Like the Phils, the Braves fret about their pitching

Cliff Lee shakes it off as the Braves' Jason Heyward heads home on a leadoff blast in the first inning. Lee struck out five in 32/3 innings.
Cliff Lee shakes it off as the Braves' Jason Heyward heads home on a leadoff blast in the first inning. Lee struck out five in 32/3 innings. (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: March 12, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez could not recall which expletive he used Sunday when his No. 1 starter, Kris Medlen, darted from the mound to the clubhouse, then Monday to an MRI tube.

There were fears that Medlen, a 28-year-old Tommy John survivor, had suffered another serious injury to his right arm. The Braves harbored faint optimism Monday as they prepared for a Grapefruit League game against their rival Phillies. Gonzalez coped with six words.

"Thank God we signed Freddy Garcia," he said.

The Phillies are not alone in their pitching headaches. They lost three rotation options - including $144 million man Cole Hamels - in the span of two weeks this spring, and could employ Jeff Manship or David Buchanan as a fifth starter in April. The Phillies require health, of course, but some luck would engender contention in 2014.

Atlanta, the reigning National League East champion, feels cursed in mid-March with a pitching crunch. One day after Medlen's trouble, Brandon Beachy departed Monday's game with tightness in his right biceps. He, too, underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2012. He lacks sharpness this spring.

"You just never know," Gonzalez said. "You feel like you have enough. Then the next thing you know, something happens and it screws up everything."

Similar words have been uttered in Phillies camp, where the situation - for now - is less dire. Hamels is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Wednesday, six days after he admitted arm fatigue during his recovery from biceps tendinitis. Any projected return date is conjecture until Hamels proves his health.

"We are positive going into Wednesday," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said.

The Phillies, at least, possess Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett at the top of their amended rotation. Lee allowed a leadoff home run Monday to Jason Heyward but struck out five in 32/3 innings. He said he felt fit to keep throwing beyond the team's imposed pitch count.

He could not predict whether the Phillies had enough depth to overcome Hamels' absence.

"Obviously, any time without him is not good," Lee said. "He's one of the best pitchers in the game. We'd like to have him back as quickly as possible. But at the same time, there's nothing we can do about that. That's up to him to focus on his routine and rehab and do the things he has to do to get back. While he's doing that, we've got to take care of business. Hopefully he gets back sooner than later."

The Braves, Gonzalez said, planned this winter for a rotation of five homegrown pitchers. Mike Minor, their No. 2 starter, succumbed first. He underwent urinary tract surgery during the winter and developed shoulder soreness as a result of subsequent inactivity. He could return sometime in April.

Medlen's injury looked the most serious. He threw a pitch Sunday against the Mets, grabbed his arm, and immediately removed himself from the game. Beachy, Atlanta's No. 3 starter, said he was not distressed by his setback Monday.

Garcia, 37, started a postseason game for Atlanta in 2013 and signed a minor-league contract for $1.25 million. The former Phillie, all of a sudden, is more than an insurance policy for Atlanta. Budding young arms like Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and David Hale may fill the Braves' rotation. Gavin Floyd, another former Phillies righthander, could return in June from Tommy John surgery.

Atlanta owns the sort of offensive talent that can compensate for mediocre pitching. Still, Gonzalez tempered any expectations.

"You don't know," he said. "People are saying this team is favored, that team is favored. The people who can survive those injuries will be there at the end. We were lucky last season."

The Phillies know all too well how the opposite outcome stings.


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb www.inquirer.com/phillieszone

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