It was opening night — not to be confused with the Braves’ opening night in New York (season opener) or Pittsburgh (Pirates’ home opener) or Miami (Marlins’ opener) — and there were so many media members for the first official game in SunTrust Park that Matt Kemp was nearly run over as he walked to his locker.
“Are all of you going to be here tomorrow?” he asked the assembled vultures.
But it is a nice stadium, as most new sports venues are, with all of the latest creature comforts for fans and players. This probably was best illustrated by the Braves’ future Hall of Famer, Chipper Jones, who said of the home clubhouse , “the amenities that these guys have now, I probably would’ve spent a lot less time on the DL.”
His favorite feature of the new park?
“The hot and cold tub.”
The Braves defeated San Diego 5-2. Julio Teheran battled through a rare erratic start (four walks, two hit batters, 105 pitches in six innings innings) and Ender Inciarte hit his third homer in the last two games, putting him on a season pace for 54 (fun with numbers for somebody who hit three all of last season).
The Braves celebrated the present of their new stadium by celebrating their past. Jones, Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy, Phil Niekro, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and former manager Bobby Cox all were in attendance. They were introduced one by one, as their retired numbers were unveiled, and they stood on individual large red dots on the field.
(Former Cobb County commissioner Tim Lee watched from nearby. He was very upset that he didn’t get a dot. So he had to settle for $400 million in public money and a bandit mask.)
The ceremonies all went well, except for that part when baseball commissioner Rob Manfred thanked, “The city of Cobb.”
Once the buzz over the new stadium subsides, the biggest question is: Will the Braves get a lift from their new surroundings? Their lineup is solid and their defense presumably will improve from the first eight games. But the pitching is an issue.
Let’s start with the starters, and why and how Teheran was on the mound for the first game at SunTrust.
He was making his third start of the season. He didn’t allow a run in the first two outings (13 innings), but came away with two no-decisions, which said something about the Braves’ start.
Teheran is the one starter the Braves can depend on. Not that we needed any more evidence of that, but the flimsiness of the rotation was put to rest when manager Brian Snitker pushed back R.A. Dickey’s turn in the order, gave Mike Foltynewicz a turn in the rotation the other night and brought back Teheran.
Snitker surely got a nudge from management, or marketing, or both. He will tell you the late decision to shuffle the rotation and start Teheran was merely the residual of two open dates early in the season and also him trying to keep as many starters as possible on schedule. Logic screams otherwise. The last thing the Braves wanted to do was open their new Valhalla with a 42-year-old knuckleballer (Dickey) or their No. 5 starter (Foltynewicz).
Teheran was the safest bet for a successful Friday night. Or any night, even when he’s not at his best. “Obviously, I didn’t have my best stuff,” he said. “But I battled and I’m glad I was able to get the win. We wanted to win this game for this franchise.”
All was good for one night. But the pitching situation is far different than it was the last time the Braves moved into a new stadium in 1997. The rotation included three future Hall of Famers — Greg Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz — as well as Denny Neagle, who wasn’t your average No. 4 starter, so Cox was just fine with him starting the first game in Turner Field.
Neagle would be the No. 2 starter in this rotation. By a long shot. The Braves’ staff entered the night with the fewest strikeouts in the majors, the 18th best ERA and the 23rd best batting average allowed. It’s not a staff that’s strong in the rotation or the bullpen, which means the Braves will need to win games with their offense and defense (which committed eight errors leading to nine unearned runs in the first eight games).
“If you had to look at an area of the team you would be concerned about, obviously it’s the pitching,” Glavine said. “Certainly, you’ve got two guys in Bartolo (Colon) and R.A. who — they are what they are, and you hope they stay healthy and eat innings like you want them to. But that’s obviously a question. And you’ve got some young guys down there in the bullpen, and some inexperienced guys.
“How does all that play out? I don’t know. I think they’ll be competitive. Are they ready to win their division? I don’t know about that. But nobody thought we were ready in ’91, either.”
The Braves jumped from 65 wins in 1990 to 94 in 1991 in what turned out to be the first of 14 consecutive division titles. Even if the Braves’ lineup performs to, or exceeds, expectations, it’s hard to imagine this team winning that many games, given the pitching.
Then again, we are in strange times in sports. We’ve celebrate the Cubs, the Cavaliers and Sergio Garcia. Also, there was a 75-year-old Cox in the upper deck, leading fans in the “Chop” with an electric tomahawk.
Full stadiums sometimes spur overachievement in sports. There’s also the ballpark itself, which, according to Jones, could be a launching pad for home-run hitters.
“I did a commercial here a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “I walked in through the center-field breeze way, and it was like I was walking into a blizzard. Everything was just being sucked out of the park. I think the ball will carry really well, more-so than at Turner. This place, I don’t think you’ll have to crush one to get it out of here.”
History will show Inciarte hit the first home run in SunTrust. The Padres hit zero. But the real test will come with the next four starters.