Braves quiet critics with first four games

The first four games for the Braves have certainly been fun to watch.

Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, no one should ever take away the first four games for the Atlanta Braves. They lost their beloved closer on the eve of Opening Day in a blockbuster trade. There are absolutely zero expectations. Even some of the best fans have to search to find out who some of the new players are on the retooled roster.

And the Braves started the season 4-0.

It’s early. That’s something that should be repeated. Last year’s dysfunctional bunch started 17-7. That was enough to get really excited, until they went 62-76 the rest of the season. But for a team to quiet critics, at least for now, well, it’s a great story.

For a lineup that seems to be selected with a manager pulling names out of a hat, it is working. For a bullpen with four rookies to not give up a run in the first four games, particularly after everyone worried the pen might collapse after the trade of Craig Kimbrel, is amazing. For the new closer, Jason Grilli, to look almost as dominant as Kimbrel, it is, pun intended, a relief.

Grilli is the oldest member of this young team. Taking over for Kimbrel is not going to be easy, but Grilli has done this before so this is not his first rodeo. He had 33 saves two years ago between the Pirates and the Angels. Grilli wasn’t intimidated by running out of the bullpen at Turner Field Friday, with the fans watching to see what it would be like compared to when Kimbrel had his dramatic entrance.

But Grilli was more interested Friday in talking about Cody Martin and Brandon Cunniff, two of the rookies who now have important setup roles on this team. They’ve been perfect so far.

“For these guys to step up, it’s great to see,” Grilli said. “Those middle innings, a lot of people don’t pay attention to the guys in the middle. When you see inherited runners (allowed), it’s a stat I know very well. I used to keep track of my own stat because that was the job that was required of me. That’s when the game is in the balance. Those guys are doing a heck of a job.”

“Teams that are successful have good bullpens,” said Friday night’s starting pitcher, Eric Stults. “Our guys come in and throw strikes. You can’t come in and fall behind or walk guys. Guys are pounding the zone, so they’re being successful because they’re throwing strikes.”

Through Friday’s game, Atlanta’s starting pitchers had allowed six earned runs in the first four games. The team had not made an error, and shortstop Andrelton Simmons provided another spectacular play Friday night throwing out Mets’ catcher Travis d’Arnaud. There was the big home run Wednesday by A.J. Pierzynski and the big hit late in the game Friday by Phil Gosselin.

“If you pitch well, you play good defense and get clutch hitting, you’re going win ballgames,” Stults said. “That’s what we’ve done so far. That’s what good teams do. They pull out the close ones and do the little things. That’s what our team is going to do this year, do the little things.”

We’ve seen A-B-C baseball. The Braves have gotten people on base, moved them over and gotten them in. Yes, we have seen the little things that help a team win games, even if some of the stars from last year are playing somewhere else.

Cameron Maybin, one of the new players that joined the team Monday after the Kimbrel trade, has arguably done more in four games than his predecessor, Melvin (B.J.) Upton, did in two years with the Braves. Maybin has a home run, has driven in three runs and has a stolen base.

“I think we believe in what we have here, even when everybody else might not,” Maybin said Friday. “We like what we have. We’re athletic. We’ve got great team chemistry. It’s a good group of guys. We believe in each other.”

Grilli added, “We’re jelling. We’re jelling pretty quickly.”

Well, again, it’s early. But when a team has provided more excitement in four games than it did all of last season, you have to hope it’s a sign that things may not be as bad as many expected.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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