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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Through rotation shuffle, Braves starters remain strong

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   PHILADELPHIA – Hey, we all realize it’s way early. Way, way early. Far too early to make any big judgments.

Still, one can’t help but notice that the Nationals, who once again were the pick of many pundits to win the NL East in large part because of their starting rotation, have a starters ERA of 5.06 after Stephen Strasburg got rocked by the Marlins last night.

Mid-spring training signee Ervin Santana has  been instrumental in the Braves' majors-leading 1.80 starters ERA.

Mid-spring training signee Ervin Santana has been instrumental in the Braves’ majors-leading 1.80 starters ERA.

The Braves, who began the season with Aaron Harang and David Hale in their injury-altered, patchwork rotation? Well, the Braves have a majors-leading 1.80 starters ERA, more than a half-run ahead of the No. 2 Oakland rotation (2.44).

Again, we know it’s early, and no one expects the Braves to keep getting what they’ve gotten so far from Harang and Co. I mean, no Braves starter has allowed more than three earned runs so far, and eight of 13 games ATL’s starter allowed one or none.

Still, they can expect good stuff all season from Ervin Santana and even better than what we’ve seen from Julio Teheran so far. And Mike Minor is tentatively set to join the rotation next week, either April 23 or April 25, provided he feels ready after his Friday night rehab start for Triple-A Gwinnett.

Speaking of the the Nationals, they finally lost to someone other than the Braves. They had been 1-5 against the Braves and 7-0 against everyone else until Tuesday, when they got whipped 11-2 by the Marlins, which dropped them 1 ½ games behind the first-place Braves, who were rained out Tuesday here in Philly.

I remember a conversation I had with Gerald Laird in spring training, after the Braves lost Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to season-ending elbow surgeries.

We’re in the same spot as last year,” Laird said. “We won the division. When we were healthy, we were really good – everybody was saying, ‘The Braves are still a really good team.’ But now everyone’s really picking the Nationals like they did last year. ‘Oh, they’ve got the rotation.’ Well you know what? They had the rotation last year. I’m not saying anything bad about them – that’s a great ballclub over there. But that’s why you play 162 games. You never know what’s going to happen.”

  • Good matchup tonight: After Tuesday’s rainout the Braves elected to skip David Hale’s turn, while the Phillies moved their starts back a day. That development sets up a mighty good matchup tonight in Philly — Julio Teheran vs. Cliff Lee, who originally had been scheduled to start Tuesday.

Teheran is 15-9 with a 2.81 ERA and .243 opponents’ average in his past 30 starts, with 167 strikeouts and 44 walks in 188 innings. He has three consecutive quality starts to begin the 2014 season, with two earned runs allowed in each. But his .282 opponents’ average and .346 opponents’ OBP are much higher than we’re used to from him.

Included is a .289 average by right-handed hitters and a .387 OBP by lefty batters. The numbers were inflated by his 10 hits allowed in six innings of his last start Friday against the Nationals in Atlanta. In two road starts before that, he allowed a total of 10 hits and four runs in 13 innings. Again, it’s way early. So numbers tend to get skewed.

Here’s what has made him have to work harder than usual this seasono: Leadoff hitters are 6-for-14 (.429) against him this season with four walks, one HBP, no strikeouts and a .579 OBP. He keeps having to work out of tight spots because of that, instead of having a lot of easy, quick innings.

It’s cold here in Philly today, folks, and it’s going to get a lot colder tonight. Right now (1:45 p.m.) it’s about 45 degrees and quite windy. Tonight, it’s supposed  to be 49 at 7 p.m., dropping to 41 degrees by 10 p.m.

But for those who think the weather might give Lee something of an advantage over Teheran, keep in mind that the young Colombian has actually pitched quite well on several occasions in the cold, most notably last April in frigid Colorado. He allowed eight hits, one run and no walks in seven innings of an April 23 game at Coors Field, in the second game of a doubleheader in which the temperature was below freezing the entire day.

The Phillies have caused more problems than weather has for Teheran. He’s 1-2 with a 5.79 ERA in four career starts against the Phils, including 1-1 with a 6.55 ERA in two last season.

This will be his first start at Citizens Bank Park since he made his major league debut there on May 7, 2011, when he gave up four hits (one homer), two walks and three runs in 4-1/3 innings, with one strikeout.

Teheran also struck out one in his second start 11 days later at Arizona, and those were his only two starts with fewer than two strikeouts until last week, when he struck out one against the Nationals. His strikeouts have been down quite a bit so far this season – two in six innings at Milwaukee, six in seven innings at Washington, and that one in six innings of his second start against the Nationals.

