Clearwater, Fla. – With five games left before it all starts to count, five Braves pitchers are still competing for two available bullpen spots.
But one spots seems earmarked for right-hander Jesse Chavez, who had a 1-2-3 inning Monday and drew praise again from manager Bobby Cox.
Even when Chavez surrendered eight runs and 11 hits in his previous two appearances, Cox lauded his performance and said statistics were no indication of how he’d pitched in those games – that he’d been victimized by bad luck and a lot of groundball hits.
So after Chavez pitched a perfect inning Monday, both pitcher and manager seemed relieved not to have to defend his performance or explain away hits and runs.
“Good for the ball to bounce my way today, finally,” Chavez said. “What was it, 11 straight singles? I mean, more than half didn’t even get out of the infield.
“I just took the same approach I did the last four or five times out – keep the ball down, just let it play out. Got some ground balls today, like I have been.”
Chavez, 26, had an 18.00 ERA .513 opponents’ batting average in seven appearances before Monday. But the slender pitcher had a 4.01 ERA in 73 appearances last saeason with Pittsburgh.
As Cox said Sunday, past performance generally means a lot more to him than what someone does in spring training. And as Chavez noted, he also had a rough spring training last year with the Pirates.
“Physically I haven’t felt this good in a while,” Chavez said. “I know that’s probably kind of cliché to say it, but for the ball to be coming out of my hand the way it is, as easy as it is, it feels good.
“I think last [spring] was worse — I was up in the zone a lot more. I was pitching to the gaps last year. This year I’m keeping the ball down, keeping it on the ground. That’s a good thing for me.
“I’m not the first to say I’m not a spring pitcher. But that’s what it’s for. Get ‘em out of the way now and be ready once the lights turn on.”
When asked about his performance Monday against the Phillies, Cox said, “Chavez honestly has pitched the last two outings … I mean, the score and everything wasn’t indicative. He kept the ball down [in those games] and did it again today. It was the same as the last two times, for me. Nothing [hit] hard.”
If Chavez gets one of the two available jobs, it would leave left-handers Jo-Jo Reyes and Jonny Venters and hard-throwing righties Craig Kimbrel and Scott Proctor as options for the last spot.
There are factors that might come into play and narrow the field, though the Braves aren’t saying.
Kimbrel, 21, figures big in the Braves’ future plans and could be their next homegrown closer. But he’s pitched only 13-2/3 innings above Class A, and isn’t on the 40-man roster.
General manager Frank Wren indicated in a radio interview Tuesday that Kimbrel will start out at Triple-A Gwinnett, which was not surprising.
“He’s pitched extremely well,” Wren told Sirius XM radio host Jim Bowden. “He’s really shown great poise for a young kid in his first big league camp. He’s our right-handed Billy Wagner. He’s similar stature-wise, body, his delivery, arm slot, they’re all almost identical. And his stuff is very similar. He’ll pitch at 96, 97 [mph] and he has that real good, tight slider. Like I said, just like Billy Wagner, just the opposite side.
“He continues to be impressive but I think for his development we probably need to give him a little more time, just to pitch in Triple-A and continue to work on his command and he’ll be here real quickly, I think.”
Proctor’s rehabilitation from May 2009 “Tommy John” elbow surgery likely will call for two or three weeks of pitching at Gwinnett before he’s activated by the Braves.
The 33-year-old setup man had two elbow surgeries and went 17 months without pitching in a game until two weeks ago.
Also, Proctor has five years and 10 days of major league service time, and would reach six years’ service and free-agency eligibility if he spends the entire 2009 season on the major league roster.
If he’s not added to the 40-man roster until after mid-April, the Braves would have him under contractual control for 2011.
If the Braves wait to add Proctor later in April, they could go with one of the other candidates for at least the first few weeks of the season.