Walden gives Braves options, more firepower

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Jordan Walden isn’t afraid to admit it — he’s still into wrestling.

The Braves’ reliever grew up a fan of the WWE’s The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin — a fellow Texas native — and last season, he even entered games to Triple H’s theme song, Motorhead’s “The Game.”

“I like to watch,” Walden said. “My buddies at home, we all watch it … In the offseason I had my buddies come over and we watched The Royal Rumble.”

Walden may be best served getting his fill of drama from the world of pomp and spandex, because with the addition of the former All-Star closer, there figures to be very little surrounding the Braves’ bullpen this season.

“We already had one of the best bullpens in baseball and it just got better,” closer Craig Kimbrel said. “It’s going to be fun.”

Behind the trio of closer Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, Atlanta’s already had a group of relievers that ranked second in MLB last season with a 2.76 ERA — trailing only the Reds at 2.65 — and was seventh with 481 strikeouts.

Then in November, the Braves went out and traded starter Tommy Hanson to the Angels for the 25-year-old Walden, who in 2011 saved 32 games before moving to a set-up role last season.

In essence, they took a bullpen that was already dominant and made it, to borrow from the name of Cincinnati’s early 1990s relievers, nasty.

“It’s kind of exciting,” Walden said. “They wanted me in their pen and their pen is already good, so it was a good feeling.”

It’s an acquisition that will give manager Fredi Gonzalez extra flexibility late in games.

In the past, opponents knew the Braves would bring in lefties O’Flaherty and Venters before right-handed Kimbrel took over in the ninth inning. But with another power arm in the righty Walden, Gonzalez can stop teams from planning for that lefty/lefty/righty setup.  

“Teams have adjusted to that because they knew we were going back-to-back lefties,” Gonzalez said. “They’d pinch-hit their lefties early or hold onto their righties late in the game. Now we can throw a monkey wrench into that and all of a sudden throw Walden one day in the seventh or eight innings.”

Walden never thought he’d be a closer. He was thrown into the role as a rookie in Anaheim and after his surprising debut, entered last season with the job in hand. But he was demoted in April, a day after giving up a two-run game-ending home run to Brandon Allen in a loss to the Rays.

He appeared in 45 games as a setup man in a season in which he landed on the disabled list with biceps and shoulder injuries, going 3-2 with a 3.46 ERA and one save.

His job changed, but Walden said his mentality remained the same. It’s the same approach he expects to bring to the Braves as he sets the table for Kimbrel.

“You still have to go out there and do the same thing, you got to get three outs,” he said. “So you just have to take it as the same and I got to go at every inning like I’m closing a game ‘I’ve got to get my three outs.’”

He says he’s also looking forward to watching the show that is Kimbrel, who last year became the first pitcher in major-league history to strikeout half of the batters he faced.

“He’s lights out,” Walden said. “He’s the best in the game. I’m ready to watch him in person and learn from him.”

Before the Braves arrived at spring training, general manager Frank Wren spoke to a group of reporters about Walden’s unusual mechanics, discussing the brief moment when Walden pushes off the rubber in which both of his feet are off the ground.

It’s an unorthodox motion Walden honed as a 10-year-old throwing in the yard with his dad, and one that nearly every pitching coach he’s ever dealt with has made some attempt to change.

“They hate me. Everywhere I’ve gone, they hate me,” Walden said. “But when I got out on the mound … I’ve done it so long that my body’s just kind of used to it. Everybody wants to fix it, but it’s gotten to me where I’m at now.”

For the record, Walden says Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell has yet to say anything about altering his delivery.

Walden was admittedly surprised he was dealt to the Braves, who didn’t seem to have any holes in their bullpen. But in bringing a fastball that has touched 100 mph to a group flush with hard throwers in O’Flaherty (94 mph), Venters (95 mph) and Kimbrel (100 mph), he’s a more than welcome addition.

“We get the ball in the sixth inning and more often than not the game is going to be over with,” Kimbrel said. “That’s how we’re going to approach it.”