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David O'Brien

For openers, Braves must play well behind makeshift rotation

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MILWAUKEE – It’s Opening Day. The outfield grass is immaculate at (fill in any major league ballpark name), and the burgers and brats cooking on the grills down in the stadium concourse will create the most incredible smells you could ever savor.

But if these Braves don’t play well behind their makeshift starting rotation early on, it could get ugly.

Julio Teheran starts season opening at Milwaukee on Monday.

Julio Teheran starts Opening Day at Milwaukee on Monday.

Wait, hold it. I’m better than that. No abrupt transitions on Opening Day. We need romance, anecdotes, tales of renewal and rebirth and hope abounding in 30 major league cities from sea to sea.

This will have to suffice instead.

My first year as a major league beat writer was 1995. That year I shared the Marlins beat at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel with a true pro, Gordon Edes, who talked me into coming over from Dolphins coverage, then soon left for the greener grass covering the Red Sox for The Boston Globe, leaving the beat in my decidedly unstable (at that time) and young (again, at that time) hands.

The Marlins had those of-an-era, all-teal caps and batting helmets, which looked a bit Little League but looked better than the current Marlins cap with the huge, sparkly M. (And what’s with the sparkly accents on the Marlins’ jersey numbers? Look closely. Cheesy.)

That Florida team lost its first four games, with starters John Burkett, Mark Gardner, Bobby Witt and Patt Rapp all taking L’s. It also lost 13 of its first 16, including being swept by Atlanta in South Florida at what was then still Joe Robbie Stadium, losing to Maddux, Glavine and Woodall. (Wait, what? Woodall?  That’s reliever Brad Woodall).

Those Marlins had Jeff Conine at his peak (.302/.379/.520, 25 homers and 105 RBIs), Gary Sheffield hitting .314 with a .465 OBP and 1.054 OPS (but only for 63 games due to injury), aging Terry Pendleton still hitting .290 with 32 doubles and 14 homers, Greg Colbrunn hitting .277 with 23 homers, Kurt Abbott with seven triples and 17 homers, and the defensively superb Charles Johnson behind the plate. In other words, they had some good pieces. But their best starting pitcher was Rapp.

They finished fourth at 67-76, 22-1/2 games out of first place and in that truncated season, which started late because of the strike/lockout that had also shortened the previous season and wiped out the 1994 postseason.

Meanwhile, the Braves not only cranked out another division title that season, but also the NL pennant and World Series championship, the first – and still only – major professional sports title in Atlanta history. Bobby Cox’s Braves, known to get off to sluggish starts before catching fire by early summer, were 20-17 on June 4 that year. Then they went 70-37 the rest of the way, pounding out 125 homers in those last 107 games and finishing with 90 wins in a 144-game season.

Four Braves – David Justice, Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko – hit between 23 and 27 homers that season. But even more impressive was the pitching staff led by Greg Maddux, who went 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA in 209-2/3 innings over 28 starts; Tom Glavine, who was 16-7 with a 3.08 ERA in 198-2/3 innings, and John Smoltz, who was 12-7 with a 3.18 ERA and 193 strikeouts in 192-2/3 innings.

You can do some pretty good things with a trio of starters doing that kind of work, don’t ya think?

Alex Wood has moved quickly from "attaboy" status to being counted upon as Braves No. 2 starter early on in injury-plagued rotation.

Alex Wood has moved quickly from “attaboy” status to being counted upon as Braves No. 2 starter early on in injury-plagued rotation.

I came to the Braves beat at the AJC during the 2002 season, another of those years when Cox’s team started out slow, then bulldozed opponents for much of the summer. They were 19-21 with a solid 3.28 ERA and 41 homers but only a .241 batting average. Then they flipped the switch, as they were wont to do, and went 82-38 the rest of the way, with a 3.08 ERA, .266 team batting average and 123 homers in those 101 games.

A year later, the Braves started out 4-8 with a 6.39 ERA, with Maddux absorbing three of those losses and Russ Ortiz and Horacio Ramirez two apiece. Then that team apparently realized the season had started, and hit the figurative ‘on’ switch. They went 97-53 the rest of the way, belting 222 homers in those 150 games and averaging 5.7 runs in that torrid stretch. Think about that – 222 homers in 150 games.

Six Braves hit more than 20 homers in that ’03 season and four drove in more than 105 runs, paced by Javy Lopez (43 homers, 109 RBIs), Sheffield (39/132), Andruw Jones (36/116), and Chipper (27/106).

And then a year after that, in 2004, they did the slow-start thing yet again: They went 17-21 to start, then 79-45 the rest of the way while hitting .276 with 145 homers in 124 games.

