Martin heals from playoff injury, Braves boast deep bullpen

<p>
              Newly acquired Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Will Smith throws during spring training baseball camp Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in North Port, Fla. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
            </p>

NORTH PORT, Fla. (AP) — It’s still painful for reliever Chris Martin to talk about what happened in the playoffs.

Game 1 of the NL Division Series last year. The 6-foot-7 reliever entered in the eighth inning against St. Louis with the Braves leading 3-1.

After throwing his warmup pitches, Martin was finished.

“I wanted to stay away from that question,” he said. “Real tough. One of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through.”

Acquired from Texas in late July to help in those exact situations, Martin never threw a pitch in October. He suffered an oblique injury, underwent an MRI and was lost for the series.

The Braves wound up losing the playoff opener 7-6 and eventually dropped the series in a decisive Game 5.

“That hurt a lot,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Martin’s loss. “We win that first game and it’s a totally different series. That was a huge loss. At that time of year, you can’t afford to lose a guy like that.”

To shore up their bullpen, the Braves signed Will Smith to a three-year, $39 million deal. They also committed $40 million to Smith, Martin, Mark Melancon and Shane Greene. Snitker agrees with anybody who thinks Atlanta has the best relief corps in baseball.

“It was an easy decision for me,” Smith said. “We’ve got some really good arms down here. A really good team, young team. A lot of promise.”

Martin went into the postseason not having given up a run in September. But it took him little time to realize his October appearance didn’t feel right.

“I got out there and I felt something go,” the right-hander said. “Fluke thing. I found out it was worse than I thought it was.”

What Martin watched made him feel worse in the playoffs.

Luke Wilson, who replaced Martin, gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Paul Goldschmidt.

Martin’s absence continued to hurt Atlanta, which blew an eighth-inning lead in a 5-4 loss in Game 4.

“I feel I let people down and put people in tough situations,” Martin said.

Many feel Smith will end up being the team’s closer, others feel he’ll fit in somewhere else in key situations. He said it doesn’t matter to him.

“If the bullpen takes the mentality to close their inning, we’ll be successful whether it’s the seventh, eighth or ninth when we get our three outs,” Smith said.

In Smith, Mark Melancon, Greene, Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day and A.J. Minter, the Braves have six guys with a combined 469 saves in their careers. Jackson had racked up 18 saves with the Braves before Melancon took over closing duties.

“It creates versatility,” said the side-arming O’Day, part of strong relief staffs with the Angels in 2008 and Orioles in 2014. “It’s up there, it’s pretty deep. There’s a variety of styles so we should be able to shorten some games.”

A new rule this year calls for relivers to face three batters per outing. While not a big fan of the rule – “I don’t know I support Major League Baseball to tell managers how to strategize the game and how to manage bullpens” – O’Day said the Braves have a lot of options.

“If I was managing how to do it myself, I’d do it based on matchups,” O’Day said. “Sometimes being a closer is easier than setup man. Sometimes you save the best hitters for the setup man and the closer gets numbers 7, 8, 9.”

Melancon said all those arms with closing experiences creates flexibility as well as confidences that’s beneficial.

“On paper, we haven’t done anything,” he said. “But it’s pretty good. We have to improve on our prior years.”

NOTES: After the Braves began spring training play with 18 straight singles, Ozzie Albies broke the extra-base drought with a first-inning double Tuesday against Minnesota. … Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz worked two innings, walking none and striking out three. But the hit he gave up was a towering home run to DH Trevor Larnach. … 3B Josh Donaldson, who signed a four-year, $92 million contracts with the Twins rather than return to Atlanta, didn’t make the trip.