After Braves Sweep Marlins, Team Readies For Friday's Home Opener

Controversial Trades Silences Negative Fans For Now

  • Thursday, April 9, 2015

Riding the momentum created by their season-opening sweep in Miami, the Braves will attempt to extend their early success when they send Eric Stults to the mound for Friday night's home opener against the Mets.

Stults, who gained a roster spot with an impressive showing during Spring Training, will be be opposed by Jonathon Niese, who has produced a 2.28 ERA in his past four starts against Atlanta.

With the left-handed Niese serving as the opposition, the Braves will have both third baseman Chris Johnson and left fielder Jonny Gomes in the lineup. Manager Fredi Gonzalez is also contemplating putting Cameron Maybin in center field and Phil Gosselin at second base.

But at least one of these guys might sit to allow either Eric Young Jr. or Jace Peterson to fill the leadoff spot. Right-handed batters have hit .282 with a .752 OPS against Niese over the past two seasons. The Mets left-hander has allowed left-handed hitters to bat .248 with a .658 OPS during this same stretch.

After struggling through the first four months of last season, Stults made some mechanical adjustments that helped him post a 2.74 ERA over his final 11 regular-season starts for San Diego.

Mets outfielder John Mayberry Jr. will likely be in the starting lineup on Friday or Sunday. He has four hits, including three doubles, in eight career at-bats against Stults.

When the Braves traded Craig Kimbrel to the Padres on Sunday, they were confident that veteran relievers Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson were quite capable of protecting late-inning leads on a consistent basis. But there was definite concern about the depth of their bullpen, which consisted of two pitchers who had never pitched above the Double-A level before this week.

Time will tell if this lack of experience will indeed prove to be a detriment over the course of the entire season. But after completing a three-game sweep with Wednesday night's 2-0 win over the Marlins, the Braves had a little less reason to be concerned about Brandon Cunniff and some of their other young relievers.

The Braves' bullpen surrendered three hits and issued two walks while not allowing a run over 11 innings during this three-game series against the Marlins. After Johnson bridged the gap to the ninth inning on Monday and Wednesday, Grilli did his best Kimbrel imitation with a couple of perfect appearances that netted him a pair of saves.

Now that Johnson has regained the sinker and confidence that he lost while struggling mightily with the A's and Tigers last year, the Braves do have a formidable duo at the back end of their 'pen. There has also been reason to be encouraged by the improvement shown by Avilan, the left-hander who induced a key double play on Monday and got the final out in Wednesday's seventh inning.

But the most encouraging development of the week was provided by Cody Martin and Cunniff, a pair of right-handers who did not allow a run while making their respective Major League debuts on Tuesday night. If they both extend their success, the Braves might grow confident that they already have the pieces necessary to record outs in the middle innings and bridge the gap to the proven veteran relievers.

After working a scoreless inning during Tuesday night's 12-2 win, Cunniff faced more pressure when he entered Wednesday's game with the two teams scoreless. The right-hander, who was pitching in an independent league just two years ago, completed 1 2/3 scoreless innings to notch his first career victory. Gonzalez rewarded his green reliever by giving him the lineup card after the game.

As Shelby Miller navigated his way through his first start of the season on Wednesday night at Marlins Park, he provided some indication as to why the Braves targeted him as the Major League-ready starting pitcher they wanted from the Cardinals in exchange for Jason Heyward.

Though he encountered some deep counts that damaged his pitch count, Miller proved steady through the five scoreless innings he provided while helping the Braves complete a three-game sweep with a 2-0 win over the Marlins.

Along with providing the decisive two-run homer off Tom Koehler in the seventh inning, Pierzynski was behind the plate helping Miller get through his 97-pitch outing unscathed. The two had spent some time working as batterymates with the Cardinals last year.

Miller's night concluded with a 21-pitch perfect fifth inning that was elongated by the nine foul balls from former Lookout Dee Gordon and Christian Yelich. The Braves right-hander also encountered some bad luck when he needed to throw an additional 17 pitches after Gordon registered the first of two consecutive infield singles in the third inning.

Yelich recorded the second of those consecutive infield singles, and Giancarlo Stanton drew a walk to load the bases. But Miller escaped unscathed when Andrelton Simmons gloved Michael Morse's sharp grounder and flipped to second base to end the third inning.

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