5/22/2013 2:00 P.M. ET
Injuries haven't slowed dominance of bullpen
By Jon Cooper and Eric Single / Special to MLB.com
ATLANTA -- One of the biggest differences between a title-contender and would-be title-contender is the ability to keep things running smoothly when the seas get choppy as they inevitably will.
For example, take away most teams' top three setup men, and they might hear calls of, 'Why us?' while their general manager tried feverishly - and likely futilely - to find new arms to fill in.
That plan simply won't fly in Atlanta.
So when the Braves saw their tandem of elite lefty setup men -- Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters -- lost for the season to elbow injuries that require Tommy John surgery, while also dealing with the loss of hard-throwing righty Jordan Walden, they simply swallowed hard, then called in reinforcements in right-handed sidewinder Cory Gearrin, lefty Luis Avilan and righty Anthony Varvaro.
So far they've been doing their job: On the current homestand, closer Craig Kimbrel has a win and three saves.
"We're just going out there trying to win ballgames -- whatever that looks like," said Gearrin, who has been scored upon once in 25 appearances covering 20 2/3 innings and has allowed only two hits in three appearances covering two innings on the homestand, with a win and a save (he suffered a blown save Tuesday night, allowing two hits). "If it's one guy throwing in the seventh or a couple of guys splitting up the eighth, whatever we have to do to win a game, get the ball to [closer] Craig [Kimbrel], that's what we're going out there doing.
"Obviously, it's a tough break with 'O' and Jonny going down, but we're going to go out there and keep trying to win games. We're going to go out there and have fun and see what we can do."
Avilan has been just as tough as Gearrin. He allowed two runs Tuesday night, but that marked the first time in eight appearances covering seven innings that he'd been scored upon.
"It's tough news about Jonny and O'Flaherty, two of our best pitchers in the bullpen, but we have to do our job," Avilan said. "It doesn't matter what our role is going to be. Try to stay focused, try to throw strikes and that's it. Make quality pitches and get guys out. It's going to be more work for us, and we probably have to pitch almost every day, but we're going to keep working and help the team and win."
The trio, as well as young relievers David Carpenter and Cory Rasmus, is mentally tough and ready to go every day. That means, literally every day, if necessary.
"We're always hungry out there," said Varvaro, who threw two scoreless frames Tuesday night and hasn't allowed a run in his last five appearances, covering 5 1/3 innings. "Whenever that bullpen phone rings, we're all ready, eager to see who's going in. Everybody out there, we just want to get out there, we want to get on the mound, we want the ball."
The Braves' bullpen entered Wednesday's matinee with a Major League-leading 2.68 ERA, a .224 opponents' batting average (sixth in the Majors) and only nine home runs allowed (fifth in the Majors, third in the NL). Those are high standards and a challenge the 'pen is willing and able to uphold.
"This is something special to be a part of," said Gearrin. "This is a good team, a team that's going to win a lot of games. You want to be as big a part of that as you can. It's something you can kind of sense in our group. When we go out and play every day and guys expect to win and you want to be a part of that."
Braves getting used to late-inning heroics
ATLANTA -- Just before rookie Evan Gattis sent a game-tying homer off into the left-field stands with two outs in the ninth inning on Tuesday night, Freddie Freeman got a taste of the excited anticipation many Braves fans have become very familiar with over the first quarter of the 2013 season.
"It's almost like when I saw him walk up there, I knew we were going to be going a little bit longer tonight," Freeman said after Tuesday's 5-4, 10-inning win over the Twins. "Once he squats down in that box, it's almost like you know it's going to happen."
Whether it's been Gattis or any number of other weapons, the Braves have hit upon a winning recipe for navigating late-game adversity in the first two months of the season.
"We've grinded," catcher Gerald Laird said. "To be where we're at right now with the schedule we've had, it says something about our team. We've been on the road a lot, two long road trips already. We grinded it out and had some rough moments. We bent but didn't break. It's one of those things, we kind of rode it out, got back home and have gotten on a nice little streak here."
Tuesday night's 5-4 win over Minnesota marked the fourth time this season the Braves have won after trailing in the eighth inning. In the National League, only the Pirates had accomplished that feat more often.
