We’re about to see a Braves prospect make his first major league start for the fourth time this season, and the season has not even reached the halfway point. Folks, that kind of thing just doesn’t happen very often, especially not with an established team like the Braves.
Your turn, Manny Banuelos.
The 24-year-old left-hander, a former top-rated Yankees prospect acquired in a January trade for relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve, will join Mike Foltynewicz, Williams Perez and Matt Wisler as the fourth Braves prospect to make his first MLB start when he faces the Nationals tonight in a series finale at Turner Field. The Braves are 3-0 so far in those first starts by rookies.
Unlike Foltynewicz, who had spent two months in the Astros bullpen late last season, and Perez, who made two relief appearances for the Braves before his first start, Banuelos will be making his major league debut tonight in his first start. And he’ll try to win that debut, as Wisler did a couple of weeks ago when he made an auspicious debut by allowing just one run in eight innings of a win against the Mets and Jacob deGrom.
Banuelos has a similarly formidable task in that he’s matched up against Max Scherzer, the other hottest pitcher in the NL along with deGrom. Scherzer is 7-2 with a 1.60 ERA in his past nine starts, highlighted by his absolutely remarkable June 14-20 stretch in which he threw back-to-back shutouts with one hit, one walk and 26 strikeouts in 18 innings – a one-hitter with 16 strikeouts vs. the Brewers, and a no-hitter at Pittsburgh.
Scherzer followed that up with a relatively pedestrian eight innings of five-hit, two-run ball at Philadelphia last week to extend his winning streak to three starts.
And that’s what the Braves and Banuelos face tonight, when Banuelos tries to follow a fine performance by Wisler in his third start Wednesday – 5 1/3 scoreless innings in a 4-1 Braves win – by helping the Braves capture an elusive series win against division-leading Washington.
“Bobby (Cox) told me one day, sometimes you feel like you’re going to lose a game that you win,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Wednesday, when asked about the odds seemingly stacked against his team in the series finale. “A crazy matchup like the one (Thursday) …. A young starter against Scherzer. But you win that game, and then the other way around – you’ve got Scherzer pitching for you against a young pitcher, and you lose. That’s baseball. You’ve got to play the game and execute.”
The Nationals had won nine in a row against the Braves before the streak was snapped by back-to-back jacks from A.J. Pierrzynski and Juan Uribe and by Wisler, who contributed both on the mound at in the batter’s box, where his two-out RBI single, his first major league hit, drove in the fourth run of the fourth inning.
Banuelos was 6-2 with a 2.29 ERA and .215 opponents’ average in 15 starts at Triple-A Gwinnett, with 69 strikeouts, 38 walks and two homers allowed in 82 2/3 innings. He’s being brought up to temporarily fill the rotation spot of Perez, who is on the 15-day disabled list with a bruised foot.
Banuelos was dominant in a two-hit shutout June 22 against Indianapolis, with five strikeouts and no walks in a season-high 101 pitches. That was the 10th start of an impressive stretch in which he posted a 1.21 ERA and .200 opponents’ average, with 50 strikeouts, 24 walks and only one homer allowed in 59 1/3 innings.
Sunday at Pawtucket, that streak ended when he allowed four hits, three runs and four walks in three innings, his briefest start of the season. (If you recall, Wisler, too, had run off an impressive, extended stretch of games before struggling in his last start before being called up.)
Last year was Banuelos’ first full season coming off TJ surgery, and the Yankees were cautious – some said overly cautious -- with him, limiting him to a few inning per start for most of the season and only 76 1/3 total innings. He’s already surpassed that innings total this season, and the Braves are expected to limit his innings to 120-130. Because of that limit, there have been discussions about having Banuelos make a start or two in place of Perez, then moving to the bullpen.
“I know he had a chance to make our team out of spring,” said Pierzynski, who was impressed by Banuelos’ stuff when he caught him during spring training. “It didn’t work out because of the numbers game, but I know he’s done really well down at Gwinnett, so I’m looking forward to seeing him tomorrow.”
