On a Friday that began with Drew Smyly going on the injured list – the second Braves’ starting pitcher to land on the IL in three days – and later saw center fielder Ender Inciarte leave a series opener against the Cubs with a hamstring injury and Ozzie Albies exit five innings later after being hit in the calf by a pitch, it would have been particularly brutal for the Braves to blow a lead against the worst offense in baseball.
They did not. Working with a three-run lead in the ninth, Braves closer Will Smith loaded the bases with three walks, but he struck out the other three batters he faced to close a 5-2 win at Wrigley Field, Atlanta’s second in a row since its second four-game losing streak of the young season.
Braves fans could breathe a collective sigh of relief after improving to 6-8, and team officials could make a series of decisions and phone calls as they continued what has been a daily task of late – patching holes in the roster. And to think, some people thought they were exaggerating when manager Brian Snitker and general manager Alex Anthopoulos said they would need all nine of the starting pitchers they got stretched out at spring training.
They will use seven of them in the first one-tenth of the season, assuming Bryse Wilson takes injured starter Max Fried’s rotation turn Sunday in the series finale against the Cubs, the 16th game of the 162-game season. Kyle Wright got the start Friday – he was told Wednesday he would be replacing Smyly – and was erratic but made big pitches when he needed to, allowing three hits, two runs and two walks with four – yes, four – hit batters in 4 1/3 innings.
At least the Braves have depth that they’re familiar and comfortable with using in the rotation, unlike center field. Snitker said the Braves are hoping that Smyly will have to miss only one start and are hopeful that Fried won’t have to miss more than one or two, though hamstring injuries can be unpredictable, and they can’t be reasonably sure of his return date just yet.
The situation with the outfield is worse, because Inciarte got hurt just two days after the Braves placed rookie center fielder Cristian Pache – a defensive whiz who unseated Inciarte for the starting job at spring training – on the injured list for a strained groin, an injury they don’t think is severe but one that they’re also not sure of a recovery timetable.
Pache, 22, was hitting just .133 with a .361 OPS in 30 at-bats over 11 games, and the Braves hope that this IL stint will also give him time for a mental break, a reset before he returns to the big-league roster. They certainly don’t want to rush him back. But now with Inciarte out as well, the Braves are down to Guillermo Heredia, who got the start in center field Friday after being recalled from the team’s alternate site Wednesday as outfield depth after Pache got hurt.
Heredia, 30, is a .239 career hitter with 19 home runs and a .660 OPS in just over 1,000 at-bats in parts of six seasons with five teams, including three seasons with the Mariners. He’s 0-for-2 with three walks and two strikeouts in games since being recalled Wednesday, including a start Thursday when the Braves wanted him in the lineup instead of Inciarte against Marlins left-hander Trevor Rogers.
He struck out in both of his plate appearances Friday after replacing Inciarte.
Asked what he’s thought of Heredia’s performance so far, Snitker said, “Fine. I’d like to see him more aggressive at the plate. He’s taking too many pitches. He needs to take the safety off and swing. But liked him in the outfield. He’s getting a good opportunity, it’s up to him now to do something with it.”
Heredia was the last outfielder on the 40-man roster, so the Braves will need to add another outfielder capable of playing center field to the 40, rather than try to get by with utility players Ehire Adrianza and Johan Camargo, who both have outfield experience but not in center.