Maybe the most impressive part of the Braves' late-inning heroics is that they can come from anywhere. Gattis has grabbed the spotlight and grown his legend on the team's current homestand with a pair of pivotal home runs, but on April 12, it was ninth-inning substitute Ramiro Pena, whose homer in the 10th capped an improbable 6-4 comeback win over the Nationals.
"Especially when we're down by one or two -- three maybe -- we're confident that we can come back," Pena said. "[Tuesday] night, it was one run, so we tried to do our job, tried to get good ABs and come back and win the game."
Jason Heyward compared the team's recent propensity for late-inning rallies to his rookie season in 2010, when the Braves had 46 comeback wins -- including seven in which they trailed in the ninth inning -- on their way to a 91-71 record and the NL Wild Card. After coming from behind three days in a row to sweep the Dodgers and pulling off Tuesday night's thriller, the Braves sit at 14 comeback wins, just about on pace to duplicate '10's high-water mark.
"[The] 2010 season, we had quite a few of those playing at home," Heyward said. "We had a pretty good record that year, and it just seemed like someone different was doing something special for us. If you give yourself an opportunity late in the game and win those last three innings, you have a good chance to win the game."
The expectation that someone will step up late is contagious, and for the Braves, the knowledge of each past comeback can make future late-game deficits that much less daunting.
"You try and keep it close, try and chip away at a team if they've got an early lead on you, and hopefully you take advantage of the last at-bat at home," Heyward said.
-- Eric Single
'Suffer' shirts fit Braves to a tee
ATLANTA -- The grind of a 162-game season and all that entails is sure to wear on a baseball team.
The Atlanta Braves, known for not wearing their emotions on their sleeves, have found a solution. They're wearing their collective mindset on their chests, donning blue T-shirts with the slogan "Suffer In Silence."
Veteran center fielder Reed Johnson, who has seen plenty of adversity in his nine-plus years in the Major Leagues, came up with the idea for the shirts, which also include an animated face wearing a Braves cap with white tape over the mouth (a space for players to write in their number).
The phrase has become a rallying cry of sorts for the Braves as they endure the inevitable bumps and obstacles in their path that accompany them during the journey that is the regular season.
"There are 25 guys in here going through a lot of the same issues, whether it's aches and pains or things they might not agree with -- whether they think they should be playing more, playing less, or whatever," said Johnson. "If you express those problems out loud, a lot of times, that's really what can tear a team apart. So with things that really don't matter and are not going to affect you on the field as far as wins and losses are concerned, that's where the suffer in silence comes from."
Johnson handed out the shirts at the end of Spring Training, but did so in a unique way, so as to drive the point home.
"I gave everybody a shirt and gave every single person I gave a shirt to an individual speech," he said. "I didn't do it as a group. I kind of presented it to everybody one at a time."
The shirt has become a pregame favorite around the clubhouse. Part of that is the comfortable material from which the shirt is made, some of it also can be attributed to the message it carries.
That message is apropos for a team that has played the fewest home games in the National League, made back-to-back 10-day, three-city road trips separated by a night-day mini-series, played games in sub-freezing weather, saw two of its top relievers go down for the year in a week and has battled back from behind to win in four of the five victories on the current homestand, The latest was the dramatic 5-4, 10-inning win Tuesday night.
"Ain't no time for excuses," said catcher Gerald Laird, prior to Wednesday's finale with Minnesota. "That's why we wear this shirt. You've got to suffer in silence.
"We're all big leaguers. When it's your time to play you have to prepare and be ready to go in there and do the job. It is always the sign of a good baseball team when you have different guys every night stepping up and getting the big hit or just doing something in the field, making a play to help the team win. I like what I see with the team. It's every guy on the roster contributing right now. That's a good sign."
Not even an early day game following a rain delay and extra innings the night before can get Johnson down.
"You're asking the wrong guy," he said, with a laugh. "I played at Wrigley for four years. So I'm used to the day games. I think we had, I think, 12:00 or 12:30 starts every Saturday. So you get pretty used to those when you're playing there. I guess I'm a little more acclimated to the day games than most of the guys around here, but I'm sure that most of the guys in here don't really care for them."
Not that you'll hear anyone complaining.
Jon Cooper is a contributor to and Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.