• Juan Gone (recently): Entering Thursday’s series finale against the Nationals, Juan Uribe is 6-for-15 with three homers in his past four games. He's suddenly hitting for power like someone who'd drive the white Rolls-Royce that sits in the Braves players' lot most nights (part of his impressive fleet).
Since coming to the Braves in a May 27 trade from the Dodgers, Uribe has hit .304 (31-for-102) with four doubles, five homers and 11 RBIs in 30 games, with a .366 OBP and .490 slugging percentage. If you throw out his first three games for the Braves, including his debut against his former team at Dodger Stadium, then Uribe has hit .319 (30-for-94) with five homers, a .379 OBP and .521 slugging percentage in 27 games.
He does have four errors in his past 23 games, although he’s generally played solid defense since the Braves got him, and made a few outstanding plays.
• More on Max: Scherzer is 5-2 with a 1.40 ERA in eight road starts, compared to 4-3 with a 2.22 ERA in seven home starts. Opponents have hit just .180 against him this season, including .148 (30-for-203) and .176 OBP by righties and .213 (43-for-202) and .250 OBP by lefties. He allowed a .145 opponents’ average in five June starts.
Four of Scherzer’s 15 starts this season have come against the Phillies (3-0, 1.50 ERA) and two against the Mets (0-2 despite 0.61 ERA). He hasn’t faced any other team more than once, and this will be his first start against the Braves, in the 12th game between the Nats and Braves this season.
Scherzer last faced the Braves in 2010 when he with the Tigers. He’s 1-2 with a 4.13 ERA in six starts against the Braves, the other five coming in 2008 and 2009.
Against Scherzer, Pierzynski is 11-for-33 with a homer, Nick Markakis is 5-for-16, Kelly Johnson is 4-for-15, and Juan Uribe is 3-for-13.
The Braves are 14-8 with a 3.09 ERA and 87 runs in 22 home games since May 5. In that same period on the road, they are 11-19 with a 4.51 ERA and 113 runs in 30 games. The scoring average has been nearly the same. The pitching has not been, obviously.
** Braves right fielder and frequent cleanup hitter Nick Markakis has the most homerless at-bats (295) in the majors this season. The Giants’ Angel Pagan is next at 289, and the Royals’ Omar Infante (259) is the only other player with as many as 240 at-bats without a homer. Dee Gordon and Ben Revere each homered in the past week recently to take their names off the homerless list.
**Before the back-to-back homers by Pierzynski and Uribe in the fourth inning of Wednesday’s 4-1 win, the Braves had hit just three homers in their previous 13 games against the Nats, going 2-11 with a 5.53 ERA in those games and scoring two runs or fewer in seven of them.
• Here's a great one by James McMurtry off his "Complicated Game" album, which is one of the best three or four released this year.
"COPPER CANTEEN" by James McMurtry
Honey don't you be yellin' at me when I'm cleaning my gun
I'll wash the blood of the tailgate when deer season's done
We got one more weekend to go
And I'd like to kill one more doe
So I'll shovel the side walk again cause you're still in a stew
And I bet the bridge tender's widow won't mind that I can't please you
She sure got the run of the men
Out here where the pickin's are thin there's not much to do
I woke up last night
In the grip of a fright
Scared to breathe for I might make a noise
But this life that we crave
So little we save
'tween the grandparent's graves and the grandchildren's toys
We grew up hard
And our children don't know what that means
We turned into our parents before we were out of our teens
Through series of Chevys and Fords
The occasional spin round the floor at the Copper Canteen
Now the big boxes out on the bypass are shavin us thin
I guess we'll hold on a couple more years till the pension kicks in
Then we'll sell all the stock in the store
Leave only the lock on the door and wonder what then
When I wake up at night
In the grip of a fright
And you hold me so tight to your chest
And your breath on my skin
Still pulls me back in
Till I'm weightless and then I can rest
So if Monsignor should pull you aside as you're leavin the church
And I'm out on the ice droppin lines for the walleye and perch
Tell 'em it's not your job to bring me to the fold
And I'd rather stand out in the cold
And honey I know
The woodpile's low and you can't close the flue
So I'll split up a couple more chords 'fore the winter time's through
Hold on to your rosary beads
Leave me to my mischievous deeds like we always do