Braves winning formula working so far

April 9, 2013 

There’s an old theory in baseball that pitchers have it easier on the mound if they know they are going to get run support from their offense. By contrast, if a pitcher knows the lineup for his team struggles to score runs, it might make him feel like he has to pitch a shutout for his team to win.

Chances are the Atlanta Braves pitchers feel pretty confident they won’t have to be that perfect each and every time out this year. After watching a dangerous lineup for a little over a week of the season, they’re probably certain on most nights they are going to get solid run support.

But the best part of the Braves’ early season success is that the pitchers are doing their part, too.

Through the first eight games of the season, Atlanta’s pitchers gave up only 18 runs. The 2.13 team ERA is second in baseball, behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Some had concerns about Atlanta’s pitching staff, and while we’re talking about a small sample, including some games against some not-so-solid offenses, it has still been very impressive.

The good work by the pitchers has the hitters talking about how the men on the mound are backing them up, instead of it being the other way around.

Atlanta’s offensive star so far, Justin Upton, said Sunday, “They’ve done a great job. They’ve given us a chance to go out and score runs. They’ve kept runs off the board. They’ve done an unbelievable job. Our bullpen has come in and shut innings down. They’re doing everything an offense can ask for. When they keep runs off the board, and we’re not battling from behind, it makes a big difference. We know if we give these guys a couple of runs, we’re confident they’re going to keep that lead.”

And therein lies the blueprint the Braves’ brass envisioned when it acquired Justin Upton and his brother B.J. in the offseason. It was simple, really: get some big bats in the lineup, get early leads and then let the pitchers do their job.

Think about it. The Braves were 76-15 last year when they scored four or more runs. That was pretty good. But if that mark got even better, Atlanta might have the best team in baseball.

Who could have predicted Justin Upton’s start? He had six home runs in his first eight games, with an average at .400. He’s arguably the biggest power threat in the Atlanta lineup since Gary Sheffield a decade ago.

There’s a difference between a power hitter and a player who can hit home runs. Plenty of big leaguers can hit home runs. But Justin Upton is a power hitter in every respect. He’s a threat that not many teams have in a lineup -- just like Sheffield was in his prime.

It seems that Justin Upton’s success is rubbing off on his teammates. After the emotional win Saturday, when both Uptons homered to cap a comeback win over the Chicago Cubs, the Braves fell behind Sunday. Chicago starter Jeff Samardzija was striking out everybody, but nobody seemed to believe Atlanta would roll over and die.

The Braves got a big hit from Ramiro Pena, who was in for the injured Andrelton Simmons, and then added insurance when pitcher Tim Hudson got a base hit. Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without a home run, and they got that from Dan Uggla in the eighth inning to clinch it.

“Everybody always says hitting is contagious,” Uggla said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who feed off each other and a lot of guys that can do a lot of great things offensively. If we keep putting guys on base paths and keep hitting some homers … We’re all trying to keep up with each other here, I think.”

“If somebody is struggling, we’ve got a whole bunch of people to pick us up,” catcher Evan Gattis said. “Scoring runs is all about momentum, and I feel we put that on teams.”

And if the Braves get the solid pitching to back that up, this is going to be a very good baseball team.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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