Braves’ new ace Miller faces sizzling Giants

Shelby Miller has pitched like a true No. 1-caliber starter this season, and there aren't many of those in the majors. (AP Photo)
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Shelby Miller has pitched like a true No. 1-caliber starter this season, and there aren't many of those in the majors. (AP Photo)

SAN FRANCISCO – Shelby Miller has been standing on his head, as the hockey folks would say, for quite some time now, and for the past few weeks the Braves’ new ace has been arguably baseball’s hottest pitcher. Which is what makes tonight’s series opener against the Giants worth staying up to watch, even for all you folks back home in Braves Country.

Shelby Miller has pitched like a true No. 1-caliber starter this season, and there aren't many of those in the majors. (AP Photo)

Shelby Miller has pitched like a true No. 1-caliber starter this season, and there aren’t many of those in the majors. (AP Photo)

Miller, who is 2-0 with a 0.87 ERA and two shutouts in his past four starts, faces arguably his toughest test so far this season when he tries to slow a Giants offense that’s been like a locomotive barreling down the tracks for a couple of weeks now.

The Giants are 24-10 with a .290 batting average and 29 homers in their past 34 games, and in their past 13 they are 11-2 with a sizzling .309 average, 16 homers and 83 runs, including eight or more runs in six of 13 games, and 10 or more runs in four.

The Braves have won eight of their past 12 games to maintain a surprising .500 record (23-23), and Wednesday night they beat the Dodgers 3-2 to snap an 11-game losing streak in the Pacific Time Zone and avoid being swept in the first series of a 10-game trip that includes four games here in San Francisco and then three in Arizona.

“It’s a huge win,” center fielder Cameron Maybin said of the win at Dodger Stadium, the first Braves win on the West Coast since May 13, 2014, when they won the middle fame of a three-game series against the Giants here at AT&T Park. “These guys (Dodgers) have been playing great baseball this month. So to leave here getting a win, especially with a guy like (Zack) Greinke on the mound, we’ve got to be excited about going to San Francisco.

“They (Giants) are another team that’s playing good baseball, so it doesn’t get any easier. But it’s a good way to finish up here in L.A.”

No, it certainly doesn’t get any easier with this long series hard by China Basin. The Braves were 1-5 with a .192 batting average and only 14 runs scored against the Giants last season, that one winning coming in San Francisco.

But Atlanta has to feel good about its chances tonight, because with Miller on the mound the Braves know they have a better than average chance of beating anyone with the way he’s pitched this entire season, which is also how he pitched late last season when he was still with the Cardinals.

Also, the Braves know they’re not facing one of the Giants’ top starters in the opener. They have favorable pitching matchups, in fact, in both of the first wo games in the series, with Miller facing  Chris Heston (4-3, 4.33 ERA) and rookie Mike Foltynewicz, coming off his best start, facing former Brave Tim Hudson (2-4, 5.04 ERA) on Friday.

The Braves need to take advantage in the first two games, because Saturday and Sunday they’ll have Williams Perez facing Tim Lincecum (5-2, 2.56 ERA) and struggling Julio Teheran facing Madison Bumgarner.

Tonight, it’s time for Miller, who’ll try to continue a rather remarkable run of pitching. We already mentioned his past four starts, which included a three-hit shutout and a two-hit shutout. He surrendered just 15 hits, three runs and six walks with 25 strikeouts in 31 innings over those four starts.

But going back further, it’s quite a body of work he’s putting together, silencing any remaining skeptics who wondered if he could keep it going for a sustained period.

A couple more factors that favor the Braves’ tonight: Miller is 3-0 with a 1.36 ERA and .152 opponents’ average in five road starts this season, and 3-1 with a 1.38 ERA in six night games.

And by the way, if it didn’t already seem like this was Shelby’s year, consider this: By luck of the rotation order he avoided facing the Dodgers, against whom his 6.57 ERA is his highest against any team he’s faced more than once. He didn’t have to pitch at Dodger Stadium, where his 7.15 ERA in three games (two starts) is his highest of any ballpark where he’s pitched more than once.

