PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – On the same mound that Kris Medlen walked off 12 days earlier while clinching his elbow in pain, the pitcher signed to replace him made his Braves debut Thursday.
It was only two innings, but Ervin Santana provided a few glimpses of why the Braves felt lucky the right-hander was still unsigned when starters Medlen and Brandon Beachy sustained season-ending elbow injuries in consecutive games March 9-10.
Eight days after signing a one-year, $14.1 million free-agent contract, Santana was charged with two hits and one run in a 7-6 loss to the Mets at Tradition Field. He threw 14 strikes in 22 pitches, and might’ve gotten through without any damage if Eric Young Jr. hadn’t surprised him by dropping down a bunt single to start the first inning.
“I thought it was a good outing for him,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who plans to work Santana into the rotation during the second week of the regular season. “He hasn’t pitched in a while, came to camp a little behind. And he did a nice job. You can tell he’s a professional. His secondary pitches were really good, especially the second inning.”
Santana’s fastball hovered in the 93-94 mph range in the first inning (topping out at 95 mph) and 90-91 mph in the second inning. He threw several sharp sliders, some sinkers with good movement, and at least a couple of quality change-ups. Santana was pleased.
“First outing in the National League, it’s very good,” said the former American League All-Star, who also has a no-hitter on his resume and went 9-10 with a 3.24 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 211 innings last season for the Royals. “I’m very happy with the performance today.”
Young surprised him by dropping down a bunt to start the first inning. Santana ran to field it near the first-base line and bounced a throw to first base (replays appeared to show Young was out anyway, but he was called safe). Ruben Tejada followed with a single to left field before David Wright’s sacrifice fly.
Young induced an inning-ending double play grounder by Curtis Granderson and pitched a perfect second inning with a ground out and two fly outs.
The Braves haven’t announced pitching plans beyond Sunday, but Santana will make one more Grapefruit League start – Tuesday against Detroit would be on regular rest – and then presumably pitch in at least two minor league games before being activated and added to the Braves rotation.
Gonzalez said the Braves could add him as soon as April 9 in the eighth game of the regular season, but would more likely wait until April 12, the 11th game and first time they would have to need a fifth starter because of two off days in the early schedule. Gonzalez said they want to make sure he has time to build arm strength and prepare without rushing.
“I just take it one day at a time and see what happens,” said Santana, adding that the Braves haven’t given him a specific timetable, and that his goals for his next start are simple: “Just throw strikes, keep the ball down. That’s the main key.”
His first week with the Braves was everything Santana hoped it would be.
“Yeah, everybody’s been very nice to me,” he said. “That’s one of the keys, when you have good teammates everything’s good.”
With Medlen and Beachy out, and Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd not expected to join the rotation until late April and early May, respectively, the Braves will open the season with a rotation of Julio Teheran, 37-year-old Freddy Garcia, second-year left-hander Alex Wood and rookie David Hale, probably in that order.
Teheran is in line to start opening day March 31 at Milwaukee, which the Braves are expected to make official Friday.
Once they get Minor and Floyd back from the disabled list, the Braves could move Hale and possibly another of those pitchers from the opening-day rotation to the bullpen.
Etc. The Upton brothers, Justin and B.J., had two hits apiece and three RBIs between them. Justin drove in two runs and had a potential first-inning home run taken away by center fielder Juan Lagares’ leaping catch with his glove at the top of the wall. Triple-A first baseman Ernesto Mejia was next up and hit a two-run homer, his second of the spring…. Five of seven Mets runs (and five of 10 hits) came again minor league pitchers David Bromberg and Eric Pfisterer, who recorded two outs apiece. They were among those brought from Braves minor league camp to fill out the travel roster Thursday.