Three Cuts: Freeman, Heyward power Braves to win over Brewers

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman posted his fifth career multi-home run game against the Brewers on Tuesday night.

Benny Sieu/Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The defending National League East champs are in the win column. The Atlanta Braves took the second game of the season with a 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers behind a few powerful swings and a 23-year-old’s excellent performance on the mound. Here are three observations from the game:

From the first inning on, opposing pitchers are going to have to work against the Braves lineup, when healthy. Save for the conspicuous addition of a still-struggling B.J. Upton in the No. 2 spot, manager Fredi Gonzalez’s commitment to keep Jason Heyward at the leadoff spot and Freddie Freeman in the 3-hole should pay huge dividends this season. Last season, despite Freeman taking his game up a notch and finishing fifth in the NL MVP voting, Atlanta could not find a consistent presence at the top of the order until slotting Heyward up there — a full season of that combination should be, well, a very good thing.

A day removed from getting blanked by the Brewers for the fifth time in seven games, the Braves offense scored its first runs of the 2014 season behind the bats of Freeman and Heyward — a fitting start to the offense’s usefulness.

Freeman looked the part of an MVP candidate by posting his fifth multi-homer game of his career against the Brewers, finishing 3 for 3 with a walk and two RBI. But he was beaten to the power punch by Heyward, who hit the Braves’ first home run of the season for the third time in the past five years, finish 2 for 5 with two RBI. That was enough to keep the Brewers at arms length.

Combining their best seasons to date, Heyward (2012) and Freeman (2013) are an 11-win duo capable of carrying this Braves offense at times, which, given the hit-or-miss nature of things offensively for this team, could be quite helpful.

It’s strange how quickly perceptions of the same exact group can change from night to night, but that’s the effect a three-homer night from Heyward and Freeman can have on this group.

"As an offense, we weren’t gonna get shutout all 162 (games)," Freeman said.

Watching 23-year-old Alex Wood on the mound, it’s occasionally difficult to remember that he has fewer than 250 professional innings under his belt. He mixes pitches well, keeps opposing hitters off-balance and, as evidenced on Tuesday night, he responds to adversity. Wood gave up a lead-off home run to noted Braves foil Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee’s talented center fielder, but bounced back to blank the Brewers over his next 21 outs — he allowed just that one run on five hits over seven innings of work, including five strikeouts.

"He pitched so well, I thought about running him back out there," Wood said. "He knows what he wants to do. He prepares better than any young player I’ve ever been around, mentally and physically."

He struggled a bit with his command (three walks), but it was his refusal to implode following Gomez’s sprint around the bases — clocked officially at a scintillating 16.18 seconds — that kept Atlanta alive until the bats provided runs, then the lead and then insurance runs. Barring an expected innings limit that could force him into the bullpen for an extended period of time or cause him to be shut down at the end of the season, there is not a shred of evidence suggesting Wood should not hold down a spot in the rotation all year, even when Ervin Santana, Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd are good to go. (And if he pitches like he did on Tuesday night often enough, it’s difficult to envision the likes of Floyd or Aaron Harang being better options.)

During his fast rise through the minors, he boasted a 1.73 ERA. In 77 2/3 innings pitched last season, he posted a 2.65 FIP (fielding-independent pitching) and 1.6 WAR. Now this.

Save for a few shaky outings here and there, Alex Wood has found nothing but success as a professional pitcher.

Entering the season with so many uncertainties, there are quite a few worse options than throwing out Wood and fellow 23-year-old Julio Teheran in the first two games of the season. Both players carried their rookie success into their first starts of 2014, and the Braves are all the better for it. Teheran didn’t have his best stuff on Opening Day but he allowed just two runs over six innings on Monday. Wood was even better. In fact, looking back to last August, Wood and Teheran have combined to post a 3.15 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 114 1/3 innings pitched.

The real uncertainty for the rotation begins on Wednesday with Harang and Thursday with rookie David Hale facing off against the Nationals, but at least the team’s future top-of-the-rotation guys held their own … and then some.

Dan Uggla is a notorious slow starter. His April numbers are even worse than his overall stats from the past three seasons in Atlanta, and, as was written about quite a few times during the offseason, time is running out to turn things around. But the signs are good.

Through two games, Uggla seems locked in. After going hitless in the opener, the 34-year-old second baseman went 2 for 4 against the Brewers on Tuesday night — and he wasn’t fooled once. And still, no strikeouts. Not bad for the team’s three-time record-holder whose strikeout rates have gone from 23.2 to 26.7 to 31.8 over the past three seasons.

This way-too-small sample size would mean practically nothing without the context of Uggla’s slow starts and the numerous anecdotes from teammates and coaches lauding his adjustments and his improvement, but even Freeman, following the Brewers win, praised Uggla for his work, saying the two hit together every day. Add that in with his .269/.403/.538 splits with four home runs during the spring, and — not to jump the gun or anything — but there’s some promise there. 

"He only got two hits, but he hit the ball four times right on the nose," Gonzalez said. "He’s had some great at-bats. He’s hitting the ball about as good as anybody on this team."

Except Heyward and Freeman, of course.