The return of Jair Jurrjens

            With the spotlight on Tim Lincecum’s struggles in San Francisco, an even more enigmatic implosion has been that of Braves right-hander Jair Jurrjens. That is, until Friday night.

            The Braves’ rotation has been solid but unspectacular this season, with the exception of young Brandon Beachy, who was riding high with the best ERA in baseball until he underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery Thursday.

            So Friday, the Braves turned to Jurrjens to make his first big-league start since April 23. The right-hander turned in his best start since previous to last year’s All-Star game, shutting down Boston with 7 2/3 dazzling innings of three-hit ball as Atlanta prevailed 4-1.

            The game had originally received top television billing by the MLB Network, but due to a rain delay, the network instead aired the Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees. And so, the West Coast audience was relegated to viewing the game on the MLB Gameday rotisserie board. But, much like the Brandon Morrow start I blogged about last month, Jurrjens’ outing was a fun one to watch via a pitch-tracker.

            Location-wise, Jurrjens looked hittable early on. He left pitches up to each of Boston’s first three hitters, including a high fastball to Adrian Gonzalez, which the Red Sox No. 3-hitter promptly served into left field for a single. It would be another seven innings before Boston scratched out its second hit, however.

            After the first inning, Jurrjens dominated the bottom of the strike zone. His fastball was cutting both sides of the plate, and his changeup was consistently bottoming out. He took a one-hit shutout into the eighth having set down eight batters in a row, and ultimately gave up one run on three hits, while striking out four against one walk and one hit batsman.

            It was something the baseball world didn’t know if it would ever see again – the Jurrjens of old. While he has long since garnered the dubious label of an injury-prone player, that wasn’t the problem this season. He was just out of whack, beginning the year with four dreadful starts in which he was 0-2 with a 9.37 ERA. He was summarily demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett, where he wasn’t much better, going 3-4 with a 5.18 ERA over 10 starts.

            Granted, Jurrjens was coming off a nagging knee injury which derailed his All-Star season last year. After dominating in the first half with a 12-3 record and a 1.87 ERA, he managed just a 1-3 record with a 5.88 ERA after the All-Star break, before spending the final month of the season on the disabled list.

            After whirlwind trade rumors regarding Jurrjens in the offseason, and recent speculation in the Atlanta newspapers that the Braves are in the market to acquire Matt Garza from the Cubs, the right-hander’s clutch performance Friday night is a vindicating one – at least for the time being – especially with Atlanta being overtaken for second place in the NL East standings by the surging Mets earlier in the week. With Friday’s win, the Braves still trail the second-place Mets by a half game, and are three games back of division-leading Washington.

            More importantly, it looks like Atlanta can count on its 2011 All-Star to step up with the recent loss of the best pitcher in baseball.


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