Julio Teheran appears to have figured a few things out. On Wednesday, the Braves' 22-year-old righty no-hit the Pirates for 7 2/3 innings before Brandon Inge's pinch-hit single ended his quest to become the franchise's pitcher in 19 years to complete such a gem.
Working primarily with a four-seam fastball (average velocity 93.2 mph, max 95.2 mph) and a slider while mixing in a curve, changeup and two-seamer, Teheran dominated a Bucs lineup that already ranked among the league's lowest-scoring (3.73 runs per game, 11th) and most strikeout prone (22.0 percent, fourth). Over the course of his eight innings, he struck out a career-high 11 while walking two and plunking two.
Despite the strikeouts, Teheran was ruthlessly efficient; he never needed more than 16 pitches in an inning, because he went to only three three-ball counts all game. Four of the Pirates' five baserunners didn't get on until they had two outs in the inning, and none even advanced to second base after getting on. Starling Marte, who was hit by a pitch with one out in the sixth inning, was picked off first base by a throw from Teheran to end the inning. Via the PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net, Teheran's slider and four-seamer accounted for 86 of his 107 pitches and 19 of his 22 swings and misses, including eight at strike three.
Teheran finished the day shortly after yielding his first hit, a clean line drive to leftfield that elicited a hearty ovation from the Turner Field crowd of 28,703 in recognition of his sterling effort:
With four more outs, Teheran would have become the first Braves pitcher to throw a no-hitter since Kent Mercker blanked the Dodgers on April 8, 1994, and the first pitcher to throw a no-hitter at Turner since the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez on April 17, 2010.
Though Atlanta had lost three of Teheran's previous four starts — scoring just four runs in those losses — he had been on a modest roll coming in, having allowed no more than three runs in any of his previous seven starts, a span during which he'd posted a 2.49 ERA while striking out 32 and walking six in 47 innings. That run marked a significant step forward for a pitcher who ranked fifth on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list prior both to the 2011 and 2012 seasons, but whose star had fallen somewhat amid unimpressive spot duty with the big club and the near-doubling of his ERA at Triple-A Gwinnett as he repeated the level (5.08 in 2012, up from 2.55 in 2011). All of which cause eyebrows to raise when the Braves cleared up their rotation logjam this past winter by trading away both Tommy Hanson and Randall Delgado, the former to the Angels in exchange for Jordan Walden and the latter to the Diamondbacks as part of the Justin Upton blockbuster.
Teheran had struggled at higher levels in the past due to command and execution of his breaking ball as well as a pronounced flyball tendency that left him vulnerable to homers. He's justified his team's faith thanks to significant improvement in his slider, on which he's generated swings and misses 13 percent of the time this year, and to an increased ability to generate groundballs. On balls in play, 48 percent have been grounders, up from 38 percent last year at Gwinnett, and after allowing five homers in his fist 16 innings, he's held opponents to just three over his last 55.
With Teheran's help, Atlanta is now a major league best 37-22, leading the NL East by 7 1/2 games over the Nationals and Phillies. Along with the strong work of Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm, the team's rotation entered Wednesday ranked fourth in the league in ERA (3.54) and third in quality start rate (64 percent). The only starter with an ERA above 3.68 thus far has been Tim Hudson, whose 4.80 mark owes more to a .419 batting average on balls in play with runners in scoring position than anything else. If additional reinforcements are needed, Brandon Beachy is now three starts into a rehab assignment as he works his way back from June 2012 Tommy John surgery. At some point, that figures to be necessary, given that Hudson and Maholm are the only starters with more than one full season in a rotation, with Minor's 2012 the only other 30-start season from the rest of the group. Speaking of reinforcements, lost amid Teheran's effort was the first-inning departure of opposite number Wandy Rodriguez, who threw just 14 pitches before being pulled due to tightness in his forearm. He's heading back to Pittsburgh for further evaluation. Meawhile, top pitching prospect Gerrit Cole threw seven innings of three-hit shutout ball at Triple-A Indianapolis, extending his streak of scoreless innings to 19 2/3. The overall number one pick of the 2011 draft could take Rodriguez's next turn, though thanks to off days, the Pirates wouldn't need a fifth starter again until June 15 against the Dodgers.