Among the Phillies, Chase Utley is 4-for-6 against Teheran, Jimmy Rollins is 4-for-9 with a homer, and Ryan Howard and Cody Asche each has a homer in three at-bats against the right-hander.

Teheran should probably expect less than usual run support with Lee pitching for the Phillies. As we went over in yesterday’s blog, Lee has been about as tough on the Braves as any pitcher has in recent years, and only a lack of run support from his teammates has kept him from beating Atlanta several times more than he has.

Lee has a rather remarkable 113 strikeouts and seven walks in 99 2/3 innings against the Braves. Yes, 113 and seven.

Julio Teheran faces Cliff Lee Wednesday in a matchup of top pitchers in frigid Philly.

Julio Teheran faces Cliff Lee Wednesday in a matchup of top pitchers in frigid Philly.

He’s a relatively modest 7-6 with a 2.80 ERA in 15 starts against them, including 6-4 with a 1.79 ERA in the past 11 of those starts, going back to May 2011.

Lee has has 96 strikeouts, six walks and a .199 opponents’ average in 80 1/3 innings of those past 11 starts against the Braves, including games with strikeout totals of 16 (in seven innings), 11, 10 and 13. He struck out 13 with no walks in eight innings of his most recent start against the Braves on Sept. 27, when he he limited them to three hits and one run — and still took the loss.

That was the fifth time the Phillies scored one or no runs while he was in the game in his past 11 starts against the Braves.

Lee has a 5.50 ERA and .358 opponents’ average in three starts this season. He struggled mightily against the Rangers on opening day, allowing 11 hits and eight runs in five innings. But in two starts since – at Wrigley Field and home against the Brewers —  he’s allowed 18 hits, three runs and no walks with 14 strikeouts in 13 innings.

Chris Johnson, who was back in the lineup Tuesday (before the rainout) after being benched for two games, is 6-for-23 with two homers against Lee. Uggla is 7-for-27 (.189) with 17 strikeouts against him, but has two homers. Catchers Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird are a combined 2-for-26 with 13 K’s against Lee, including Laird’s 2-for-20 with nine strikeouts.

  • Extremes: The Braves have one lineup regular (Andrelton Simmons) who hasn’t struck out this season, and another (Gattis) who hasn’t drawn a walk. Simmons easily has the most plate appearances (45) in the majors this season without a strikeout.

By the way, Gattis now has 24 homers in 415 career plate appearances, after homering twice in Monday’s series opener. That’s an extreme ratio to start a career, even among top power hitters.

Philly fans probably wonder why he’s not hit even more, considering Gattis has four homers in 20 career at-bats (five games) at Citizens Bank Park, including two-homer games in each of his past two games at the hitter-friendl venue.

  • Freddie & J-Up: Despite having his nine-game hitting streak snapped Monday, Freddie Freeman is second in the majors in both OBP (.491) and slugging percentage (.745), trailing Chase Utley (.549/.844) in each category. Justin Upton (.446) is fourth in the National League in both OBP and slugging (.646).

As far as average, Freeman (.404) is fourth in the majors and J. Upton (.354) is 10th in the NL. (Utley also leads the majors in that category at .489.)

But even more encouraging for the Braves is the fact that no ATL player in bottom five in batting average. Been a while since they could say that. Certainly not last season.

B.J. Upton has the league’s fifth-lowest OBP (.226), but even that’s been on the uptick of late. The center fielder is 8-for-34 (.235) with three extra-base hits, three walks, seven strikeouts and a .297 OBP in his past eight games, and 4-for-13 (.308) with two walks, one strikeout and a .400 OBP in his past three games.

Freeman’s 1.236 OPS is second in the majors to Utley’s 1.393, and J-Up (1.092) is fourth in the NL.

• I’m gonna close with this great tune by one of the best and coolest singer/songwriters alive, Rosanne Cash, off her terrific recent release, The River & The Thread.

“A FEATHER’S NOT A BIRD” by Rosanne Cash

I’m going down to Florence, gonna wear a pretty dress
I’ll sit atop the magic wall with the voices in my head
Then we’ll drive on through to Memphis, past the strongest shoals
Then on to Arkansas just to touch the gumbo soul Rosanne_Cash

A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me

There’s never any highway when you’re looking for the past
The land becomes a memory and it happens way too fast
The money’s all in Nashville but the light’s inside my head
So I’m going down to Florence just to learn to love the thread

A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me

I burned up seven lives and I used up all my charms
I took the long way home just to end up in your arms
That’s why I’m going down to Florence, now I got my pretty dress
I’m gonna let the magic wall put the voices in my head

A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me

A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain

A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me 

 

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