Lowe set the tone

While enjoying some idle time in Philadelphia yesterday, one of the Braves coaches asked me, “what was the most important thing that happened last night?”  Thinking it might be a trick question, I initially thought about Jordan Schafer’s homer, Jeff Francoeur’s homer and Mike Gonzalez’s ability to escape the ugly ninth-inning mess that he created.

Another comical bystander said, “I think it was McCann’s monstrous first-inning homer.  That just intimidated everybody.”

But while the homers hit by Francoeur and Schafer created nice story lines, Derek Lowe’s masterful performance undoubtedly was the most important Opening Night development.  He allowed just two Phillies to reach base over the course of eight innings. SI.com’s Tom Verducci reported that no pitcher had previously allowed two baserunners or fewer while throwing at least eight innings at Citizens Bank Park.

Whether or not you want to call Lowe an ace, you can’t dispute the fact that his performance trumped any other produced by any other pitcher so far this season.   With that being said, Felix Hernandez’s effort with a bum ankle yesterday was certainly masterful. 

During Spring Training, one veteran observer told me that Hernandez was the best young pitcher he’d ever seen and that Tommy Hanson ranked right behind King Felix.  Hanson and the Triple-A Gwinnett team will get things started on Thursday morning in Charlotte.  First pitch is set for 11:15 a.m and you’ll be able to follow the game via the Gameday feature provided on Milb.com.

Enough about the future ace.  Let’s turn our attention back to Lowe, who undoubtedly set the tone for the Opening Night victory that allowed the Braves to truly enjoy yesterday’s rain-filled offday in Philly. 

If McCann hadn’t drilled his first-inning two-run homer into the second deck, there’s a chance that Lowe could have once again been undone by the emotions that had felled him during his previous two Opening Day starts. 

But straying away from the “if my aunt had a beard” line of thinking, Lowe didn’t and consequently allowed the Braves to begin the season in a near-perfect manner.   While evaluating that game, critics could only point toward the stress-filled ninth-inning that Gonzalez experienced while attempting to protect a four-run lead.

After the game, manager Bobby Cox talked to Gonzalez about the need to bounce his breaking pitches when ahead in the count.  The two singles surrendered by the left-handed closers came on sliders that were thrown during at-bats that began with first-pitch strikes.  

When pinch-hitter Eric Bruntlett fell behind with a 1-2 count and then laced a single into left field, it was impossible to forget about last year, when the Phillies claimed four of their 14 wins over the Braves in games that they were once trailing by at least three runs.

But after Chase Utley drew a five-pitch walk to bring Ryan Howard to the plate as the potential tying run, Gonzalez began pitching like he did during the 2006 season, when he successfully converted each of his 24 save opportunities, despite allowing opponents to produce a .325 on-base percentage.

With runners at first and second and the Braves holding a two-run lead, Gonzalez recorded game-ending conseuctive strikeouts of Howard and Raul Ibanez.  He utilized nine sliders (including five of six pitches to Howard) during this 12-pitch sequence and recorded both strikeouts with fastballs that registered 93 mph.

That was the best velocity we’ve seen from Gonzalez at any point this year.  But I think it’s becoming more apparent that his success will be better dictated by his control and ability to efffectively throw his breaking balls. One positive he can draw from Sunday is the fact that his slider certainly improved as the inning progressed. 

By the way, during the 2006 season with runners on first and second base, Gonzalez limited opponents to four hits in 24 plate appearances, recorded eight strikeouts and issued one walk.   There’s no doubt that he has the abilty to thrive under pressure. 

But for the sake of Cox’s blood pressure, let’s hope that some of his ninth innings prove to be a little less stressful. 

20 Comments

Pitching will determine this team, like it did in the 90′s. We have good bats, but we can’t count on them to carry us like last years Phil’s carried their pitching staff.

We have starters who are all good enough to be 10 game winners, most of them good enough to be 15 game winners, and one or two who I think could be 20 game winners. We have one of the best bullpens in baseball.

While most people say the first week doesn’t determine anything, I think if our pitching lives up to its potential the first week or two, we will be golden.

Even if one of our starters falters, we’ll be fine. Our greatest strength is depth, off the bench and out of Gwinnett.

Go Braves. Down with Joe Morgan(Especially to whoever that idiot was that posted on the last blog).

Without a doubt, the job Lowe did Sunday night was the single-biggest thing Braves fans should take out of the lid-lifter (OK, couldn’t resist a little old-school terminology there).

What we saw from Lowe is what Braves fans saw countless times during the heyday of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz: dominating starting pitching, a hurler climbing the bump and totally taking control. We came to expect it night-in and night-out throughout the 1990s and the first part of this decade, and more often than not, the future Hall of Famers delivered.

Lowe’s outing was a command performance if I’ve ever seen one. He’s not going to pitch eight innings of two-hit, no-walk, shutout ball every time out. But after the disaster that became the 2008 season and a rotation that ended up in shambles, it was a welcomed site nonetheless. And to do it against a team that beat the Braves 14 out of 18 times last season, in a pitcher’s ballpark, on opening night, sent a nice little statement to the rest of the NL East that this Braves’ team figures to be in the race all season long.

