After their run of 14 straight division titles came to an end last season, the Atlanta Braves made fixing their bullpen the main offseason priority.
It’s only been one game, but the Braves already like what they see from their revamped relief corps.
Atlanta looks to win consecutive games to open the season for the first time in 11 years when it continues a three-game set with the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.
The Braves blew an NL-leading 29 saves in 2006, but the bullpen held up strong in a 5-3, 10-inning win over the Phillies on Monday. Along with some unexpected power from shortstop Edgar Renteria, four relievers each threw a scoreless inning to lead the Braves to victory.
“It’s a great start,” Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. “(John) Smoltz and (Brett) Myers both pitched tremendous baseball. Our bullpen really held together, which is a huge plus for us this season.”
Renteria had the sixth multihomer game of his career Monday, tying the game with a solo shot in the eighth inning and giving the Braves the lead in the 10th with a two-run homer - after he failed twice to execute a sacrifice bunt.
“I’m a bunting guy,” Renteria said. “I’ll try and move the guy to second every time. That’s my game. Sometimes you hit the ball good and the ball goes out.”
Atlanta hasn’t opened a season with two straight wins since 1996, when they beat San Francisco twice, then promptly lost three in a row.
The Phillies were hoping to start the season strong after going 10-14 in each of the past two Aprils, but it was their bullpen that let them down in extra innings. Ryan Madson allowed Renteria’s homer, which will only increase the scrutiny on the team’s relievers.
“It’s very disappointing to let my teammates down,” said Madson, a key part of an oft-criticized bullpen.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel fiddled with his batting order, flip-flopping All-Star second baseman Chase Utley and reigning NL MVP Ryan Howard in the lineup. Howard batted third while Utley hit cleanup after Manuel said all spring that he preferred Utley in the No. 3 spot.
“Whatever Charlie wants is fine,” said Howard, who had two hits but also struck out twice.
Philadelphia hopes Cole Hamels can build on his solid rookie season when he takes the mound Wednesday. Hamels went 9-8 with a 4.08 ERA in 23 starts in 2006, but the 23-year-old left-hander showed plenty of promise. He averaged 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings and went 7-3 with a 2.70 ERA over his last 12 starts.
“My goal every year,” Hamels said, “is to try make the All-Star team, to win as many games as possible, to be in a competition for, oh, a trophy or an award.”
Hamels struggled against the Braves, losing both of his starts while allowing eight runs in 11 1-3 innings.
Atlanta is hoping for a bounce-back season from Tim Hudson (13-12, 4.86 ERA in 2006), who suffered through his worst year in the majors.
The right-hander posted the highest ERA of his career and never found the consistency that had allowed him to go 14-9 with a 3.52 ERA in 2005, his first season with the Braves.
“If I had the type of year that I expect out of myself, we probably would have won our division or at least made the playoffs,” Hudson said. “I pitched last year like about a No. 5 starter, if that. I expect to pitch like a No. 1 starter. I think that’s what I am. That’s what I plan to get back to.”
Hudson, a 20-game winner in 2000 and owner of a 119-60 career record, is 4-3 with a 3.96 ERA in eight starts against Philadelphia.