Instead he’ll face the Giants, against whom he’s 2-0 with a 1.46 ERA in two starts, his second-lowest ERA against any team he’s faced more than once. Both of those games were in 2013, and he gave up four hits and two runs in 5 1/3 innings of the game at San Francisco.

Nori Aoki is 7-for-18 with a homer against Miller, while Brandon Crawford (2-for-5) is the only other active Giant with more than one hit against him.

Not that it’s mattered much lately who is on the other side of the field against Miller, or where. He’s 5-1 with a 1.50 ERA in nine starts, ranking first in the majors in opponents’ average (.172) and fewest hits allowed per nine innings (5.4), second in the majors in opponents’ slugging percentage (.254), third in in the NL in ERA, and tied for fourth in the NL in opponents’ OBP (.247).

By the way, Julio Teheran has the highest opponents’ OBP (.377) among NL starters, the fourth-highest opponents’ average (.305), and the fifth-highest opponents’ slugging percentage (.510), just ahead of Eric Stults (.520).

Now, getting back to Miller for just another minute or two. (The way he’s going, there can be no overkill in examing the work.)

He’s 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA and .180 opponents’ average in 16 starts going back to late August, including 4-0 with a 1.97 ERA and .170 opponents’ average in eight road starts during that period.

To make his road success even more impressive, consider that five of Miller’s eight road games in that period came at Philadelphia (two), Cincinnati (two) and Toronto, which rank among the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the majors. And another of those starts was at Wrigley Field with the wind blowing out.

Miller is 7-1 with a 1.49 ERA, .178 opponents’ average  and only five homers in 90 1/3 innings over his past 14 starts, and his team won 12 of those 14 games. He allowed two or fewer runs in all but one of those 14 starts, the exception coming on Sept. 23 at Wrigley, where he gave up three runs and two homers in 4 1/3 innings.

Speaking of Maybin, he homered Wednesday night and has hit .321 with seven extra-base hits, a .424 OBP and .462 slugging percentage in his past 25 games, including .341 (14-for-41) with 10 runs, seven RBIs and a .449 OBP in his past 12 games entering the Giants series. And he’s the only current Brave who’s faced Heston, going 0-for-1 with a walk in two plate appearances against the right-hander.

Heston is 1-2 in four home starts but has a 2.77 ERA and only one homer allowed, with 20 strikeouts and seven walks in 26 innings. He’s 3-1 in five road starts despite an ERA that’s three runs higher (5.79) and despite giving up five homers in 28 innnigs away from San Francisco.

Opponents have hit .274 with a .235 OBP against Heston, including a fat .344 (32-for-93) by lefties with five homers, a .390 OBP and .581 slugging percentage. He’s held righties to a .221/.275/.311 slash line with one homer in 122 at-bats.

Let’s close with this one from the great Bobby Bare.

“WHAT AM I GONNA DO” by Bobby Bare (C. King, T. Stern)

Bobby Bare

Bobby Bare

What am I gonna do girl, what am I gonna do
I love you so much, what am I gonna do
What am I gonna do girl, what am I gonna do
I love you so much, what am I gonna do?

Sittin’ here and thinkin’ ’bout you so far away
Wondering what you’re thinkin’, wondering what you’d say
If you were sittin’ here beside me, here alone beside me
Used to be so good with you, but baby baby.

What am I gonna do, what am I gonna do
I love you so much, what am I gonna do?

You left me here alone said it all takes time
I should keep the place together keep everything in line
Why aren’t you sittin’ here beside me here alone beside me
Till you come back to me baby baby.

What am I gonna do girl, what am I gonna do
I love you so much, what am I gonna do
What am I gonna do girl, what am I gonna do
I love you so much, what am I gonna do?…

 

 


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