Much was made of the Braves bullpen during the 2011 season. It was amazing. Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel, and Eric O’Flaherty combined for more than 10 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Then the team collapsed the bullpen appeared somewhat human at the worst possible time.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez received the lion’s share of blame for the way he used/abused his pen and his generally nonsensical approach to running his club. Fast-forward to 2012: Fredi still does Fredi things but, lucky for him, the BARVES bullpen is still basically unhittable.
Last night in LA, (excellent) starter Brandon Beachy locked horns with Ted Lilly in a tidy little pitcher’s duel. Beachy cruised along until surrendering a long home run to Matt Kemp – in the driving rain, of course. Matt Kemp’s otherworldly skill aside, Beachy looked good and finished the frame. After retiring Juan Uribe to lead off the 7th, speedy shortstop Dee Gordon reached with a single. Down 2-1, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez went to his bullpen.
As it was not yet the 8th inning and a right handed batter was due up, Gonzalez was unable to call on known stud Jonny Venters. Instead, Gonzalez called on journeyman Chad Durbin. Durbin retired Mark Ellis but walked Matt Kemp, putting two on for lefty Andre Ethier.
Gonzalez needed the platoon advantage but couldn’t call on Venters because IT WAS NOT THE EIGHTH INNING. Instead he opted for Eric O’Flaherty. Not a bad consolation prize, as O’Flaherty managed a 0.74 ERA in just under 75 innings last year. O’Flaherty shook his knobbly stick at Ethier, striking him out on four pitches (three whiffs and a foul) and ending the inning.
The Braves were unable to score in their half of the inning but Fredi pinch hit for the pitcher’s spot with Eric Hinske. Seeing as it was now officially the 8th inning, Fredi could call on Jonny Venters – in a lower leveraged situation, of course.
Venters calmly goes about his business – striking out the side. On eleven pitches. Ho-freaking-hum. Venters now has 15 Ks in 7.2 innings this season. Thirty-three batters face, fifteen strikeouts. Okay, then.
After the Braves staged a triumphant comeback off the face of Dodgers closer Javy Guerra, it was time for Craig Kimbrel to come in and do his thing. The 2011 National League Rookie of the Year did just that, striking out the first two men he faced. Finally Dee Gordon ended the strikeout streak by feebly grounding out to Chipper Jones at third base.
Venters and Kimbrel are probably the best bullpen duo in baseball. Between the two of them, they’ve faced 68 batters and struck out 29 of them. Last night the whole bullpen kept their team in the game, striking out six of the nine batters they faced. Only one man reached. Their brilliance allowed the offense to come back against the Dodgers relief corps. Which is all any team can ask of its bullpen, really.
They’re good. Very good. From top to bottom, the Braves staff is one of most impressive in the game. With one of the league’s best offenses in April, this time might be going places.