• Exclusives

    Braves split with Bucs, welcome Phils

    By Tara Rowe

    Hot on the heels of the first place Washington Nationals, the Atlanta Braves hoped to sit alone atop the division with a win against the Pirates last night. Their hopes were halted by a 9-3 loss, splitting the series 2-2 with the Bucs. First place will have to wait another day.

    Game 1: Burnett/Hanson

    A.J. Burnett came into Atlanta fresh off his first start of the season in which he went 7 innings, gave up 3 hits and didn’t allow a run. Burnett looked nearly as sharp at times in his 6 innings Friday night, giving up 6 hits and only 2 earned runs. However, the bullpen gave up 4 earned runs in relief of Burnett.

    For the Braves, there were high and low moments in the first game of the home stand.

    Catcher Brian McCann left the game with a right intercostal muscle strain in the fifth inning. McCann said he had blocked a pitch and threw down to second base in the fourth inning, causing a tightness to set in as he went to the bench. The initial worry was that it might have injured his oblique, an oblique injury sidelined McCann for what turned out to be crucial games at the end of the Braves’ 2011 season. McCann had hoped to be back by Monday, but ended up returning Sunday for Tim Hudson’s season debut.

    The Braves took the first game of the home stand and had their best game of the series with runners in scoring position (4-for-9).

    Game 2: Bedard/Delgado

    Erik Bedard’s 0-4 record did not reflect how well he had pitched in his first four starts as a Pittsburgh Pirate. Bedard had only given up 7 runs in those 4 starts and received little run support. Prior to game 4 of the series, the Pirates had not scored more than 5 runs in any of their games so far this season. Bedard would have been quite comfortable with 5 runs in support of his first four brilliant outings.

    In another example of the struggles of young Randall Delgado, the young starter game up 8 hits, 3 walks and 4 earned runs in 4 1/3 innings. In contrast, Bedard allowed 5 hits, 2 walks and only 1 earned run.

    Braves’ offense continued to struggle with runners in scoring position going 1-for-9 on the night.

    Perhaps what the Braves took away from the loss was a renewed faith in their bullpen. Chad Durbin and Livan Hernandez have struggled mightily out of the bullpen thus far, but in game 2 they shut down Pittsburgh’s offense. Durbin and Hernandez combined for a 4 2/3 innings allowing only 1 hit and no earned runs.

    Erik Bedard walked away from game 2 with his first win of the season and a surprising 2.48 ERA. Delgado fell to 2-2 with a 6.30 ERA.

    Game 3: Hudson/Correia

    The highlight of the series with Pittsburgh was the return of veteran Tim Hudson. In his season debut, Tim Hudson pitched 5 innings and gave up 6 hits, 2 walks and only 2 earned runs.

    Hudson racked up 6 strikeouts, had a few words with home plate umpire Doug Eddings and it is safe to say that the sinker Braves fans have so missed is back. Hudson said his back felt well and that he felt better on the mound than he has in a very long time. Huddy had back surgery in the offseason to repair a bulging disc.

    Hudson will remain on 100 pitch count restriction. His side sessions and next outing will show how healthy and reliable Hudson’s back is.

    Hudson’s teammates are thrilled to have him back and supported him with runs and shutdown innings by the ‘pen. Brian McCann returned a day earlier than expected from his Friday injury to support Hudson’s return as did Chipper Jones who continues to battle knee pain and swelling.

    Game 4: Minor/McDonald

    The success of Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy has been crucial to the team’s record in April. With the struggles and demotion of Jair Jurrjens, the inconsistency of young Randall Delgado, and the absence of Tim Hudson through most of April, the Braves would likely not be where they are without Minor and Beachy.

    It’s important to remember that even though Mike Minor made his way to the big league club each of the past two years, he is only 24 and is still adjusting to big league hitters.

    Minor’s outing was marked my command issues that we had not yet seen from the rookie. Though he had 9 strikeouts, even Minor wasn’t sure how he was able to strikeout 9 Pirates. He gave up 7 hits, 3 walks and 7 earned runs in just over 6 innings pitched.

    While Chad Durbin had been sharp of late, his relief appearance was once again marred by a lack of command. Giving up a walk, 2 hits and 2 earned runs in less than an inning did not help the Braves stop the bleeding. The Braves dropped the final game of the series 9-3.

    NOW FOR THE PHILLIES…

    Tuesday: Beachy (2-1, 1.05) vs. Hamels (3-1, 2.73)

    Wednesday: Hanson (3-2, 3.00) vs. Halladay (3-2, 1.95)

    Thursday: Delgado (2-2, 6.30) vs. Blanton (2-3, 3.81)

    The Phillies come into town at an opportune time for the Braves. As the Braves continue to make their way to the top of the NL East standings, the Phillies are fourth in the division ahead of ¬†a Miami Marlins team that has had a horrendous start. April has presented the Phillies with a number of ¬†obstacles due to injuries to Cliff Lee, Michael Stutes, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Justin De Fratus, Michael Martinez, Hunter Pence and Jim Thome. Cliff Lee is expected to return from an oblique injury in the days immediately following the Phillies departure from Atlanta. Jim Thome’s low back woes have made his availability an issue for Charlie Manuel who had used Thome at first base and to pinch hit. Every game the Braves can put between themselves and the Phillies right now helps Atlanta’s chances at making a run for the division title. Yes, even in early May these games matter.

    The most interesting match-up of the series may turn out to be young Brandon Beachy pitching against soon-to-be free agent ace, Cole Hamels. Beachy is proving in the early part of this season how valuable he is to the Braves and how effective he can be on the mound, but he has so far been held winless in his young career against the Phils (0-3 in 6 starts). Can he turn around this trend with the new confidence he’s showcased on the mound? Beachy enters today with the 2nd lowest ERA in the National League.

    Roy Halladay has a career 1.78 ERA against Atlanta and has kept Atlanta hitters to a .209 batting average. At Turner Field Halladay has a career 1.13 ERA and has held the Braves to a .207 batting average. Figuring out Roy Halladay is a tall order for Braves hitters. Getting to Halladay early may be their only shot at giving Tommy Hanson some run support to work with as Halladay is notorious for settling in early and shutting down offense.

    Perhaps the biggest concern for the Braves after the Pittsburgh series is their continued struggles with runners in scoring position. The Braves went 7-for-39 with runners in scoring position in their four-game set with the Pirates. Lead-off man Michael Bourn is 5th in the National League in batting average (.337), but continues to be left on base. While the Braves are much improved in some areas, namely the ability to execute a sacrifice fly this season, there is room for improvement with how they score runs. Consistency is something the Braves have shown in spurts in April.

    The Braves host the Phillies beginning tonight at 7:10 (EST).