You can’t make too much out of one game, especially when there are 161 more waiting to be played. But for a lid-lifter (there’s that word again), it was exactly what the Braves needed.

Interested to see how Jurrjens fares in his debut tonight. He put together one of the best starts of his rookie year last July in Philly. Hoping for another good one from JJJ tonight.

Bud.
http://braves.today.com

MLB is really going out of its way to make sure I can’t watch the game tonight. I live in Jacksonville, Florida. I upgraded my comcast package to receive the new MLB network and I added MLB Extra Innings… and I still don’t get the game tonight. My in-laws have Peachtree TV… but since we’re not in the Atlanta area the game will be blacked out.
Any insight on how to get the game tonight WITHOUT giving MLB more of my money for the MLBTV service will be greatly appreciated!!!

Bravo, email me at danclark@mdc-enterprises.com and I’ll give you the info you need to be able to watch it. Just put something in the subject line so I know it’s you.

Thanks Dan. I just e-mailed you.

Looks like we’ll see the bullpen early tonight. Jurrjens needed 46 pitches to get through the first two innings. It looks like he’s going to have to battle just to complete five innings…But of course as a I wrote that sentence, he began the third inning with consecutive strikeouts…His advanced maturity includes the ability to make adjustments faster than most other 23-year-old pitchers.

Wow was that a rookie mistake by Schaffer, you know taking the ball away from frenchy? I think so especially because Francouers got the best arm in the NL maybe in baseball and that runner might have tagged up. I know the centerfielder is the leader but still

If you’re the centerfielder, you get the ball if you want it.

That was Schafer’s ball. Francoeur should’ve gotten out of the way sooner, actually.

Thanks, I just realized Schaffer is alot like Frenchy both hit HR in their first game and are fan favorites

Sorry I’m a little late, but…
Looks great so far. Jurrjens has kinda settled in and is doing a decent job in preventing the Phillies from scoring.
How about that 1st pitch home run by Kelly? That was nice.
Chipper almost went deep also that inning.
We have really shut up some people about not having any power. From what I have seen, we have shown everything, except speed. Everything looks great.
http://darion.mlblogs.com/

Scary end to the 6th inning. Now let’s see what the bullpen can actually do.

Through six I’d be inclined to vote “The Wind” as player of the game for the Braves.

Great win. Hope we can get more respect for this year. We are contenders.

NOICE!

This is an exciting team to watch! Mark – Great article on Chipper’s leadership and his address to the team on opening day!
Some coaching blunders from last night – Jurjjens should have been bunting with runners at 1st and 3rd with one out. In that same inning, Kotchman should have been held at 3rd. That would have left the bases loaded for Chipper… the best hitter on the team and probably the NL. (He homered the next inning).
Kudos to Kelly for jumping on the first pitch!
I was thrilled to watch our bullpen throw…
It’s going to be a good year!

This is an exciting team to watch! Mark – Great article on Chipper’s leadership and his address to the team on opening day!
Some coaching blunders from last night – Jurjjens should have been bunting with runners at 1st and 3rd with one out. In that same inning, Kotchman should have been held at 3rd. That would have left the bases loaded for Chipper… the best hitter on the team and probably the NL. (He homered the next inning).
Kudos to Kelly for jumping on the first pitch!
I was thrilled to watch our bullpen throw…
It’s going to be a good year!

I agree bravo….. Kotchman should have been held up at third. I know it was a bang bang play and it took an outstanding throw to get him, but you can’t leave Chipper sitting on deck. We had a lead at that point, there was no reason to force the issue. Of course, we can’t say that Chipper would have still hit that home run, but if I’m coaching third, I am definitely going to give him the oppurtunity.

As for the situation with Jurrjens. I was surprised that he wasn’t bunting there. Maybe Bobby felt that he could handle the bat well enough to get us a fly ball and score the run from third. I believe Frenchy was the runner at third. I would have used his agressiveness and football mentality and put the bunt on. Even if the runner stayed at third, a bunt would have put two runners in scoring position for KJ.

Who knows though. We won the game, that’s all that matters. It’s fun to speculate though.

Yeah – I always play “back seat manager”. I am ecstatic about our start to the season. I always find things to critique. That’s just the baseball fanatic in me. About the Kotchman play – it really wasn’t bang-bang. He was out by two steps. Whenever it’s not close like that, it’s always a mistake. It was a fairly deep ball so I kind of understand sending him… but as a base coach, you have to know whose running, the arm in the outfield, and you have to know whose on deck! Chipper with the bases loaded would have been the right call. But hey – it’s early for the coaching staff to.
I’m more confused on why Jurjjens didn’t bunt… at least bunt the runner from first to second, even if you don’t want to call a squeeze. Especially since Schafer popped out.
But hey – there were way more positives to focus on so I’m going to leave it at that! It’s going to be a good year! I feel different about this team. I think we’re going to get the right breaks this year!

Tommy Hanson is coming too !!!

Greg
http://baseballfix.mlblogs.com/

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