(Updated: 7 p.m.)
There is a scene in the movie Bull Durham when Crash Davis learns he is close to breaking the minor league home run record. Because a minor-league record generally isn’t something a professional athlete embraces, Crash asks that the pursuit be kept quiet (and the fact he eventually hooks up with Susan Sarandon really has nobody feeling sorry for him, anyway).
Well, here’s the good news for Jair Jurrjens: He will return to the big leagues long before any Triple A record is within his reach and, in his words, “I’m not planning to come back here.”
Jurrjens is expected to pitch one or two innings for the Gwinnett Braves on Tuesday night. Then he’ll join the organization that pays his major league salary in time for a Friday start at Boston.
Unfortunately, Jurrjens couldn’t make it out of Lawrenceville before being included in the Gwinnett team photo. Or the set of team player cards now on sale at Coolray Field. (Posters advertising the $10 pack feature Jurrjens.)
“I’ve got my card,” Jurrjens said, smiling. “I’m going to add it to my collection.”
This is not the same guy who two and a half weeks ago battled a virus that leveled him for several days, decided to pitch anyway (with disastrous results) and wondered aloud if the Braves had written him off. He felt blindsided when the Braves sent reliever Kris Medlen to Gwinnett to work on his arm strength for a potential transition back to starter – effectively leap-frogging Jurrjens.
“I understand it’s a business, and they need to do what they need to do,” Jurrjens said a few weeks ago. “But you have feelings, and it hurts when you feel like you’re not wanted somewhere.”
Much has changed. Jurrjens’ legs feel stronger. The velocity on his pitches is back up. He is coming off two strong starts since the sick night meltdown (10 runs, six earned, 12 hits in 4 2/3 innings). He is happy to get another chance with the Braves but disappointed by the circumstances (Brandon Beachy’s elbow injury). But at least he knows he’s back on the organization’s radar.
“No matter what you achieve in your career, there are always going to be times when you go through struggles,” Jurrjens said. “It was tough, but a lot of positive things came out of this journey.”
Does he regret his words? Not really.
“I wasn’t trying to say it was the Braves fault,” he said. “I knew I didn’t pitch well. Some friends said next time I want to say something, just try not to insult anybody. But I wasn’t trying to blame anybody. If somebody took it the wrong way, I’m sorry.”
He has read and heard the criticism.
“Those things motivate me even more,” he said. “It’s not like my career has been easy. I was a free agent from Curacao.”
In his last two starts, Jurrjens allowed two runs in six innings to Lehigh Valley and took a shutout into the sixth against Columbus before allowing a grand slam. (“I made one bad pitch out of 110 and it cost me four runs.”)
Is he the same pitcher who went 12-3 with a 1.83 ERA in the first half last season? No. But he believes he can get there again. So does Gwinnett pitching coach Marty Reed, who has seen improvement in the pitcher’s strength, mechanics and confidence.
Reed said Jurrjens “was pressing” when he first arrived in Gwinnett. “We had to tell him, ‘This is not going to be a short fix.’”
The June 1 start against Charlotte fed criticism. But some either didn’t know the background or didn’t care. Jurrjens shouldn’t have pitched that night because of a stomach virus so bad that even two days later, when he tried to play catch, “I had to stop after 10 pitches because I got dizzy.”
So why pitch?
“The game before that I pitched so good, and I didn’t want to lose that feeling,” Jurrjens said.
Reed took that night as a positive sign.
“The results didn’t work out, but when you’re in the trenches you want guys who are willing to [play] when they’re not 100 percent,” he said.
Jurrjens said he’ll “just try to have fun” against Boston and not put too much pressure on himself.
“It’s not like I haven’t done this before,” he said.
He hopes this was just a detour.
By Jeff Schultz