Things are looking up in Atlanta.
The Braves have hit their stride and gained momentum in the National League East, winning five of six games in their opening homestand of the season last week, and torching the Arizona Diamondbacks for 10 runs in the first game of their second road trip of the season.
The offense has been clicking in every spot in the order, and the pitching, especially the bullpen, has been doing a good job of keeping the Braves in games long enough for the offense to break through.
Luckily, it hasn’t taken long for the Braves to break through recently.
The Braves offense scored a run within the first two inning of every game last week. They had two runs in the first inning of Thursday’s game against the Diamondbacks in Arizona, thanks to an opposite field, two-run home run from Freddie Freeman. Freeman has seven hits, three home runs and 10 RBI in his last three games.
Certainly the offense is pulling its weight for the Braves, but what is more important? Their offense, or their pitching?
The offense was certainly the problem for the Braves early in the season. Their lineup couldn’t produce hardly any runs in spring training, and that production carried over into the first series against the Mets in New York.
The Braves were shut out on Opening Day, and lost their next three games before finally breaking out for six runs against the Astros on April 10 in Houston. Players like Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones and Brian McCann were getting hits, but there were no runners on base, and the bats behind them weren’t producing with any consistency. The Braves lineup showed life in their first win against the Astros, and they’ve held on to it.
Since their first win, the Braves have won seven of eight games, and have scored more runs than any offense in the National League. Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman have 29 hits and five home runs between them this season, and Michael Bourn has started sparking the top of the lineup, recording 15 hits, six stolen bases and eight runs scored this season.
McCann, Jones and Juan Francisco each have two home runs, and seven hitters on the Braves roster have at least six RBI.
The offense was originally the worry for most Braves fans, but recently, I’ve started to worry about the pitching.
The starting pitching for the Braves has been decent, but there’s certainly room for improvement. Randall Delgado, the rookie right-hander who has assumed the fifth spot in the rotation with Tim Hudson on the disabled list, has pitched solid in his starts for the Braves this season, and has two wins in as many starts.
Mike Minor, another young arm in the Braves’ rotation, has two wins in three starts this season, and pitched eight fantastic, five-hit innings on Thursday against the Diamondbacks, and allowed just one earned run in his second win of the season.
Brandon Beachy, yet another young right-hander that the Braves groomed in the minors until 2010, has two starts on the season, and although he lost his first start, he allowed just one earned run and four hits in five innings of work against the Astros in Houston. His second start, at home against the Milwaukee Brewers, was a seven-inning, three-hit, no earned run gem that earned him his first win of the young 2012 season.
What is more important to continuing the Braves' success?
The young guns are holding their own for the Braves early this year, but the veterans of the staff—still young guns themselves in many ways—have been lackluster so far in 2012.
Tommy Hanson, the ace of the Braves staff, has three starts on the season, and although he hasn’t had atrocious starts, he looks a little off to begin the season.
He was taken out of the Opening Day game against the Mets on April 5, after five innings pitched, only allowing one earned run. He won his next start in Houston, again throwing just five innings, and this time allowing two earned runs and six hits while recording eight strikeouts. He went deeper in his first home start, going seven innings against the Mets on April 16, but he allowed four earned runs and was hit with a loss in his third start of the season.
Hanson’s strikeouts have been on pace for his normal season totals, but he needs to start going longer in games. The Braves have a solid bullpen, but they need their starters to carry the early innings and hand the game off to Eric O’Flaherty or Jonny Venters in the seventh.
Jair Jurrjens needs to go longer in his starts as well, but he also needs to miss more bats.
Jurrjens has given up 21 hits, five home runs and 12 earned runs in his first three starts of the 2012 season. Jurrjens has an 8.10 ERA in 13.1 innings of work this year, and he has recorded only eight strikeouts while issuing nine walks.
Jurrjens was an All-Star in 2011, and the first half of his 2011 season had some whispering his name in the Cy Young conversation. He hasn’t commanded the zone with his fastball this season the way he confidently has in years past. His pitches are being left up in the zone, and batters are teeing off against him early, leaving the Braves in a hole in the early innings. Jurrjens needs to turn his season around in order for the Braves to have any postseason hopes this year.
The Braves have a wild card that hopes to join them soon. Tim Hudson, the 36-year-old veteran of the Braves rotation, has started the season in the minor leagues, rehabbing from spine fusion surgery. In his last start for Triple-A Gwinnett, Hudson allowed one earned run on two hits and three walks in five innings of work. He earned 16 wins for the Braves in 2011, and his ERA (3.22) was the second lowest of all starting pitchers for the Braves last year.
Hudson can bring the rotation together and give them a focus that younger players often need. "Gonzalez said Hudson will throw closer to 100 pitches in a rehab start next Tuesday with the plan for him to be activated for a series against Pittsburgh later this month," according to Fox Sports South.
The Braves bullpen has swept up most of the dirt left behind by the starters. Craig Kimbrel has four saves in as many attempts this season, and Jonny Venters has returned to form, shutting the door in the eighth before Kimbrel turns out the lights in the ninth. The bullpen is in top form, and Atlanta will need them to be in October.
The Braves are in good shape in mid-April, second in the NL East to the Nationals, and scoring more runs than any other National League club. The pitching, specifically the starting pitching, needs some work, but there’s plenty of time for pitching coach Roger McDowell and Co. to work on it.