ATLANTA -- The pitching staff held the Cleveland Indians scoreless as Atlanta Braves walked away with their 79th win of the season, 2-0, Tuesday night at Turner Field. Here are three observations from the game:
1. How many times does Alex Wood have to stake claim to a spot in this season's (and postseason's) rotation?
The 22-year-old Braves rookie put a bow on his dominant month of August with plenty of pitches and walks and mound visits, but, once again, the trend stayed intact: 00000. That's what Turner Field's scoreboard read for the visiting Indians, indicating 5 23 scoreless innings, a clinic in low-key damage control.
In five August starts, Wood posted a 0.90 ERA.
He's only started eight major league games in his career.
"I feel like that's a reason I haven't been giving up many runs lately. It's because I feel like I've been able to get out of those situations and make pitches when I need to," said Wood, who is now 3-2 with a 2.27 ERA and a 2.35 FIP. "I mean that's such a huge part of having success anywhere, not just here. So that definitely played a big role for me."
It wasn't the prettiest of goose eggs, though. Wood, the organization's 2012 second-round draft pick, allowed at least one baserunner in all six innings he pitched. After giving up five hits and career-high four walks, he left with 105 pitches to his credit.
But thanks to five strikeouts -- three coming with at least one man on-base -- and timely defensive plays, Cleveland never found a way to score on Wood or his bullpen.
"It was one of those random days where my fastball command wasn't as good as it normally is. I think most of the walks that I had -- I think it was four -- was all just fastballs out of the zone," Wood said. "It was just one of those things where I had to battle tonight and me and Mac (Brian McCann) ended up making some pitches that we needed to and it turned out alright."
It was the Braves' 11th shutout of the season, this one coming against the fifth-highest scoring team in baseball.
"Tonight wasn't one of his best outings. He sprayed it around a little bit, got his pitch count up, but he's tough to take swings at," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "The composure he shows for a young man who just finished college a year ago, it's nice to see. It's refreshing."
As Brandon Beachy heads into a prescribed period of rest to deal with inflammation in his right elbow (the same elbow that needed Tommy John surgery 14 months ago), it's becoming clear that his postseason status as a starter is up in the air. Even if he only needs 10 days for the inflammation to subside, it's unlikely he will be able to jump back into the fray without some sort of rehab work. There are only 34 days left in the regular season. For now, it's simply up in the air. There is no timetable.
If -- big hypothetical "if" here; no inside information implied -- Beachy is not ready to start a game in the NLDS, that again leaves the Braves with a decision to make: who's the No. 4 starter in a four-man playoff rotation? Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen appear to be locks at this point so will it be Wood or Paul Maholm?
At this point, if it's Maholm, then the only reason is experience. Which is a pretty problematic argument since Maholm has just as much postseason experience as Wood and his numbers are trending in the opposite direction. Here are their 2013 numbers:
Paul Maholm: 21 starts, 123 23 IP, 4.51 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 2.21 KBB
Alex Wood: 8 starts, 63 13 IP, 2.27 ERA, 2.35 FIP, 3.3 KBB
All things held equal, there's not a single playoff-bound team that would prefer to throw out two rookies over two trusted veterans. But things are not equal. Unless Maholm goes on a September tear while Wood hits a rookie wall, there's nothing to suggest the elder statesman would fare better in a high-pressure situation. Wood has even shown he can work his way out of jams -- the rookie's left-on-base percentage and strikeout rates with men on are much, much higher -- were the tough situation were to arise. And let's not just pick on Maholm here: the Georgia product's August numbers are better than anyone on the Braves' staff.
Say what you want about experience. Sure, it matters at times.
But production matters, too.
Right now, of the two, Wood is the postseason pick.
2. Could Elliot Johnson become Frank Wren's next waiver wire success story?
There are multiple reasons why the Braves general manager should be up for MLB Executive of the Year this season -- must we regale Wren's trade market successes in this space? -- and his waiver-wire pick-ups are not least among them. Johnson, who recently was claimed by the Braves after hitting just .179.218.241 with the Royals this season, is now staking his claim as the next helpful acquisition on Wren's resume.
"He's one of those prototypical National League players. He can run, he's athletic, he swings the bat," Gonzalez said of his roster's newest addition. "He got us the two runs today, he got us a big hit on Sunday (against the Cardinals). He's a nice piece, a nice acquisition."
This is not exactly new territory for Wren.
In November of 2008, he claimed reliever Eric O'Flaherty off waivers from the Seattle Mariners. O'Flaherty, of course, became one of the most dominant lefty relievers in baseball from 2010 to 2012, posting a 1.59 ERA in 198 appearances. Long reliever Cristhian Martinez (3.81 ERA in 177 13 innings pitched for Atlanta) was claimed in 2010.
This past offseason, two 2013 major contributors -- David Carpenter (1.98 ERA) has been the team's third-most valuable reliever; Jordan Schafer has started 36 games and is the team's current leadoff hitter -- came over via Wren's waiver maneuvers.
Now, there have been never-helped-the-parent-club names like Ruben Gotay and Joe Mather spread in there, but overall the results have been positive since Wren put on the GM's hat in 2007.
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In his five games as a Braves player, Johnson looks the part: nothing flashy, but getting the job done. After logging just 29 hits in 173 plate appearances with Kansas City, Johnson already has five in five games with his new club. That's not going to win any batting titles around these parts, but, as his two-RBI triple and strong defensive work showed on Tuesday, he's been a more-than-serviceable option at second base in Dan Uggla's Lasik-related DL stint. (Related note: Uggla went 2-for-4 with a homer at Triple-A Gwinnett Tuesday night and is eligible to come off the DL on Wednesday. Just so you know.)
The guy almost caught the ball, he can really run," Johnson said of his eventual game-winning triple. "It hit off the wall and he still almost caught the thing. Absolute it's a fresh start. You go out here every day and start over from scratch, you're trying to make the most of the day you're presented with. It's nicer when you don't have to dig out of hole you've created for yourself."
Either way, as the rosters expand to 40 spots on Sept. 1, Johnson is a welcome middle infield addition given the season-ending injuries to Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky.
3. Situational hitting was not the offense's problem ... the offense was the offense's problem
The sample size is growing, and the results aren't improving.
Indians rookie starter Danny Salazer, who is on an innings limit and was pulled after four innings, combined with three of his relievers to hold the Braves to just three hits and two walks in the losing effort. It was a surprising final tally, given the situation and opponent -- the Indians ranked 20th in bullpen ERA and 23rd in bullpen WAR entering the game.
But the Braves' post-Heyward-at-leadoff struggles continued.
Since their 6-foot-5 1-hole hitter fractured his jaw against the Mets on Aug. 21, the team is hitting just .212.
Jordan Schafer, Heyward's leadoff replacement, is just 2-for-20 during that stretch.
From a wildly optimistic perspective, Johnson delivered a two-out game-winner and the team only left two runners on base. So there's your situation hitting nugget for the night.
Of course, none of this matters when your rookie pitcher hands off a blank sheet to one of the best bullpens in baseball, but if late August and September are meant to serve as a tune-up for the playoffs, Atlanta would probably like to rediscover its offensive firepower -- a healthy and 2020 Dan Uggla would certainly help -- as October nears, with or without Heyward at the top.
As Gonzalez said before the game, he's only focused on what he can control in his lineup. If guys like Heyward and Beachy are going to be considered question marks, at least for the early playoff rounds, then the team needs to go ahead and find the answers without them. Just in case.