Ervin Santana's dominant debut boosts surprisingly effective Braves rotation
Quick quiz: Which team has the lowest rotation ERA in the major leagues heading into Thursday's action? Would you believe it's the Atlanta Braves, and that it's not even close? This is the same rotation that lost Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery in consecutive spring starts after losing Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm to free agency over the offseason and, just two weeks ago, was choosing between non-roster leftovers Freddy Garcia and Aaron Harang for the fourth, not fifth, spot in their Opening Day rotation. Those Atlanta Braves, eight games into the 2014 season, have a starters' ERA of 1.37, more than half a run better than the second-place, and fully healthy, Tigers rotation.
Obviously, that level of performance won't last, but the already-thriving Atlanta rotation got a boost Wednesday night when Ervin Santana, who was signed to a one-year deal in mid-March in the wake of the Medlen and Beachy injuries, made his Braves debut. Santana, who was delayed by his late signing date, threw eight sparkling scoreless innings against the Mets, allowing just three hits and walking none while striking out six. Santana needed just 88 pitches, 74 percent of which were strikes, to get through those eight innings. He didn't throw a ball until his 21st pitch of the game, didn't get into a three-ball count until there were two outs in the fourth inning, and didn't allow a runner to reach third base at any point in the game. By game score, it was Santana's best start since he shut out the Diamondbacks in June 2012.
It was also the best start by a Brave on the young season, which is saying something. After eight games, the Braves have received seven quality starts from their rotation of Santana, Harang, sophomores Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, and rookie David Hale. The lone exception was Hale's start on Friday, in which he held the Nationals scoreless for five innings before yielding to the bullpen. In his young major league career, the 26-year-old Hale, who was ticketed for the bullpen before injuries to Medlen and Beachy, has now allowed just one run in 16 innings across three starts. The next Braves starter to allow three runs in a game this season will be the first.
That won't last, but it won't necessarily have to. Santana has expanded the rotation to five men, and there are more on the way. Mike Minor, who was slowed by a sore shoulder in camp believed to be the result of his inaction following surgery on his urethra in December, began a rehab assignment on Tuesday and will start for Triple-A Gwinnett on Sunday with an eye toward joining the Braves' rotation in two weeks. His return could push Harang, who has rewarded the Braves by allowing just one run over 12 innings through his first two starts, or Hale out of the rotation. Meanwhile, offseason addition Gavin Floyd, who is working his way back from May 2013 Tommy John surgery, had a solid 60-pitch rehab outing for Gwinnett on Tuesday, will target 75 pitches in his start for Double-A Mississippi on Sunday, and remains on target for an early-May return.
In the meantime, the Braves are banking quality starts from pitchers like Harang, whose primary task heading into the season was to keep the team afloat until those reinforcements arrived. Thanks in very large part to the stellar performance of their makeshift rotation, the Braves have the fourth-best record in the National League (5-3) and are just a game behind the rival Nationals atop the NL East. If they beat the Mets behind Hale on Thursday night, they will have won each of their first three series, including taking two of three from the Nats in Washington last weekend behind strong outings from Hale and Teheran. The Braves meet up with the Nationals in Atlanta this weekend (Teheran, Wood and Harang are the scheduled starters), after which their schedule goes soft for a while, with series against the Phillies, Mets, Marlins, and the scuffling Reds, by which point Minor is expected to have returned. Right now, the Braves' rotation is the least of its problems. Far more problematic is the slow start of its offense. In those three losses, the Braves scored a grand total of one run and, on the season as a whole, they rank 29th in the majors with just 2.4 runs scored per game. Freddie Freeman is raking, Andrelton Simmons is hitting for a solid average, and Chris Johnson is a few more walks away from a respectable batting line, but the rest of the team is flatlining. The Upton brothers have struck out 24 times in 62 plate appearances and have yet to hit their first home run (Justin doesn't have an extra-base hit of any kind, and he's been the more productive of the two). Dan Uggla has a .188 on-base percentage, a perfect match for Jason Heyward's batting average, and the surprising starting rotation has as many RBI (1), more runs scored (1), and almost as many hits (3) as the bench (4, all singles).