The young Braves relievers are turning out one impressive performance after the other this spring.
By ZACH DILLARD FS South
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — There's an old adage concerning spring training games stating that they don't really matter, a broad-stroke perspective that at least one of the 4,000-plus fans in attendance of the Mets-Braves game Monday afternoon would vehemently deny — the lone man screaming out the name of seemingly every spring invite on New York's roster. And perhaps in terms of final scores or starting pitchers camped out in center field between slow sprints, there's some truth to the saying.
However, with the Braves' plethora of young arms in the bullpen, the number of goose eggs posted this spring has mattered.
Six separate relievers have pitched at least four innings of scoreless ball this spring — three of them (
Alex Wood) took the mound against the Mets. Along with 27-year-old David Carpenter, the bullpen replaced starter
Tim Hudson to the tune of five scoreless innings, two hits, two walks and six strikeouts Monday afternoon.
"You'll definitely take that anytime you can get it whether its spring training or regular season," said Carpenter, the game's winning pitcher who struck out two of the three batters he faced.
Though the back end of Atlanta's bullpen is all but set in stone with
Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty and newcomer
Jordan Walden, there could certainly be movement throughout the season for the middle innings. Avilan and
Cory Gearrin are projected to fill out the middle relief roles, but a rough month or two could easily open the door for a call-up. Avilan impressed in limited time last season, posting a 2.00 ERA with a 3.3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio; Gearrin posted even better numbers over his 20 innings of work. But neither pitcher has the track record to guarantee success (or a spot) in the Braves' shuffling of relievers. Hence, the importance of spring for some of the young arms.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez made particular note of Wood's performance — and the quirky delivery and movement on his pitches — in the postgame, but the group's overall performance (against an admittedly underwhelming Mets lineup) was one of the key stories to carry back to Disney's Wide World of Sports.
Carpenter said he and his teammates are trusting in the system Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell have in place, one that has proved effective over time.
"They have a good program that has not only worked now, but in years past when you've had guys like (Tom) Glavine, (John) Smoltz and (Greg) Maddux. They know what they're doing."
Not a first
Chris Johnson's bat stole some headlines away from his ex-
Justin Upton Monday, but his position in the field also made an impression on Gonzalez. Though the 28-year-old hit the go-ahead home run vs. the Mets — a pivotal strike in a third base position battle that is gradually heating up — he showed his ability to play first base as well.
Judging by the response, he's shown enough for Gonzalez to, at the very least, trust him if needed.
"Whenever (starting first baseman
Freddie) Freeman needs a day off or something you can run him out there. And he looks pretty good out there at first base."
When Johnson came over in the blockbuster Justin Upton trade in late January, Atlanta knew it was getting a player who could man both corner infield spots respectably. In 35 2/3 innings last season, Johnson manned first base for the Diamondbacks with positive defensive metrics, albeit in a small sample size. With last season's backups to Freeman — Eric Hinske,
Martin Prado and even Lyle Overbay — no longer with the team, Johnson could prove valuable beyond the expected platoon situation at the hot corner.
"I'll play anywhere. I told our manager today, 'Wherever he wants me to go, I'll go,'" Johnson said. "I just want to be here. I want to help as best I can and win some games."
6: Tim Hudson forced only six ground balls on Monday, though he faced 18 batters — an unusually low rate for one of the major league's premier ground ball pitchers. Last season, the 37-year-old forced ground balls 56 percent of the time (seventh-highest rate in baseball). After the game, he said he struggled with his command at times, which was evident in the amount of batted balls sent airborne. However, it should be noted that by his final inning, Hudson forced three-consecutive groundouts to wrap up his second spring start.
2:Christian Bethancourt showed off the defensive skills that have propelled him near the top of the Braves' prospects list as he caught two Mets players stealing Monday. The Braves caught 39 runners stealing in 162 games last season. Meanwhile, as his starting pitcher noted postgame, Bethancourt performed admirably behind the plate catching Hudson for the first time in a live-game scenario.