PORT. ST. LUCIE, Fla. – The Braves’ Grapefruit League opening day started with a fan holding up a sign that said “Marry Me Fredi” during batting practice, and ended with a proverbial kissing-your-sister 5-5, 10-inning tie against the New York Mets.
In between, there was plenty to recommend but also some rough spots to work on for new manager Fredi Gonzalez’s Braves, who blew three leads and wasted a 3-for-3, three-double game by rookie Freddie Freeman in his debut as the starting first baseman.
Eric Hinske homered and utility infield candidate Ed Lucas had a pair of RBI singles off the bench for the Braves, who led 5-3 before Willie Harris – the ex-Brave who seems to haunt the team — hit a two-run homer in the 10th off minor leaguer Michael Broadway.
“On to tomorrow,” said Gonzalez, whose Braves face the Mets again Sunday in the home opener at ESPN Wide World of Sports, where second baseman Dan Uggla is set to make his Braves debut and Chipper Jones is penciled in as designated hitter.
The Braves used nine pitchers Saturday and got good work from six, including starter Jair Jurrjens, who gave up two hits and no walks in two scoreless innings. But it was a rocky first outing from rookie closer Craig Kimbrel, to say the least.
Kimbrel allowed two runs, two hits and two walks while recording one out in the fifth inning and blowing a 2-0 lead.
“First time out in spring training — not a big deal,” said Gonzalez, who plans to use Kimbrel and left-hander Jonny Venters in a co-closer role at least in the early part of the regular season, until one of them shows he should be the primary guy.
Kimbrel struck out 40 in 20-2/3 regular-season innings last season as a rookie, but issued 16 walks. After walking 11 in his first nine games for Atlanta, he issued only seven walks in his final 16 games, including one walk with seven strikeouts in 4-1/3 postseason innings.
He didn’t seem worried about his shaky command or his velocity Saturday, when most of his fastballs were several ticks below his usual mid- to high-90 mph heat.
“I don’t think command was the problem,” said Kimbrel, who gave up a double to Scott Hairston to start the fifth, followed by a two-run homer by Fernando Martinez, then two walks to the last four batters he faced before being replaced.
Second baseman Brooks Conrad also made an error that helped extend the inning.
“I did walk those guys. I went deep into some counts with guys fouling them off,” Kimbrel said. “It’s early. I don’t have all my stuff right now. I’m working my way.
“If towards the end of spring training I’m throwing like that, I’d probably be a little bit more worried.”
Kimbrel is scheduled to pitch again Wednesday against the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla.
“I’m looking forward to my next outing, and hopefully with each outing I’ll improve on what I’m working on,” he said. “Hopefully things will keep getting better and better…
“My arm felt good. No problems. It’s still early. It’s a process to get ready for the season, and we’re still at the beginning of it.”
Jurrjens threw 23 strikes in 34 pitches and again sounded like a rejuvenated man.
He’s talked all spring about how good and how relieved he’s felt to be healthy after an injury-filled season in which he made just 20 starts qne missed the stretch drive and postseason series with a knee injury that required October arthroscopic surgery.
“I just wanted to go out there and be aggressive with the fastball, work on the control and location, make good pitches and not try to overthrow,” Jurrjens said. “Just be nice and easy, hit my spots.
He had one strikeout and four groundouts.
“I just wanted to pitch for contact,” he said. “Try to make my pitches sink, keep the ball down, and just make them swing. I was trying to have as quick innings as possible.”