Despite losing Spencer Strider, Braves’ starting pitching has thrived during winning surge

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves have been on a winning jag directly tied to improvement from their pitching in general and starting rotation in particular, since the uptick in innings and performance by the starters allowed a formidable bullpen to figuratively catch its breath and flourish.

So say those involved in an 11-2 surge that’s lifted the Braves to an 18-7 record, though they lost 4-2 to the Cleveland Guardians in 11 innings Saturday, evening the series between the teams with the best records in their leagues. The Guardians are 19-8, and the Braves could’ve matched a modern-era franchise record for fastest 25-game start with a win Saturday.

Age-defying Charlie Morton pitched seven scoreless innings of four-hit ball with one walk and six strikeouts Saturday for the Braves, extending a run by their starters that’s included seven quality starts in eight games on a homestand that ends Sunday.

Braves starters have a combined 1.01 ERA during a streak of five games in which they’ve worked at least six innings while allowing one or no runs, Atlanta’s longest such streak since the final week of the 2015 season.

“It’s just fun watching the guys have success and get in a little bit of a groove,” said Morton, 40, who left a scoreless game after throwing 63 strikes in 91 pitches. “Because it’s not going to be this way all season. I guess the biggest thing is just pulling for each other, and when it’s our time doing the best we can to step up.”

Both teams scored twice in the eighth inning, the only runs before extra innings. The Braves failed to score after having bases loaded with none out in the 10th, and the Guardians got two in the 11th after Dylan Lee walked José Ramirez intentionally with one out to set up a potential double play. Josh Naylor followed with a double, and pinch hitter Ramón Laureano added a sacrifice fly.

“We load the bases with nobody out — I may have lost my shirt on that one, because I kind of figured we’d score a run there,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of the 10th inning, when Marcell Ozuna was walked intentionally and Orlando Arcia singled to load the bases.

Michael Harris II hit a soft comebacker for a force at the plate, followed by a Chadwick Tromp strikeout and Jarred Kelenic groundout, as Guardians reliever Scott Barlow escaped unscathed.

Morton was matched by Guardians starter Tanner Bibee, who limited the Braves’ MLB-leading offense to two hits with no walks and nine strikeouts in seven innings.

Despite the outcome Saturday, recent work by the Braves’ pitching staff has been outstanding, particularly the starting rotation, which began its surge soon after losing ace Spencer Strider to season-ending elbow surgery.

“It’s been unbelievable,” veteran starter Chris Sale said of recent performances by the rotation, including his seven dominant innings (two hits, one run) on Friday, after Reynaldo López worked seven innings, gave up one run Wednesday against the Miami Marlins, and Max Fried painted a masterpiece three-hit shutout with no walks Tuesday against the Marlins.

“We put a lot of pressure on the bullpen early; those first weeks of the season they were picking up some bulk (innings),” Sale said. “Over the last week to 10 days, somewhere around there, it’s been nice to be able to pick up the bulk of that. That’s what we’re here to do, get through six, seven, eight innings. Maxy doing what was just an incredible game the other night. We just try to feed off of that.”

The Braves’ rotation has averaged 6 2/3 innings in eight games on the homestand, the most by any team’s starters since April 19. In the past 13 games, the Braves have an overall 2.57 ERA, with the starters handling a steadily increasing amount of the workload.

“They’re on a little run, which is good,” Snitker said of the starters. “We need them to be, if we’re going to accomplish what we want to accomplish. They’ve all been very efficient and covering their innings. When those guys can get into the sixth and seventh, it’s a lot more manageable situation out of that bullpen, and we’ve got a lot of options where we can keep guys fresh.”

In the first couple of weeks of the season, the Braves had so many early exits by starters that it put a strain on relievers. It’s a bullpen as deep as any in baseball, but not deep enough to cover four to five innings on most nights like it had to early, which led to a few games when the bullpen buckled.

“Those extra two innings make a world of difference,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said. “Getting a (reliever) here or there an extra day of rest, so they’re really fresh and they come in and it’s like, they’re not (pitching in) three of the last four or two of the last three. Then they’ve got their best stuff. It’s cool.”

It’s also dominant, what the Braves have gotten lately out of their key relievers, including closer Raisel Iglesias and setup men A.J. Minter, Pierce Johnson and Joe Jiménez, who’s been sharp all season despite giving up two runs in the eighth inning Saturday. The Guardians loaded the bases on three infield hits against Jiménez, including a bunt, all at 31 mph or slower.

They got the two runs on a force at second when Ramirez hustled to avoid a would-be inning-ending double play, and a double steal that followed. Jiménez had a 0.90 ERA, 0.50 WHIP and .118 opponents’ average in 10 appearances before that inning.

“He had two mis-hit balls and a well-placed bunt,” Snitker said of Jiménez’s hard-luck inning. “He did a good job of just kind of limiting damage right there, and we came back.”

Minter has a 1.42 ERA, 0.55 WHIP and .136 opponents’ average in a team-high 13 appearances, with 15 strikeouts and one walk in 12 2/3 innings.

The depth of the Braves’ bullpen and the increased innings by starters is reflected by the fact Minter and Johnson (12) are the only Braves relievers among MLB’s top 65 in number of appearances. The Braves’ 3 1/3 relief innings per game were the fourth lowest in the majors before Saturday.

The Braves’ rotation has ramped up its performance since losing the pitcher who most would agree was the one they could least afford to lose, Opening Day starter Strider. Other starters have found their footing after some early struggles.

Fried effectively moved back up to the No. 1 slot he occupied in recent years and pitched like a No. 1 Tuesday. The Braves’ biggest early-season pitching surprise, Reynaldo Lòpez, moved from the fifth-starter spot to No. 2 this week after pitching like an ace through his first four starts.

And Sale has so far silenced skeptics who wondered whether his days as a top-of-the-rotation-type starter were behind him after his recent injury-plagued seasons with the Boston Red Sox. The 35-year-old lefty has a 3.69 ERA and has lasted seven innings in each of his past three starts, including consecutive wins against the Texas Rangers and Cleveland in which he posted a 2.57 ERA with seven hits, 13 strikeouts and two walks in 14 innings.

“The plan as a starting pitcher is to post, first and foremost,” Sale said. “Being healthy is huge for every team, and I think being healthy and staying healthy throughout the season is key. You can’t help the team if you’re not there, and I’ve unfortunately been there (in that situation) a lot.”

Before trading for Sale in late December, the Braves vetted him thoroughly. They were told by many of his former teammates, coaches and managers that he was an intense competitor and a terrific teammate, who would give everything he had each time he took the mound.

“He’s been everything as advertised, what we expected,” Snitker said. “It’s been fun watching him.”

It was only a matter of keeping him healthy, the Braves knew. So far, that’s not been an issue.

“I put a lot of work into this offseason,” said Sale, who missed more than two months last summer with Boston due to a stress fracture in his left scapula. “I really put a lot of emphasis on strengthening my shoulder and getting stronger and just being healthy. I owed it obviously to whatever team I was playing for; at the time it was Boston. But I just wanted to give one last good go at it and see where it got me, and obviously, you get traded to a new team and you get kind of a shot of energy there, a little boost. And basically from Jan. 1 it was, let’s get after it, let’s help this team. Let’s do what you’re supposed to do and try to get back to who you were before.”

(Photo of Charlie Morton: Rich von Biberstein / Icon Sportswire via Associated Press)

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