Three Cuts: Harang’s dominance, Gattis’ late heroics lift Braves past 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 — Taking three cuts as the Braves rode Aaron Harang’s arm and more Evan Gattis late-game heroics to beat the Marlins 3-1 Wednesday and take two out of three in the series.

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

Discussing postseason accolades are 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 on 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 it was Harang that set the tone as he’s continued as 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 now produced 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 in 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 another 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 base 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 strikeout zone and getting that first strike, you’re not able to work and make the hitters go after your pitches. When you fall behind you have 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 via 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.

"I felt good. I was attacking the zone," Harang said. "Gerald (Laird) and I were on the same page right away and 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 current players 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 think the biggest thing," he said before pausing and picking back up. "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. That they’ve done it with Medlen, Beachy and Minor out and young stars Teheran and Wood providing consistently strong outings and Santana boasting a 24-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio constitute as stunning.

Harang? He’s something else entirely.

Amid the rotation’s April domination, 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 and 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."

It was Gattis’ two-run 10th-inning home run that gave the Braves a 4-2 win in the series opener against the Marlins and he delivered the decisive runs off the bench in the finale to continue some impressive runs.

In his last 37 at-bats, he is hitting .351 with five home runs and 10 RBI, and that number only gets more impressive vs. Miami, against which he’s hit .370 with 11 extra-base hits and 17 RBI in 13 contests. But as a pinch-hitter is where Gattis’ numbers are most astounding, as he’s 7 for 13 (.538) with six extra-base hits and 13 RBI.

"He’s got a short, simple swing and if you talk to him about hitting, he feels like he’s the one that gets himself out half the time," Gonzalez said. "He’ll chase out of the strike zone and get pull-happy. He’s got a short swing and it sure is nice to give him a day off, still bring him in in a pinch-hit and still impact the game."

As for his approach against A.J. Ramos, Gattis kept his explanation simple.

"I saw three pitches and got one I could handle. I wast just trying to be lose," he said.

Gattis has now delivered four go-ahead RBI in his career, including two in this series.

With a game to play in the Braves’ six-game road swing through Philadelphia and New York, Freddie Freeman was hitting .413 and close to .500 with runners in scoring position. But since then, the first baseman has just one hit in his last 13 at-bats and went 0 for 4 Wednesday, including grounding into a double play for the fourth time in six games.

The slump coincides with vision problems as Freeman said Wednesday morning that he’s dealing with dryness in his eyes, with the team optometrist telling him he has "abrasions in the whites of his eyes."

It wasn’t bad enough to keep Freeman out of the lineup, though he did see his average drop to .338 after sitting at .413 just five games ago.

Freeman is treating it with eye drops before he goes to sleep and has been told that he should be at full health by Friday. Still, with his past vision troubles it is a concern.

In 2012 he also dealt with dry-eye problems after a May 5 game to Coors Field when wind-blown dirt scratched the cornea in his right eye and changed contact lenses six times in that night. The issue abated that offseason and he went on to produce a 2013 in which he was a first-time All-Star in hitting .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs and 109 RBI.

That the issue has returned is concerning, but it’s something that he’s at least learned to combat and the fact that this small slump still has him hitting .338/.426/.613 underscores just how impressive a start Freeman got off to.