One Braves pitcher struggling mightily

Friday night was a party for all but one member of the Atlanta Braves. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

2011 was a banner year for Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Eric O’Flaherty.

The seventh-inning set-up man for Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel pitched in 78 of the Braves’ 162 games, and he was as stingy as a relief pitcher got in the 2011 season. As a matter of fact, he was as good as any relief pitcher in history — his 0.98 ERA was the best ever for a relief pitcher that appeared in at least 70 games.

It would be unfair of Braves fans to expect historic dominance on the mound for the second season in a row, but that’s how good O’Flaherty was in 2011. Fans came to expect a three-up, three-down seventh inning every time O’Flaherty took the mound.

This year hasn’t started like that.

In his first four appearances, O’Flaherty has allowed four runs. His ERA, which sits at 9.82, is more than three times as high as his 2009 ERA of 3.04 — the worst full-season ERA during his time in Atlanta. Never in his career has O’Flaherty allowed more than two home runs in a full season, and he’s already served one up in his first two weeks of the 2012 campaign.

More: The Braves’ week in review

In the midst of last year’s magic, he allowed eight earned runs to score in 73.2 innings. It only took 3.2 innings to get halfway there this year, and worst of all, batters are actually hitting him hard this season. That didn’t happen a lot in 2011.

Now, the good news — it’s still very early in the year. This isn’t some midseason meltdown; there’s still a chance he will allow less runs than the eight earned runs he served up in 2011.

But this start deserves a little attention because it’s not normal to see O’Flaherty struggling. Not early in the year, or ever. His ugly inning Friday night against the Milwaukee Brewers (three runs, four hits and a home run) cost the Braves the lead, and nearly cost them the game.

Seeing O’Flaherty blow a lead is something Braves fans would have to get used to, because for the last two years, the game was always safe in his hands.

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