Braves hope home opener brings refreshment
After rough start, Atlanta takes two-game win streak to Turner
HOUSTON -- As the Braves packed their bags to leave Minute Maid Park late Wednesday night, their excitement extended beyond the fact that they had won two consecutive games after opening the season with four straight losses.
"We haven't played at home for a long time, and we haven't been home and sat down at home for a long time either," Braves outfielder Jason Heyward said. "So that will be pretty nice."
Yes, the Braves experienced a short layover in Atlanta last week, when they concluded their exhibition season with a game against the club's top prospects at Triple-A Gwinnett's Coolray Field. But those 36 hours spent at home did little to appease a group of guys who have basically been on the road since going to Spring Training in the middle of February.
"We're all happy to be heading home to see some familiar faces," backup catcher David Ross said.
There should be some excitement and anticipation in the air on Friday night, when a standing-room-only crowd welcomes the Braves back to Turner Field for their home opener against the Brewers.
While the players have had Spring Training and a season-opening road trip to distance themselves from last year's epic late-season collapse, the Atlanta fans are still longing to erase the bitterness that they tasted as they watched the club blow its 8 1/2-game Wild Card lead in September.
Friday night's game will be the first played at The Ted since the Braves were eliminated from the playoffs with a 13-inning loss to the Phillies in last year's must-win regular-season finale.
"Really, I haven't even thought about last year," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But really it's a question that is going to keep coming up until we get into a nice rhythm and start winning some games."
Though the Braves might have been attempting to turn the page, they spent this season's first four games conjuring memories of last year's conclusion. They went hitless in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position during their first two games and then went hitless through the first six innings of Sunday's series finale against the Mets.
After being swept by a Mets team that is predicted to dwell in the National League East cellar, they managed to fumble away Monday's series opener against an Astros team that is likely destined for another 100-loss season.
The Braves spent Spring Training looking to add a right-handed bat to their left-handed-heavy roster. Instead, they ended up acquiring a left-handed-hitting third baseman in Juan Francisco, who was considered a defensive liability during his Minor League days with the Reds.
Francisco's three errors (two on one pivotal play) deflated the Braves after they had gained their first lead of the season in Monday night's loss. But the club received the lift it needed the next night when Chipper Jones returned to the lineup. Two weeks shy of his 40th birthday and two weeks removed from left knee surgery, the veteran third baseman impressed with his glove and highlighted a two-hit performance with a key two-run home run.
"I didn't panic about my team, and we're not just trying to put the pieces together," the versatile Martin Prado said. "It just didn't happen the first four games. What we did [on Tuesday and Wednesday] was we did the little things. We said in Spring Training that if we do the little things that we would be fine."
Actually, the Braves are still putting the pieces back together from last year's collapse.
Along with starting the season with Tim Hudson and Jones on the disabled list, the Braves also began a new year with Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens fighting off the rust they developed as injuries shut them down during the second half of the 2011 season.
Instead of spending six uninterrupted weeks building arm strength in Spring Training, Hanson suffered a concussion in a one-car accident on Feb. 20. This put him a little more than a week behind schedule and may be one of the primary reasons he has not impressed in either of his first two starts.
While Hanson's right shoulder has been sound, his velocity has been down and his fastball command has been shoddy.
Still Hanson has generated more reason for confidence than Jurrjens, who admits that it has taken him time to convince himself that his right knee is now sound. He struggled through his first four Spring Training starts and then found it difficult to get a feel for his pitches as he lasted just 4 2/3 innings in somewhat chilly conditions against the Mets on Saturday.
In other words, Jurrjens will have something to prove when he takes the mound to start Friday night's home opener.
But the same can be said of each of the Braves players, who are going through the early stages of this season attempting to prove this is indeed a new year.
"Patience is something that fans and critics are not good at," Jones said. "As long as we are patient and don't succumb to everything that is said outside of our clubhouse, we'll be fine."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.