Braves pitching has been off the charts

(I write a syndicated column published in numerous Mississippi newspapers. This is an updated version of last week’s piece about Atlanta Braves pitching. I thought last week I needed to hurry up and do the column because there’s no way the Braves could keep pitching so well. So, of course, they went out and had an even better week. Braves pitching has to be the most surprising story in baseball thus far.)

Here’s the thing about baseball: No matter how much we think we know, we really don’t. Baseball, of all our sports, nearly always surprises. And, sometimes, it shocks.

As Exhibit A, we are presented the case of the 2014 Atlanta Braves, who in spring training had a pitching rotation that could only make an arm surgeon happy.

Before the season began, two key starters, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, were lost with elbow injuries that required Tommy John surgeries. It was the second elbow reconstruction for both pitchers, which gives them a best case scenario of returning in 18 months.

That’s two-fifths, 40 percent of the rotation, if you are keeping score. But that’s not all.

Former Vanderbilt and Mississippi Braves left-hander Mike Minor, the preceived ace of the staff, suffered significant shoulder soreness in his pitching arm in spring training and made his first start of the season in Pearl, not Atlanta. He still has not pitched for the A-Braves. So that’s 60 percent of the starting rotation unavailable.

And remember, Tim Hudson signed with San Francisco in the off-season At 38, he’s pitching some of his best ball for the Giants. So, that’s 80 percent of last year’s rotation N/A. Thus far, Julio Teheran has been the one starter available from last season and Teheran had a grand total of 34 Big League starts before this season. What’s more, the Braves’ signed veteran Gavin Floyd as a stop-gap measure, but he hasn’t been available as yet as he recovers from still another Tommy John surgery.

This wasn’t a pitching rotation. This looked more like a M.A.S.H. unit.

So, here’s what I thought I knew from watching closely a half century of baseball: The Braves were in big trouble. A Major League team is only as good as its starting rotation. Atlanta really didn’t have one. The Braves would be lucky to finish with a winning record.

So, as we began this week, 24 games into the season, the Braves were off to a 17-7 start, in first place, 3.5 games better than the second place New York Mets, four games better than favored Washington. That’s one surprise, but here’s the bigger one: Starting pitching had carried them.

A patched-together rotation has been by far the best in baseball. The Braves’ starting rotation’s earned run average began the week at a stupefying Sandy Koufax-like 1.50.

When I say patched-together, I understate. Aaron Harang, cut by the Cleveland Indians in March, has a 0.85 earned run average and has allowed only 15 hits in 31.2 innings. He has pitched like a combination of Jim Palmer and Don Drysdale. David Hale, who had a 3.77 ERA in 27 starts for the Mississippi Braves in 2012, has a 2.31 ERA in four starts for the A-Braves. Ervin Santana, signed a free agent at the last minute, has given up just six runs in 27.2 innings. Young lefty Alex Wood has a 1.54 ERA over five starts. Teheran has been filthy, as well, with a 1.41 ERA.

And here’s what it has come to: When Minor comes back, probably this week, the Braves must replace one effective starter, probably Hale.

Granted, we are still talking about a small sample. A larger sample: Harang is a 35-year-old with a career 113-117 record. How long can we expect him to do this Palmer-Drysdale imitation?

Answer: It’s baseball. We don’t know. We may think we do, but we don’t.

What we do know: So far, Atlanta’s unsung rotation shockingly has been by far the best in baseball. Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell, a former Jackson Met, must be doing something right. For sure, general manager Frank Wren has hit the jackpot with his late acquisitions.

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