Three Cuts: What to make of Harang’s struggles as Braves fall to Marlins?

Aaron Harang allowed as many runs on a second-inning home run by Marcell Ozuna as he gave up in the previous five starts combined.


Taking three cuts following the Braves’ 9-3 loss to the Marlins on Wednesday night in Miami.

Through his first five starts, the surprising 35-year-old was leading the majors with an 0.85 ERA, had allowed just three runs in 31 2/3 innings of work in ’14 and his batting average against was at .143 with zero home runs.

Marcell Ozuna changed all of that with one swing in the second inning, as Harang hung a four-seam fastball up in the zone and the Marlins center fielder parked it in right center for a three-run home run.

Ozuna’s blast was part of a four-run frame — Garrett Jones added an RBI single — as Miami racked up four consecutive hits and forced Harang to throw 34 pitches in the inning. Two innings later, left fielder Christian Yelich hit his first HR of the season, a two-run shot.

In all, the Marlins tagged Harang for 10 hits, a season-high for him, and pushed his ERA to 2.72. His four strikeouts were the second-fewest of the year, trailing only the three he had April 2 vs. the Brewers.

Was it a sign that Harang may finally regressing to his norm, which the past six years has included four ERAs of 4.21 or higher, including 5.40 in ’13?

It was impossible to think he could maintain a pace that had him looking at 214 strikeouts and 19-6 record if he made 32 starts. Those Ks would be the third-highest of Harang’s career, trailing only the 218 he had in ’07 and 216 the season before that. But one start isn’t cause for panic, it’s just that coming a day after Alex Wood allowed seven earned in five innings in a 9-0 loss to Miami, it’s concerning given how dominant the Braves starters had been (a major-league leading 2.32 ERA heading into Wednesday).

Harang struggled with his location all night and considering he doesn’t have the same velocity he once did — his fastball averaged 90.7 and 90.5 in ’09 and ’10, respectively — he’s had to rely on his secondary pitches more.

This season, he’s thrown his four-seam fastball 58.2 percent of the time, the lowest of his career, riding his cutter at a rate of 12.5, eight percent higher than he’s ever thrown it, and he’s leaning on his slider more (20.6). He’s still able to hit the 90s when needed with that four-seamer, but like many aging pitchers he’s added that "wily veteran" label with an expanded arsenal.

A night like Wednesday was bound to happen, because above all, Harang has remained a high fly-ball rate pitcher (52.9 this season). Sooner or later, those flies were going to result in home runs, it just so happens it did so in spacious Marlins Park.

Outings like this are bound to dot his season, because Harang’s makeup as a pitcher lends to them from time to time. But nothing in this loss changed the fact that he was a revelation for the Braves in the opening month.

It took David Hale, making his first appearance out of the bullpen this season after learning he’d move there with Mike Minor returning Friday, to bring an end to the Braves’ 14-inning scoreless streak as he scored Andrelton Simmons with a sixth-inning sacrifice fly.

Atlanta averaged 4.15 runs through its first 13 games, highlighted by a 10-run outburst vs. the Nationals on April 11, but in the 13 games since the bats are responsible for just 2.84 per. That includes nine times in which the Braves had scored three runs or less, something that’s happened in each of the last three games.

Amid that recent slump, five of the regulars have seen their averages drop dramatically, with Evan Gattis (.378 to .270) and Freddie Freeman (.392 to .320) the biggest. Meanwhile, Justin Upton (.327 to .326) along with Jason Heyward (.145 to .206) and B.J. Upton (.204 to .213).

Like we saw for much of last season, the Braves can still rely upon the long ball to make up for any deficiencies, hitting nine during the last 13 games, resulting in 17 runs, but when the home runs run dry, Atlanta has looked more mortal than its 17-9 record.

Justin Upton broke through with a two-run blast in the ninth Wednesday, keeping the Braves from a third straight game without a homer, but it was too little too late as Atlanta lost for just the second time in 16 games in which it hit a HR. The Braves are 3-7 when they don’t go deep.

More than anything manufacturing runs remains a problem and when that coincides with facing a rotation that’s been as dominant as the Marlins in this series — Jose Fernandez and Wednesday’s starter, Nathan Eovaldi combined to yield just five hits in 15 innings with 13 strikeouts — it’s only going to amplify those issues.

Tuesday night, Gavin Floyd completed his sixth minor league rehab start in his return from Tommy John surgery, allowing one run over five innings. With the clock ticking as the veteran’s 30-day rehab stint ends on Friday, he’ll need to be activated on Sunday.

But where will he fit in?

Considering the Braves starters have been so strong — the last two outings by Harang and Wood aside — there’s no glaring void that Floyd could slip into. Considering Hale was expectedly moved to the bullpen despite a 2.31 ERA in four starts, how can Floyd supplant Harang (2.72 ERA), Wood (2.93), Julio Teheran (1.47) or Ervin Santana (1.95)?

One plan that hasn’t gotten enough traction could succeed in both utilizing Floyd and limiting the innings of the 23-year-old Wood.

The Braves are expected to hold Wood to around 170-180 innings in this, his second major league season, and with 40 already, he’s on pace for 259. Adding Floyd to the mix and basically riding a six-man rotation, with Wood and Floyd alternating starts could go a long way toward keeping Wood’s innings under wraps for a potential playoff run.

Of course, that tactic would come with a need to lessen the bullpen by an arm. Though in a twist, the Braves could try and use Floyd as a long reliever to start in case injury or rest to Wood or someone else create an opening.

The unexpected start by Atlanta’s rotation was bound to cause some problems, as it was initially seen as a patch-work crew that was only bridging the gap until Minor, Santana and Floyd could return. Now comes the hard part, figuring out where everything fits now that this group is at full strength.

As Gonzalez told reporters Wednesday: "When (Floyd’s) ready to go, we’ll put him in there some place."

Where, exactly, remains a mystery.