Apr 8, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward (22) walks back to the dugout in the third inning against the New York Mets at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Shirey/Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
ATLANTA — The night belonged to Hank Aaron.
Commissioner Bud Selig was among the baseball luminaries on hand Tuesday night for the Braves celebration of the 40th anniversary of Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run, calling the Hall of Famer "ideally suited to become Babe Ruth’s heir" and the "living embodiment of the American spirit."
The current Braves professed their admiration (they wore throwback 1970s uniforms) as did the Turner Field fans in a tribute that included 715 baseball placards in the outfield, one for each of those homers.
"Thank you so very much for all your kindness throughout the years," Aaron told the sellout crowd of 47,144.
Yes, the night belonged to the Hammer — but the game, that belonged to the Mets, who won 4-0 in spite of another strong outing from Braves starter Aaron Harang, who allowed two hits and one run and fanned nine in six innings.
Here are three things we learned from Atlanta’s home opener:
It was nearly the perfect ending.
The bottom of the ninth. Two outs. The bases loaded. Jason Heyward drove Jose Valverde’s four-seam fastball to deep center field, but the ball landed in the glove of Juan Lagares at the warning track.
"I know I just missed it," Heyward said. "Good AB. Like to be in that spot every time … like to come through. But how you draw it up, that’s now always how it goes."
A rally ended was the continuation of the Braves’ early-season struggles with runners in scoring position. They were 0-for-6 in that department on Tuesday and stranded 10 runners. In all, the Braves are 7-for-52 with RISP a number that rests at 1-for-24 with two outs.
The figures get even more confounding given that two of their hits with RISP come via pitcher Julio Teheran and Freddie Freeman, who last year was second in the majors with a .443 with runners at second or third, has yet to get a hit in three such chances.
It’s not that Freeman is struggling. He’s hitting .391/.517/.739 and has has walked six times in 29 plate appearances (a staggering 20.7 rate). His lack of opportunities is certainly impacted by the fact that the two players in front of him, Heyward and B.J. Upton are hitting .107 and .138, respectively, and they have yet to both get a hit in the same game
Still, manager Fredi Gonzalez is seeing positives within the plate appearances.
"As a whole you’ve seen some spurts, you’ve seen some guys come out and get some good at-bats," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "You’ve Justin (Upton) come up and get some good at-bats; Freeman, C.J. (Chris Johnson). That whole middle of that lineup. … Now you have to put the whole lineup together to get the line moving a little bit."
It nearly worked in the ninth, as Valverde’s followed Justin Upton and Dan Uggla’s singles — Evan Gattis grounded into a force out, taking Upton off the base path — with a throwing error on a routine Andrelton Simmons bouncer back to the mound to load the bases. But the Braves couldn’t capitalize as Gerald Laird popped up before Heyward’s warning-track shot ended the game.
"That’s the way the game’s played," Heyward said. "It doesn’t matter what you do your first few (at-bats). You’ve got to be ready for the next at-bat and you’ve got to be able to put the other stuff behind you."
The Mets wasted little time on the base paths, as Eric Young followed a leadoff single by stealing second. Two innings later, Young stole second again; in the sixth, it was Curtis Granderson.
New York’s three steals equalled the season total against Gattis, who has a 25 percent caught stealing percentage.
Where Gattis had his biggest trouble was in calculating a catcher’s ability to mitigate damage (Passed Pitch Runs). He had a PPR of minus-0.9 with 17 wild pitches, more than any catcher with at least 349 2/3 innings.
Limiting damage became an issue in the third inning, when Aaron Harang’s pitch bounced into the dirt and careened off Gattis’ leg to the left, allowing Ruben Tejada to score.
None of this is to insinuate that Gattis isn’t effective behind the plate. He had three defensive runs saved as a rookie and threw out runners at a 33 percent clip last season on 24 chances (which was above the league average of 28). That figure was also higher than seven-time All-Star and current Yankees backstop Brian McCann (24 percent).
It was in RPP where McCann was at his most valuable, never dipping below 2.1 and rising as high as 7.1 in 2010.
To his credit, Gattis worked with Julio Teheran and Alex Wood once each last year, never caught David Hale or Aaron Harang, who didn’t sign until late March.
The Braves’ new everyday catcher is still finding his way, it just so happens he has the misfortune of following a guy working on a HOF resume.
Wednesday, Atlanta’s staff takes a step toward full health as offseason acquisition Ervin Santana takes the mound for the first time as a Brave.
"I’ll just try tried to keep it simple like I always do," Santana said of his approach. "Go up there, throw strikes and give my team a chance to win."
But before Tuesday’s home opener, the topic was more focused on what the American League lifer can do at the plate.
Santana, who spent eight years with the Angels and one with the Royals before signing with the Braves in March, isn’t a complete hitting novice, though it’s pretty close.
He has 26 plate appearances, two less than Alex Wood and 52 fewer than Julio Teheran, who combined have 72 career starts to Santana’s 268. Santana, who possesses a .160 average (4 for 25 with a double and two RBI), also has hit just 11 times in the past five seasons and two hits in that span.
Of course, that’s not why Atlanta inked him to a one-year, $14 million deal.
Coming off a resurgent season in which he had a 3.24 ERA and 1.142 WHIP in 211 innings in Kansas City, Santana had a whirlwind of a month as he was signed just before Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen were headed for Tommy John surgery.
"A little crazy, because (I) signed late and the good thing is that you’ve been throwing bullpens, a lot of bullpens," Santana said. "So I was very much ready, except I didn’t face any hitters. That was the difference."
The addition of Santana is just the first wave as Tuesday night Gavin Floyd pitched four innings for Triple-A Gwinnett against Norfolk, with Mike Minor following him. Minor is expected to be added to the rotation the 23rd vs. the Marlins or the 25th against the Reds and Floyd could also join the staff by the end of the month.