Braves' Beachy struggles in return, still on track

BY foxsports • July 30, 2013

ATLANTA -- Before Brandon Beachy took the mound Monday night, Atlanta Braves general manager Frank Wren sat atop the navy-blue padded backing of the home dugout's bench discussing deadline deals, offensive improvement and team health. Eventually talk shifted to Beachy, who was set to make his first major league start since undergoing Tommy John surgery last June.

Wren, looking rather energetic coming off his pre-deadline acquisition of lefty reliever Scott Downs, essentially discarded Beachy's box score before last season's ERA leader threw his first pitch.

From the GM's perspective, the start was just one step in the process. Even if it was a slight misstep.

Beachy's final line against Colorado -- 3-2/3 innings pitched, seven earned runs, eight hits, five strikeouts -- was a far cry from yesteryear's production. The outing was the second-shortest of his career, and the seven runs allowed were a career high -- a disastrous combination for any pitcher's ERA.

Was Wren expecting a little better? Probably.

Then again, so was Beachy.

"It still stings," the 26-year-old said of his performance. "I'm not gonna just chalk this up to 'part of the process.' No, I'm not gonna do that. I pitched poorly and really let the guys down when they came back and got me that lead. It's not acceptable, no matter what the circumstances are."

Regardless, Wren's pregame approach still holds true.

For any expecting Beachy to come out firing on all cylinders -- trying to avoid a straw man here, though select boos (targets unknown) during the Rockies' big innings were audible -- it's important to remember there are no guarantees with ulnar collateral ligaments. If there were a greater understanding of the UCL, perhaps there wouldn't be approximately 35 such surgeries done every season over the past decade. Decades after Dr. Jobe worked his magic, this is still new territory. There is no "normal" in terms of recovery. To each his own.

"I'm not even gonna evaluate his first outing (at this moment)," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "It's coming out of spring training for him. Maybe even worse because of the Tommy John, so we'll see how he feels tomorrow, throw him a side and go get 'em in five days."

Kris Medlen's torrid run through the 2012 season's second half -- this coming after his own Tommy John surgery, of course -- is certainly not the rule, not one Beachy has to live up to anyway. By the time Medlen made his first post-Tommy John start, the calendar read July 31 and he had 38 appearances under his belt. His "spring training", as Gonzalez described it, came in one-, two- or three-inning spurts.

Even starting pitchers who have returned to top form after the elbow surgery have hit some speed bumps in their first games back: John Smoltz, Chris Carpenter, Josh Johnson and even Tommy John himself (for understandable reasons) come to mind. Each enjoyed successful comebacks, albeit not exclusively as a starter in Smoltz's case.

Beachy has plenty of room to improve, but it's room he's capable of filling. If the key is continued health, Beachy said the main positive he took from the start was that he felt "good" physically. He was even pleased with his fastball, which hovered around 90-92 mph all night -- in other words, right around his career average of 91.6 mph.

"I got in trouble with hanging some breaking balls. It seemed like every one I hung, they crushed it. They didn't miss those mistakes," said Beachy, who walked only one Rockies batter. "I just did need to refine the offspeed, especially. I felt like I was ahead in a lot of counts and I was just this close to getting out of some situations and they were fouling pitches off. When I made a mistake, they capitalized.

"It's just something I'll work on in my bullpen (session), get some of those breaking balls sharper, a little down in the zone when it matters."

Beachy certainly wasn't at his sharpest, but that's to be expected during this process. He wasn't overpowering in his minor league rehab starts either, struggling with control at times . . . much like he did Monday night. A big difference, of course, was that the No. 2 offense in the National League did not provide many easy outs. The Rockies light up opposing righties this season, hitting for a 111 OPS+ (sixth-best in baseball) thus far. It's difficult to come up with easy outs when Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki and Michael Cuddyer come around every other inning or so.

This is not the Brandon Beachy the Atlanta Braves expect to feature at the top of their rotation for years to come. This is not the Brandon Beachy that Brandon Beachy expects to show up to the ballpark every fifth day. Wren and the entire organization went into the game with that exact mindset.

It's been a long road and there are no guarantees, but Beachy is much closer to the finish than the start.

"I feel like I was right there. I'm confident going into my next one," he said. "I'm not looking to do this again."