seven innings or deeper five times in eight outings), even in tight spots, shows that there’s a trust there. Through four starts apiece, they’re both enjoying two of the 25 best earned run averages in the majors among qualified pitchers. Yeah, the young guys are pretty good.

With Santana and the soon-to-return Mike Minor in the equation, it’s unlikely that either Teheran or Wood will take on the "No. 1 starter" designation this season — even though Teheran is the only guy on staff to be locked up long-term — but it’s not far-fetched to think they could put up those types of numbers in 2014, even better than some of the veteran names on the roster. And, at least to one man within the organization, they can feed off one another’s success.

"They say hitting is contagious. I think pitching is contagious, too," Gonzalez said. "You hear about it all the time. You hear about those rotations, they’ve got three or four good starters … and they just wanna one-up each other. When the Madduxes, the Smoltzes and the Glavines were here, you hear the conversation from Bobby (Cox) that these guys just wanna keep up the competition and one-up each other."

The Braves’ offense just needs to come around during these efforts.

Coming out of this most recent loss, the Braves (10-5) have offered Wood just 2.25 runs per start, one of the worst rates in the majors. That’s how a guy stranding 97 percent of his baserunners allowed and holding a sub-2.00 ERA is saddled with a 2-2 record (it’s also Reason No. 78,675 why wins offer very little insight into a pitcher’s effectiveness). Teheran and Harang haven’t gotten much more. As good as the Braves’ staff has been, it’s implausible to assume it will continue on at this rate, and it’s just tough cookies that they’ve already squandered three very good starts into losing efforts so far. 

In an early-season evaluation of the Braves’ defensive efforts, a hallmark and a focus for the organization under Gonzalez, my colleague Cory McCartney pointed out that the team is already leading the majors in defensive runs saved (13, five more than the next-best team).

That should come as no surprise for a team that features Gold Glovers in Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward, one that ranks second behind the Diamondbacks in that easy-to-digest defensive metric since Gonzalez took over in 2011, and it was once again on display behind Wood in the Phillies loss — as bad as they were offensively, the Braves caused the Phillies similar frustrations. It helped that nearly 70 percent of the balls hit off Wood were groundballs, and that even hard-hit balls wound up within range of an Atlanta fielder, but Simmons & Co. still made the plays.

The Braves turned three double plays on the day, including one of the leaping, unassisted variety from first baseman Freddie Freeman, and limited the damage from eight hits and a walk to just one run. On top of that, Wood picked off another runners. Expect another defensive runs saved or two to be tacked onto that total by this time on Friday. Despite some fairly obvious holes in a unit that amounts to a pitcher’s best friend, it doesn’t look like one of the strengths of this team is going away anytime soon.

In most cases, when a good baseball player has an off game it’s a non-story. In Andrelton Simmons’ case on Thursday, it was a fascinating subplot. The slick-fielding shortstop put together another solid day (by his standards) with the glove, but his 1-for-3 performance at the plate brought up some more intriguing storylines.

First, his lone hit led to some baserunning shenanigans. In the fifth inning, Simmons was ruled safe on a stolen base attempt as catcher Gerald Laird went down on strikes, putting the Braves in scoring position with just one out — a nice situation to be in during a pitcher’s duel. But on further review, Simmons slid past the bag and, during a cat-like scramble back to the bag, Jimmy Rollins tagged him out. It was a Twister-like effort for Simmons, a guy who has shown plenty of ability to contort his body around second base with outstanding results, but it ultimately led to yet another fruitless inning for a Braves offense that struggled against Phillies starter A. J. Burnett.

The headline-worthy note came in his next plate appearance, though, as he went down on strikes for the first time in 2014.

Simmons was the final everyday player in baseball without a strikeout entering the Phillies series finale, racking up 51 plate appearances before being fanned by Burnett on a foul tip. The next-closest player without a K this season entered Thursday with just 10 plate appearances.

And this could turn into an annual thing for Simmons.

Dating back to the start of last season, Simmons’ first full season in the majors, he’s avoided strikeouts with the best of them. With a contact percentage of 87.8 (17th-best league-wide over that stretch), he rarely misses when the bat comes off his shoulder. That has played a factor in limiting his strikeout numbers — he’s seen strike three just 56 times in his last 711 plate appearances, the third best K-rate among qualified players since 2013 behind only Marco Scutaro (Giants) and Norichika Aoki (Brewers, Royals). And those guys do not offer the power potential of Simmons.

Simmons is a poster-child for the "Avoiding Strikeouts Doesn’t Equate To Offensive Prowess" campaign, but his bat does appear to be coming around, at least in the early going this season. His first strikeout notwithstanding, the Platinum Glove shortstop is now hitting .333/.346/.563 with two home runs and an above-average weighted runs created (137). He still doesn’t walk enough and there is the underlying aspect of plate discipline, but the Braves will take however many strikeouts needed for him to put up those numbers, on top of his defensive efforts, over the course of an entire season.