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BRAVES NOTEBOOK: With Atlanta's bullpen depleted, Avilan’s role will be increased

Luis Avilan's first appearances as the Braves' primary late-inning reliever Tuesday didn't go as well as he has planned as he gave up a pair of runs -- and Atlanta's lead -- to the Twins.

Luis Avilan's first appearances as the Braves' primary late-inning reliever Tuesday didn't go as well as he has planned as he gave up a pair of runs -- and Atlanta's lead -- to the Twins.

ATLANTA — Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez called to the bullpen in July, and Luis Avilan trotted out for his big-league debut.

The Braves had blown a lead and trailed by a run in the sixth inning. Ike Davis was at the plate with two men on base. Avilan, at the time not yet 23 and not long removed from high-A ball, was the guy the Braves needed to contain the damage.

And Avilan said that’s just the way he likes it.

He began as a starter in the Braves’ system but was switched to relief, which he said he prefers because of big moments such as his first one in the majors.

“That’s fun (to) me because you are going to feel all that adrenaline,” Avilan said.

Davis struck out looking to end the inning, and the Braves went on to win by a run. Avilan handled the pressure of that moment, but there wasn’t much in the way of expectations in the big picture because he was an injury call-up, the third lefty in the bullpen behind Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters.

Now circumstances will force the Braves to find out if Avilan is ready for more. First Venters and then O’Flaherty had Tommy John surgery within the past week, leaving Avilan as the only left-hander in the Braves’ bullpen.

Avilan’s first assignment in his new role didn’t go well. He was charged with two runs in the eighth inning Tuesday night as the Twins took a 4-3 lead before the Braves rallied to win in 10 innings.

Before that outing, Avilan said he doesn’t feel pressure in those kinds of situations. But bullpen coach Eddie Perez said he sensed that his fellow Venezuelan was nervous for the moment.

“Now he’s going to realize after (Tuesday) night he needs to go out there and calm down and do what he’s been doing in (earlier innings) in the seventh and eighth,” Perez said. “Something like that is going to happen, but I think he will be OK. Everybody was telling me, ‘That was O’Flaherty’s inning right there.’ I said, ‘Well, we have a guy who can do that; he just needs to learn.’ ”

One lesson for Avilan may be that not all innings and situations are created equal. He said his more prominent role doesn’t change his approach because the goal is the same: “Just throw strikes.”

But there’s more room for error for pitchers who relieve ineffective starters in earlier innings or take the mound with big leads. Gonzalez said “it’s the worst feeling in the world” for a manager when a pitcher summoned to get out specific hitters fails because it throws off the manager’s plan.

Gonzalez said he likes that Avilan plays down the pressure of pitching in more important situations, even if the stakes are higher.

“Common sense says it doesn’t matter (if it’s) seventh, eighth or ninth (inning), but it does,” he said. “Some guys can pitch the seventh and the eighth and can’t pitch the ninth. I’m glad he has that approach, that mentality. He should. That’s the way the good ones are.”

It’s apparent that Avilan has the talent for the big leagues.

Avilan posted a 2.00 ERA with a 1.03 WHIP in 36 innings last season. The game Tuesday was the fourth time in 21 appearances and 17 2/3 innings this season that he has allowed a run.

“He has natural ability, the way he’s got a live arm,” Braves closer Craig Kimbrel said. “He’s got good movement, and he’s starting to control the ball well. He’s got one of those arms, and the way the ball comes out of his hand, that it’s tough for hitters to pick up on, so he can just go right at guys.”

The key for Avilan will be to learn from his mistakes while filling a key role for Atlanta’s bullpen. Reinforcements may not come for a while, so there will be more tough situations ahead for Avilan.

Perez said Avilan is used to that from playing winter ball in Venezuela. He said fans there are notoriously hard on players who don’t meet their over-the-top expectations, so Avilan learned how to pitch under pressure.

It’s a different kind of pressure in the big leagues, where not getting it done eventually can mean a trip back to the minors. Perez said Avilan is still adjusting to his new role, but he expects him to settle down and let his talent shine.

“I think he has too much pressure on him right now, but that’s going to go away,” Perez said. “He’s really good.”


Is it time for Braves to call up heralded young reliever, former UGA star Wood?

The Braves don’t want to rush pitching prospect Alex Wood. But they may not have a choice unless general manager Frank Wren can find a capable left-handed reliever.

With the losses of Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters to Tommy John surgery, Luis Avilan is the only lefty in the bullpen.

The Braves did sign Joe Beimel to a minor league contract, but the veteran is coming off Tommy John surgery performed last May and isn’t ready to return at the moment.

Wood, the Braves’ second-round draft choice last June, has been nearly unhittable at Double-A Mississippi and could be the best solution to fill the bullpen void.

The 22-year-old former University of Georgia standout leads the Southern League with a 1.26 ERA in nine starts and has 50 strikeouts to 13 walks in 50 innings. Opponents are batting just 1.98, and he’s set team records of 18 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and 33 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run.

Wood appeared in five Grapefruit League games for the Braves this spring and was 2-for-2 in save opportunities. Yes, it was just spring training. But he posted a 1.29 ERA in seven innings.

The Charlotte native has a mid-90s fastball, a decent changeup and a knuckle curve that he learned from Venters and Braves’ closer Craig Kimbrel this spring.

— Reuters News Service


Gattis soaking in newfound fame

NEW YORK — Evan Gattis’ second trip to New York will certainly be different than his first.

In fact, the weekend travel illustrates just how much the improbable rookie slugger’s life has changed.

“I was out of money,” Gattis said. “I had to ask people, ‘Are you done with that food?’ I know I’ll eat a lot better this time.”

Life is good now for the 26-year-old Texan, who was repeatedly asked by the New York media about his made-for-TV story while the Braves play a weekend series against the Mets that began Friday.

Gattis gave up baseball for nearly four years after high school, spending a brief time in rehab and later living on the road as he traveled the country doing a variety of menial jobs.

“He spent three years living in a van,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said after Gattis hit a two-out pinch homer to send Tuesday’s game with the Twins into extra innings. “I don’t think a baseball game is going to faze him.”

So far, nothing has.

That homer came after Gattis had connected for a two-run pinch shot Saturday that brought the Braves back for a victory over the Dodgers and he connected for a grand slam against the Twins on Wednesday in his first start behind the plate since May 5.

“He’s a legend,” Gonzalez said afterwards.

After the grand slam, the theme from “The Natural” played at Turner Field.

Remember Ray “The Natural” Hobbs? Gattis’ story may seem even more like fiction.

A non-roster invitee to spring training with no proven defensive position, he made the team thanks to Brian McCann’s absence following shoulder surgery and has been winning an enthusiastic fan following ever since.

Gattis leads all major league rookies with 10 homers and 27 RBIs. And he has definitely shown a flare for the dramatic.

He homered in his first major league game while his proud father was being interviewed on TV and his three homers as a pinch-hitter ties him for the third-most ever in a season by a Brave.

“I can’t believe everything that has happened,” Gattis said. “Sometimes it seems like it must be a dream.”

The Braves took a chance on Gattis in 2010, using a 23rd-round draft choice to take him out of a small Texas college. Three years later, he’s a folk hero.