Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Friday, August 19, 2011
Braves relief trio tough to top

By David Schoenfield



On Thursday night, Mike Minor was brilliant against a Triple-A lineup, while Chipper Jones made Tim Lincecum pay for one mistake. But good luck beating the Atlanta Braves when Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel jog in from the bullpen.

They may sound like a law firm or maybe the Notre Dame backfield from 1955, but what they are is baseball’s most lethal bullpen trio. The three each pitched one inning in Thursday’s 1-0 victory over the Giants: O’Flaherty threw 15 pitches, allowed a two-out single, but otherwise cruised through the seventh; Venters threw 12 pitches and induced three easy grounders in the eighth; and Kimbrel threw 14 high-explosive laser beams in the ninth, getting a popout, Pablo Sandoval swinging and Aubrey Huff looking.

The trio’s combined numbers on 2011: 187 1/3 innings, 1.39 ERA, four home runs allowed, 73 walks, 228 strikeouts, 41 saves. Forget Roy Halladay or Clayton Kershaw or Cliff Lee, the NL Cy Young Award should go to O’Ventrel.

While many managers and executives prefer to put their late-inning trust in more experienced arms, the Braves entered spring training with a plan for relying on the rookie Kimbrel and second-year lefty Venters, who came out of nowhere to excel last season. In doing so, manager Fredi Gonzalez simply followed a belief system long held by Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz: Don’t be afraid to go with the youngsters -- especially those with power arms. This isn’t the franchise that’s going to pick up Arthur Rhodes and give him important innings in a pennant race.

Cox and Schuerholz learned this the hard way. The 1992 Braves had hard-throwing young guys Kent Mercker, Mike Stanton and Mark Wohlers, but the team picked up veteran closer Jeff Reardon late in the season … an end-of-the-line, fool-'em-with-offspeed-stuff Jeff Reardon, who served up a game-losing home run in the World Series to Toronto’s Ed Sprague.

After that, Cox never shied away from using a young closer. Rookie Greg McMichael saved 19 games in 1993. Wohlers, still just 25, assumed closer duties in 1995 as the team won its only World Series. When Wohlers developed the yips in 1998, rookie Kerry Ligtenberg became the closer, saving 30 games while the Braves won 106. Ligtenberg got hurt the next season so Cox turned to hard-throwing John Rocker, in his first full season. He had 38 saves and struck out 104 batters in 72 1/3 innings. True, Cox would later install John Smoltz as closer for a few seasons, but the Atlanta philosophy has always been to try to find young, power arms for the late innings.

Can the Braves’ late-game threesome carry them to a World Series title, like the Cincinnati Reds’ Nasty Boys trio of Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton did in 1990? If there’s one concern that many bloggers and fans have raised, it’s the workload the three have carried. O’Flaherty is on pace for 73 innings, Kimbrel for 78 2/3 and Venters for 91 2/3. The Giants, for example, had a similar shutdown threesome last year in Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla, as they combined for a 1.97 ERA, but threw just 192 innings in the regular season -- or just five more than the Atlanta three has already thrown.

But their projected workloads aren’t that out of whack with some other recent World Series champions. The 2008 Phillies’ top three of Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin all appeared in more than 70 games and combined for 239 2/3 innings, with Madson and Durbin both topping 82. The 2004 Red Sox had closer Keith Foulke with 83 innings and set-up man Mike Timlin with 76. And the Nasty Boys? Myers pitched 86 2/3 innings, Dibble 98 and Charlton 154. (OK, Charlton started part of the season.)

If the Braves are concerned, they can take comfort in building their wild-card lead to six games over the Giants and 6 1/2 over the Cardinals. They have plenty of room to play with. Oh, and another young gun just arrived: Hard-throwing 20-year-old Arodys Vizcaino has started his major league career with 5 1/3 scoreless innings.

Just what Braves’ opponents want to see: Another Atlanta reliever throwing nasty 95-plus stuff in the late innings.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Tony Gwynn Jr
Tony Gwynn Jr. figures he has places to go and things to do.