Well, Opening Day has come and gone; and while it's just one game in a long season, first impressions can be revealing.
For the Atlanta Braves, Opening Day was extremely encouraging—something their fans have not felt in a long time.
The Braves had many obstacles to consider on Opening Day. They were playing the reigning World Champions on the road(gulp), starting a rookie center fielder who had never gotten past Double-A ball, staying with a once-promising outfielder who was coming off such a horrific season that he redid his batting stance, offensively anchored by a 36-year-old batting champ coming off an injury.
On the mound, the Braves started without pitching anchor John Smoltz for the first time since fire was invented, and are temporarily without Tim Hudson and Tom Glavine (surgery recoveries).
In spite of all these hurdles, the Atlanta Braves came to play on Opening Day.
Derek Lowe was simply fantastic. He had that trademark sinker ball—both in and away. His slider had a subtle cutting motion—not as pronounced as Greg Maddux’s cutter, but equally as effective.
He even caught a line drive off the mound, reminiscent of Mad Dog’s gold glove work.
Over eight innings, Lowe scattered a paltry two hits, struck out four (including big Ryan Howard), and induced 13 grounders on an economic 97 pitches. In one inning, he only needed nine deliveries.
Reliever Mike Gonzalez came on in the ninth and did his best impersonation of Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams, promptly giving up a run and eventually having the tying run at the plate.
However, the kid managed to strike out Howard and Raul Ibanez to close it out—more likely due to their tendency to go fishing, in my opinion.
If Gonzalez can gain some control on his delivery and not fly in three different directions when he pitches, he will be a formidable. The velocity is there, but the consistency is not.
If he doesn’t harness his mechanics, sooner or later batters will wise up and simply take the free passes.
I understand manager Bobby Cox’s long-term strategy in letting the kid work it out. Eventually, Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell will teach him the rule that relievers preserve leads when they are provided.
The Braves’ sticks came out early. Brian McCann went second deck, Jeff Francouer went deep, and rookie Jordan Schafer took Brett Myers deep in his first major league at-bat—and all within two innings.
Chipper Jones had two hits, including an inside-out line drive that extended the first inning so McCann could hit his 2-run homer. Schafer also had two hits.
Yunel Escobar raked a ball that would have easily been out anywhere else.
The explosion of power was aided by Meyers' inability to throw his curveball, but it took an aggressive team to hit his mistakes—and hit, the Braves did.
It'll be interesting to see how the bats perform when the y come up against a Cole Hammels or Johan Santana and have to push a run across. They won't simply hit home runs at will.
Aside from Jones bouncing an easy throw to first baseman Casey Kotchman, the defense was sound.
Escobar looked great, displaying his cannon to gun down the speedy Shane Victorino. Kotchman continued to show why he belongs; he may not have Texeira’s bat, but he has range, reflexes, and presence at the corner.
Hopefully, there will be no more need to hold one’s breath during a ground ball to the Braves' infield.
What To Look For: Starting Pitching
These Braves are poised to compete; and while they have provided the first impression that the sticks and the staff ace are in place, the key to Atlanta’s overall success in 2009 will be that of everyone else: consistent starting pitching.
Enter Jurjjens, Vazquez, Kawakami and Glavine.