For what seems to be the first time in ages, the Atlanta Braves not only won their season opener but actually pitched well enough in the late innings to stage a comeback over the Philadelphia Phillies.
The bullpen that couldn’t hold a lead for the Braves last season flexed its new muscle Monday, and so did Edgar Renteria. The shortstop hit a mammoth tying home run in the eighth inning and a decisive two-run shot in the 10th as the Braves rallied for a 5-3 win on opening day at Citizens Bank Park.
“That’s a game last year that we lost 75-80 percent of the time,” said third baseman Chipper Jones, referring to the bullpen’s National League-worst 29 blown saves in 2006. “Amazing things happen when you get people out in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.”
And the 10th, if necessary.
After a scoreless inning apiece from the vaunted Big Three relievers â€” Mike Gonzalez in the seventh, Rafael Soriano in the eighth, Bob Wickman in the ninth â€” the Braves turned the lead over to Chad Paronto. The 260-pounder pitched a perfect 10th to record his first major league save in his fourth opportunity. The ballyhooed bullpen passed its first test splendidly.
“Anytime you get the lead with our bullpen now â€” I think the word’s going to get around quick that our bullpen is one of the best,” said catcher Brian McCann, who picked up where he left off last season, going 3-for-4 with a double, home run and two RBIs.
AJC’s Terence Moore, hardly a Braves cheerleader of late, is ecstatic.
The bullpen was as wonderfully scary as advertised. Thatâ€™s enough right there for the rest of the National League East to shiver for a 15th season out of the past 16, especially whenever they see somebody with a tomahawk across his chest.
Simply put, the Braves are back as the bogeymen of the division. They havenâ€™t a glaring weakness, and they have more than a few strong points. They also have a chance to go 162-0 after resembling some of their forefathers by finding ways on Monday at Citizens Bank Park for a 5-3, 10th-inning victory over the supposedly improved Philadelphia Phillies.
He’s calling the Braves, picked to miss the playoffs for a second straight year by most of the preseason publications, “the team to beat in the NL East this season.”
His colleague, David O’Brien, is only slightly more reserved.
It was only one game, with 161 remaining on the schedule. But it was apparent that Chipper Jones and John Smoltz, the longest-tenured Braves, viewed Monday’s 10-inning, season-opening 5-3 road win over the Philadelphia Phillies as a significant step in the right direction.
“With the young guys we have on the team and in the lineup, we need to feel like whenever we’re tied, we’re going to win the game,” Jones said after the Braves won on Edgar Renteria’s two-run homer in the 10th, his second homer of the day.
“Last year we blew 29 saves, and that’s tough on the team’s psyche,” Jones said. “With a few games like this, we can turn that around. It can set the tone. Those guys came in and threw the hell out of the baseball and got outs. That’s what we’re going to need. We don’t have the firepower up and down the lineup like we had last year, but we’ll score enough runs.”
Smoltz threw 97 pitches in six innings, had seven strikeouts and was charged with eight hits and three runs. One run should’ve been unearned on a dropped pop-up by second baseman Kelly Johnson, but the play was ruled a hit.
Smoltz was pleased with the team’s performance, and especially the bullpen. “Pitching-wise, we’ve got to create an aura again,” said the veteran ace, who was part of Braves starting rotations that dominated during the 1990s, and was an All-Star closer in the majors’ best bullpen in 2002.
With Wickman’s return, coupled with winter trades for Gonzalez and Soriano and what the Braves hope will be an improved starting rotation, Smoltz sees a structure in place that should help the bullpen succeed. “I really believe Paronto, [Tyler] Yates and [Macay] McBride are huge pluses because the roles are the way they are now,” Smoltz said. “Last year everybody tried to be ‘the guy,’ because everybody was trying to fill in. “This year you’re going to see games early on where the starters won’t pitch too many innings, but we should carry the load the longer it goes.”
It’s a long season but starting off this way sure makes it easier to be hopeful.
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