Less than a month ago, Aaron Harang fought and failed to make the Cleveland Indians' 25-man roster. A perfect storm of injuries to the Atlanta Braves' rotation earned the 36-year-old right-hander another shot at making another major league team only days after his late-March release. On Friday, Harang not only found himself on the mound at Citi Field, but pitching seven no-hit innings against his former team.
Youthful pitching powered the 2013 Braves to a convincing NL East title, as their rotation combined for a 3.51 ERA on the backs of Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran. A surplus of young pitchers allowed Atlanta to part with some of their older arms in Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson, but as the 2014 season grew closer to fruition, the Braves failed to leave spring training with a confident rotation.
It took Brandon Beachy, Medlen and Minor to suffer injuries before Harang pitched an inning with the Braves. This massive injury bug would have most teams laboring to find enough arms to stay afloat, but performances like Harang's against the Mets show why the Braves have succeeded despite misfortune.
Harang didn't throw the prettiest seven no-hit innings, but, in the end, he held the Braves' one-run lead until the bullpen could take care of the final two innings. Of the 121 pitches the righty threw, just 70 were strikes, and his six walks -- compared to five strikeouts -- paint a respectable microcosm of his struggles against the Mets lineup. It was a hard-fought zero in the hit column for Harang, but his toughest inning was the seventh. He retired the first two batters but then issued back-to-back walks as the Mets were trying to make up a one-run deficit. Though Harang sat at 115 pitches at the time, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez elected to stick with the veteran righty. Harang worked the count full before striking out Andrew Brown on an 83 mph slider for his final pitch of the night. With the weather cold and pitchers still building up their strength, Gonzalez's decision to go to the bullpen was a no-brainer after such a hefty pitch count for Harang.
The Braves didn't end up with a gaudy no-hitter over the Mets, but Harang's start represents the most recent streak of success in the Braves' pursuit of quality starting pitchers. It was a battle for Harang, who threw 51 balls and toiled with six walks, but the Braves got yet another quality start from the back end of their rotation. For a team with such bad luck with the health of their pitchers, they have a knack for catching lightning in a bottle.
While performances by veterans like Harang are one source of their starting pitching success, the Braves have shown no lack of benefit when finding even younger starters. David Hale enjoyed some success in 471 minor league innings, but his career minor league ERA was nothing spectacular at 3.69. Thus far, Hale has shown up in Atlanta ready to contribute, and after giving the team two great starts in 2013, he's put together two respectable performances for the 2014 team.
Having access to this crop of young pitchers helped the Braves in a much larger way this March. A cheap and young rotation, still in their first few seasons of arbitration, allows the Atlanta front office to make big emergency purchases like that of Ervin Santana. But even here we see the value of the Braves' ability to scout pitching. Atlanta landed Santana on a one-year deal over Ubaldo Jimenez on a three-year deal, and in this very small sample size in mid-April, Santana has given up just one run in two starts while Jimenez has allowed 13 runs in three starts.
It's hard to make a proper judgment when it isn't even three weeks into the season, but after suffering such a horrible chain of injuries to their rotation, the Braves now lead the majors with a combined 1.47 ERA out of their starters. Be it their fielding, their front office or their management on the field, it seems that no matter what happens to the Braves, nothing can stop their ability to pitch.
Michael Eder writes for It's About the Money, a blog on the New York Yankees.