The Atlanta Braves started off the 2014 season on the right note, taking two games out of three against the Milwaukee Brewers in a road series that started with several questions circling the 2013 NL East champs that were at least partially answered by the pair of wins against the Brew Crew.
Atlanta’s biggest concern prior to kicking off the season at Miller Park involved the team’s starting pitching, or lack thereof. Hampered by the loss of Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy for the season thanks to Tommy John surgery, the diligent preparation of Ervin Santana due to his late signing, and the conservative schedule put forth to help Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd return from injuries, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez found himself forced to roll out three of his four-man rotation against Milwaukee in Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and Aaron Harang.
Although there were certainly unknowns regarding Teheran’s position at the top of the rotation and Wood taking on the role of a full-time starter, the biggest gamble was on Harang, the thirty-five-year-old who has bounced around the league ever since the Cincinnati Reds parted ways with him following the 2010 season.
Harang was a very late add for the Braves during spring training, as he joined the squad on Mar. 24 to replace Freddy Garcia, the presumed fourth starter whose release even caught Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer David O’Brien off guard:
Signed for less money with the understanding that a trip to the minors was inevitable, Harang joined the Braves and was mediocre in his only spring training start, giving up eight hits and six runs in 5 2/3 innings in what would prove to be a 9-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers.
Despite being viewed as a rent-a-pitcher by most, Harang proved to be the most effective of this Atlanta trio to start the season. Armed with his lower-90s fastball and a nice slider, Harang made easy work out of the Milwaukee lineup, forcing six groundouts coupled with three strikeouts without allowing a hit under the bottom of the seventh inning. Harang finished his first regular season start with the Braves with just two hits allowed on 97 pitches, 63 of which were strikes.
As impressive as the pitching staff has been through three games, the Braves may need to shift their focus on the hitting, which was extremely limited in Milwaukee. Despite pulling out two victories, the Braves hit just .215 and struck out eighteen times against the Brewers, numbers that are alarming considering that Milwaukee was in the middle of the pack last season in several pitching statistics, including ERA (3.84, 16th), runs allowed (684, 14th), and strikeouts (1,125, 27th).
Several Atlanta Braves, including Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson, have looked smooth in transitioning into a new campaign, but one player who has looked less than prepared has been BJ Upton.
Coming off of one of the worst seasons of any batter in recent memory, Upton has once again looked off the mark at the plate, made apparent by his abysmal .083 average with one hit–notched in the top of the ninth of Wednesday’s win–compared to six strikeouts, leaving the $75 million dollar man tied with Arizona’s AJ Pollock for the most K’s in all of baseball.
Upton was bragged on by Braves hitting coach Larry Walker for his adjustments in the spring, which looked to be working judging by .267 average with 16 hits in 20 games, but so far it looks to be the same “Bossman Junior” as 2012. Obviously, three games is certainly not enough time to hit the panic button and call BJ Upton a hopeless cause, but the glimpse we have been able to peer at so far makes it clear that the elder Upton’s swing is still very much a work-in-progress.
Atlanta will hit the diamond again on Friday, Apr. 4 when they begin a three-game series against the Washington Nationals in D.C. The Braves then head back to Turner Field to face the New York Mets for their first home series of the year.