For years, the Atlanta Braves have won ballgames with great pitching. But even though the “big three” of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz are long gone, things haven’t changed very much.
Coming into this season, everyone held their breath. The Braves lost two-fifths of the starting rotation for the season when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy got hurt in spring training. Mike Minor, another top arm, will be out a few more weeks with a shoulder issue.
So the Braves had to survive April with the revamped pitching staff until it takes shape in a few weeks.
Or so we thought.
Instead, the pitching has been the story. The offense has been sluggish, and that’s being kind. It scored only 15 runs in the first six games. Scoring 2.5 runs per game won’t win you many, unless your pitchers are doing better.
Atlanta’s staff is second in baseball with a 1.56 team ERA. That’s why the Braves started Tuesday’s home opener with a 4-2 record.
Again, it’s all about the pitching.
Perhaps it’s time to give Roger McDowell some credit. He’s the Braves’ pitching coach. He took over for the heralded Leo Mazzone and was more famous for his appearance on “Seinfeld” than his decent big-league career as a reliever. Many thought he could never fill the shoes of the man who rocked in the dugout as he watched future Hall of Famers twirl almost every night.
But McDowell’s staffs have done great work. The Braves have been in the top six in the major leagues in team ERA in six of McDowell’s eight seasons as the pitching coach. The Braves have been in the top five in that category in each of the past five seasons.
It’s hard to find someone to say something bad about McDowell. I don’t recall ever hearing a bad word about his approach to helping pitchers and his ability to communicate. I’m sure not every pitcher he has had has liked him, but it certainly is hard to find anyone who doesn’t believe he has done a good job.
His pitching staffs just get the job done, regardless of how many times we might wonder if those pitchers can be successful. Here he is this season with four rookies on the opening day roster and a Band-Aid on the rotation, and look at what they’ve done so far.
Last year might have been the most impressive season for McDowell. He lost three excellent relievers (Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Cristhian Martinez) for most of the season. His ace, Tim Hudson, went down in late July. Yet the Braves led the majors with a 3.18 ERA.
McDowell almost left the Braves for Philadelphia last winter, but thankfully the front office realized his value and gave him a two-year contract. Sometimes those in the dugout who are no longer playing are just as valuable as the ones on the field.
This season is still going to be a challenge for the staff. Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, who have been great so far, are both only 23 years old and must lead the rotation. Ervin Santana, scheduled to make his Atlanta debut Wednesday night, needs to eat innings. And most importantly, the Braves need Minor back to do what he did last year. Then they must rely on Aaron Harang and Gavin Floyd to round out the rotation.
But maybe we’re being silly by worrying. It seems that somehow, some way McDowell’s staffs will keep this team in the pennant race more times than not.
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 www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.