You know what else the Braves did in each of those three seasons? They lost in the division series,  part of their current postseason skid of eight consecutive series and a Wild Card game. Yikes. But that’s another subject for another day.

Today, it’s about Opening Day, and my long-winded route to making this point: The Braves have shown in the past, time and again, that they can overcome sluggish-or-worse starts through 12, 20, even 40 games, to still win the division.

But the thing is, this season is different for a couple of reasons.

Those Braves teams we cited above didn’t have a division opponent with quite the potential as the current Nats. And this Braves pitching staff, as currently constituted, before the hoped-for and planned addition and/or returns of several starters in the next few weeks, is not good enough to even tread water if the hitters and defenders don’t do good work behind them.

 

What I’m saying is, if the Braves don’t hit and field well in the first few weeks of the season, before the rotation is fully formed and rotating, and particularly before Ervin Santana and Mike Minor join it, then there’s a real chance things could get ugly in the opening weeks with a rotation that includes David Hale (two major league games) and Aaron Harang, who’s now in his sixth team in six years.

The schedule is friendly in that only 12 of the Braves’ first 40 are against teams that had winning records in 2013. But that includes six head-to-head meetings with the Nationals in the first two weeks, including three later this week after the Braves start out with three here against the Brewers beginning this afternoon.

Two series in two weeks with the Nationals, and you can be sure that Werth, Harper and the rest of them have discussed a desire to do to the Braves what the Braves did to them last season, when Atlanta rocked them early, including a sweep at Washington. They made a statement right away and took charge of the division race.

Let’s be clear: These Braves have a good lineup, but it’s not one that has the consistent power hitters to beat opponents into submission the way some of those Braves teams did in the past, when the veteran-laden Braves could shrug their shoulders during a slow first few weeks (or more) of the season and say, it’s only a matter of time, boys.

This Braves team has three potentially elite hitters in Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, but Freeman is the only one who’s done it with consistency over the past three seasons. Heyward hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and Upton, his 12 homers last April notwithstanding, hasn’t been able to avoid long stretches where he slips into the background and has almost no major impact.

So these Braves need to take care of the other parts of the game – they need good hitting, sound situational hitting, and strong defense – until they can get back the kind of pitching staff they envisioned.  Otherwise, manager Fredi Gonzalez could be put in a position of wearing out that bullpen early in a lot of one-run games, or seeing a lot of two- or three-run deficits get bigger in the late innings.

And the Braves could find themselves five or six games behind the Nationals by the end of April, trying to play catch-up all summer.

The Braves of the past have said it’d be nice to get off to a good start, but if they don’t it’s not going to ruin their season. And that’s true again – if they get back the kind of pitching staff they envision. If Minor is healthy, and Santana pitches like he did last season for the Royals and not like he did with the Angels in 2012, and if Gavin Floyd is better than just a .500, plus-4 ERA aging veteran coming off TJ surgery, etc.

But if they get something less than that from that pitching staff,  playing catch-up won’t be easy with an inconsistent lineup that isn’t chock-full of consistent impact hitters and a bullpen that could see a lot of early work.

So it’s important. Playing well early – hitting and defending well – is important behind a makeshift rotation the Braves hope can hold it together until the cavalry arrives.

OK, it’s early. Day game, and the parking lot at Miller Park fills up early here for the opener every year. Cheeseheads love to tailgate anytime. So that’s the closest thing I’ve got to rebirth and romance this morning before finding more coffee and heading over to the ‘yard in the retractable dome.

Braves Opening Day lineup

  1. Heyward RF
  2. BUpton CF
  3. Freeman 1B
  4. CJohnson 3B
  5. JUpton LF
  6. Uggla 2B
  7. Gattis C
  8. Simmons SS
  9. Teheran RH

• Let’s close with a logical choice from The Killer, the one and only Jerry Lee Lewis. Click here to see him sing it.

“WHAT’S MADE MILWAUKEE FAMOUS” by Jerry Lee Lewis

It’s late and she is waiting, and I know I must go home,
But every time I start to leave, they play another song,
Then someone buys another round and whatever drinks are free,

Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis


What made Milwaukee famous has made a loser out of me.

Baby’s begged me not to go, so many times before,
She said love and happiness can’t live behind those swingin’ doors,
Now she’s gone and I’m to blame, too late I finally see,
What made Milwaukee famous has made a loser out of me.

Baby’s begged me not to go, so many times before,
She said love and happiness can’t live behind those swingin’ doors,
Now she’s gone and I’m to blame, too late I finally see,
What made Milwaukee famous has made a loser out of me.

What made Milwaukee famous has made a loser out of me,
What made Milwaukee famous has made a loser out of me.
What made Milwaukee famous has made a loser out of me.

 

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