Braves take series in Jurrjens' return

Braves take series in Jurrjens' return

ATLANTA -- After spending the winter working harder than he had during any previous offseason, Braves right-hander Jair Jurrjens approached this season with the belief that this would be the finest of his promising career. Instead, it began with what he acknowledged might have been the worst five months of his life.

But with friends and family members waving Curacao's blue and yellow flag at Turner Field on Wednesday night, Jurrjens once again had reason to smile and regain his pleasurable personality, which had been hidden by misery created by a variety of injuries, namely the left hamstring strain that sidelined him for the previous two months.

Showing few signs of rust during what evolved into a 4-1 win over the Nationals, Jurrjens displayed flashes of last year's brilliance. He also fueled the decisive two-run fourth inning with a slash-bunt single that gave him even more reason to stand at his locker after the game and once again look like the happy kid who his teammates had come to love and respect during the previous two years.

"It was like I was making my Major League debut again," Jurrjens said. "When you [are sidelined] for two months, you never know what's going to happen. I was just a nervous wreck."

Making his first start since straining his hamstring on April 29 in St. Louis, Jurrjens allowed one run, surrendering six hits in five-plus innings. He recorded all six of his strikeouts in the first four innings and survived a potentially damaging fifth inning. Using his patented sinker, Peter Moylan, who relieved Jurrjens with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, limited the damage.

"I thought he would pitch good, but not like he always did, the very first time out," Braves manager Bobby Cox said of Jurrjens. "I didn't have a read on it. He was the same old ace. Just overpowering."

Undaunted by the nerves created by the sense that this was his season debut, Jurrjens opened his outing with a 94-mph fastball. Suddenly, there was no longer any indication that this was the same young hurler who arrived at Spring Training with an inflamed right shoulder, then jammed his thumb during a Grapefruit League at-bat a few weeks later.

Instead, while pitching around the two soft doubles he surrendered during the first four innings, Jurrjens assumed the same appearance he had last year, when he posted the National League's third-best ERA (2.60).

"He had a little extra explosion at the end," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "It was hard to catch up to it, and he has the ability to make you swing at a high fastball."

After throwing 55 pitches through the first four innings, Jurrjens showed some signs of fatigue in the fifth, when he allowed back-to-back sharp singles but escaped a bases-loaded jam unscathed.

Jurrjens allowed Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn to open the sixth inning with consecutive singles before ending his night by issuing a walk to Josh Willingham. Moylan quieted the bases-loaded threat by using his first-pitch sinker to induce a double-play groundout off Ivan Rodriguez's bat.

When Moylan ended the frame by striking out Alberto Gonzalez with runners at second and third base, Jurrjens remained in line to record his first win of the season.

"The way [Jurrjens] prepared to go back out there and pitch, you've got to appreciate," Braves second baseman Martin Prado said. "I'm so happy he got the win."

First-inning doubles supplied by Martin Prado and Brian McCann gave the Braves an early lead that they increased in the fourth, when Jurrjens faked a bunt and slashed a one-out RBI single that nearly drilled Zimmerman before sailing to left field.

"I don't know what he's happier about, the fact that he threw great or the fact that he worked a slash in there," Braves outfielder Matt Diaz said of Jurrjens, who also notched a slash-bunt single last week during his final Minor League rehab start with Triple-A Gwinnett.

Riggleman said that Jurrjens' hit was "basically the difference in the game."

For the Braves, Jurrjens could be the difference as they continue their push toward the postseason try to give Cox one more World Series title before he retires.

"It's been tough," Cox said. "It's almost half a year that he wasn't able to do much. He's got a great future ahead of him the rest of the year. I know that."

When Jurrjens went 0-3 with a 6.38 ERA in the five starts he made before he was felled by the hamstring strain, he was pitching with just a portion of his shoulder strength and finding it difficult to gain a consistent grip of his pitches because of the thumb ailment.

Now, with his health-related miseries in the past, Jurrjens is looking forward to feeling normal again.

"This is a great feeling," Jurrjens said. "The soreness that I'm going to feel tomorrow is going to be awesome."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.