Fortunes of Braves rotation change for the best

sports@macon.comJune 18, 2013 

When Alex Wood made the start for the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday against the New York Mets, it was the first time someone outside of the original starting five in the rotation had made a start.

The Braves were the final team this season to use only five starting pitchers, which is a testament to how strong the rotation has been this season. It also led me to remember a time when the Atlanta rotation was not so strong.

I began watching the Braves in 1978, Bobby Cox’s first season as manager. Phil Niekro was about the only dependable starting pitcher on the staff. Next was Preston Hanna, who -- believe it or not -- was a first-round draft pick in 1972. Hanna was awful. Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s true, and, if you saw him pitch, you know I’m right.

Hanna pitched in the first game I ever saw as a fan. It’s amazing I didn’t become a hockey fan right then and there. He was 17-25 in his eight big league seasons with an ERA of 4.61. Thankfully, to protect the integrity of the game, Hanna was finished with baseball before his 28th birthday.

Mickey Mahler was next. You might remember his younger brother, the late Rick Mahler, who was actually decent in his 11 seasons with the Braves. Mickey was 14-32 in his big league career, 10-24 in his three seasons in Atlanta.

The fourth member of the 1978 rotation was Larry McWilliams, who was actually pretty decent in his rookie season. He went 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 15 starts. He’ll be remembered as the starter who helped reliever Gene Garber stop Pete Rose’s 44-game hit streak in Atlanta that summer. McWilliams actually had a good career, but it came after he left the Braves when they traded him to Pittsburgh for Pascual Perez.

Dick Ruthven was not a bad pitcher, but the Braves were so desperate for a closer they traded Ruthven back to Philadelphia that summer for Garber, who became a legend in Atlanta. Remember Tommy Boggs, a big right-hander from Texas who the Braves got from the Texas Rangers in a big offseason trade? Boggs had one good season in Atlanta (1980), but injuries were a big reason he was only 20-44 in nine big league seasons.

The late Eddie Solomon, from Perry, was mainly a journeyman reliever in the big leagues, but Atlanta gave him eight starts that season. In 1979, “Buddy J” actually made 30 starts and had a 4.21 ERA and a 7-14 record. Jamie Easterly and Adrian Devine were two other relievers who had to make six starts apiece for the Braves in 1978.

Atlanta was so desperate that season that the team signed Jim Bouton, who was 39 then and had already written “Ball Four,” his story of the wild years he spent with the New York Yankees. Bouton hadn’t pitched in the major leagues in eight seasons, and his five starts with the Braves ended his career.

Rick Camp, who died April 25, started four games. And Frank LaCorte rounded out the Braves’ starting pitchers that season. He made two starts, making him the 12th pitcher that season to make a start.

I’m afraid to look up the rotation’s ERA in 1978. Yeah, I’m just not going to do it. Let’s just say it was pretty bad. Niekro was great. He had a 2.88 ERA and won 19 games on a bad team with 334-1/3 innings. Yes, that’s not a misprint. Pitchers pitched a lot back then. McWilliams was pretty impressive with his sub-3.00 ERA. But that was about it.

I have memories of the old Braves teams once in a while to appreciate more of what we’re seeing today. The group of Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran has been very, very good. It makes you understand clearly why this year’s Braves team is in first place and the pitchers wearing the same uniform 35 years ago were stuck in last.

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 email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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