Braves Gomes, Pierzynski: mentoring important part of job

Jace Peterson with veteran Jonny Gomes before Wednesday's game at Miami. Gomes said the rookie asks the right questions. (Photo by David O'Brien)
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Jace Peterson with veteran Jonny Gomes before Wednesday's game at Miami. Gomes said the rookie asks the right questions. (Photo by David O'Brien)

 

I’ve written that veterans Jonny Gomes, A.J. Pierzynski and Nick Markakis were signed, in part and perhaps even primarily in the cases of the first two, for leadership or mentorship. And for their reputations for bringing intensity and passion to a team that wanted to add those traits largely missing from last year’s squad.

Jace Peterson with veteran Jonny Gomes before Wednesday's game at Miami. Gomes said the rookie asks the right questions. (Photo by David O'Brien)

Jace Peterson with veteran Jonny Gomes before Wednesday’s game at Miami. Gomes said the rookie asks the right questions. (Photo by David O’Brien)

But some might not have realized that I meant that literally, about them being signed for veteran leadership. As both Gomes and Pierzynski acknowledged in interviews this week in Miami during the Braves’ season-opening sweep, the expectations for each were spelled out to them, and they signed on fully aware and ready to provide what the Braves wanted.

So far, it’s been an absolute success. I’m not necessarily talking about the 3-0 record after the Marlins series. I mean the clubhouse culture in general, how improved it’s been in just the eight weeks these guys have spent together.

And more specifically, how Pierzynski has helped catcher Christian Bethancourt and the comfort level that second baseman Jace Peterson has felt because of the input and positive reinforcement he’s received from Gomes and all the other veterans, including returners such as Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson.

After Pierzysnki hit a game-winning homer in the third plate appearance of his Braves debut in Wednesday’s series finale, I asked him whether he’d learned more about staying sharp in a part-time role last season, when his 102 games played with Boston and St. Louis marked the first time in 13 years that Pierzysnki didn’t play 128 or more, including at least 119 games caught each season.

“I went six weeks last year and I think I played in one game. So you learn how to keep yourself ready,” Pierzynski said after his two-run homer in Wednesday’s 2-0 win. “I think one thing that’s changed is that I just learned that when you’re on the bench you can still contribute without playing. That was a big deal for me, because I always thought, man, I have to play every day to contribute.

“But there’s other ways you can do it, and my main goal is to help Bethancourt, help him be as good as he can. And you saw the first two games — he did really well, and that’s my main goal, to help him and help the pitchers do what they do and be as good as they can be.”

Braves pitchers had a 1.00 ERA in the three-game series at Miami, with 25 strikeouts, eight walks and two extra-base hits (both doubles) allowed in 27 innings. Bethancourt also gunned down a speedy would-be base stealer (Dee Gordon) and drew praise from pitchers for his game-calling. That’s an area where he’s improved significantly since he was first called up last season, with credit also going to others including bullpen coach Eddie Perez, Braves catching instructor Joe Breeden and pitching coach Roger McDowell.

“A.J.’s helping him a lot,”  Perez said during the last week of spring training. “They’re both doing a great job – one is helping the other, and the other is trying to learn everything he says. It could have gone the other way, A.J. could have said (that he wasn’t going to share all I know, that he was going to catch). He’s helping him, and he’s helping all the pitchers, too.”

Perez admitted he was a little concerned when the Braves signed Pierzynski during the winter. The 38-year-old catcher’s reputation for on-field confrontations and a few polarizing incidents within his own teams had preceded Pierzynski, and Perez wondered a little about the wisdom of the move, though he didn’t complain or question it to anyone.

Perez is glad now that he didn’t say anything at the time, because Pierzynski has been far different than what he expected.

“Now I have nothing to say but good things about him,” Perez said. “I think everybody was worried, because of his history, what we’ve seen from (other side). Just what you hear from other people. But he’s a different guy (than what they thought).”

As for Pierzysnki’s fiery, sometimes confrontational attitude, Perez said,  “He’s fighting against the OTHER team. That’s what you want. He’s a great teammate. Other people say the same thing. I’m so happy that he’s here, and I’m so happy he’s not the guy that I had heard he was from some people.”

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has praised Pierzysnki since early in camp, and continued when asked about him this week.

“He’s been terrific, he really has,” Gonzalez said. “But you know what, from all the people – we did our homework, and I called a lot of people and they said, ‘He’s OK. He’s a guy that’s great with the pitchers, he catches every day and wants to play every day. You’ve just got to let him know what his role is, and he’ll be fine.’

“And that’s what we’ve seen from the very beginning. He’s been outstanding, really.”

As for Gomes, a few days before the season opener, Freeman came right out and said that Gomes had changed he clubhouse culture and made the Braves believe they could win. Gomes’ attitude and confidence were just that contagious among the rest of the team during their seven weeks together in Florida.

A.J. Pierzynski connects on a game-winning two-run homer Wednesday at Miami. (Getty Images)

A.J. Pierzynski connects on a game-winning two-run homer Wednesday at Miami. (Getty Images)

Gonzalez noted this week that Gomes had taken Peterson under his wing.

“Jonny Gomes loves him,” Gonzalez said. “Jonny told me, ‘This guy asks the right questions. First time in the big leagues and he’s not asking me questions about where the good night spots are, he’s asking, hey, what time do you get to the ballpark? What do you look for in this pitcher? How should I approach him? Those are good baseball questions for a young guy.’”

I asked Gomes about Gonzalez’s comment regarding him and the second baseman. Gomes’ response was revealing, both about the rookie and about Gomes’ role on the team.

“I enjoy helping the youth out, I really do,” Gomes said. “I don’t know if I’ve got a knack for it, but seeing the youth in the game right now – it’s kind of funny, I saw when I was in Cincinnati how these kids didn’t know a lot about the game, and it just absolutely baffled me, and it took me a while to figure it out: His generation, these kids coming up, they’re playing 80 games in high school. They’re playing on travel teams. So coming up, they didn’t watch baseball. Not because they didn’t like it; they had a game (to play). At 7 o’clock they’re not watching the hometown team, they’re playing a game.

“The youth right now, for me, is like I’ve never seen talent-wise,” Gomes said. “But baseball IQ-wise, they’re way down. And that’s not (Peterson), by any means. I’m just saying, I’ve really done what I could to help these kids out. And you know the old saying, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Well, if that horse wants to drink, it’s pretty easy to lead him to water. And I kind of have that in my job description, to help the young kids out. He’s been a pleasure. It’s not like I have to chase him down, either. He’s in my back pocket. I get, like, proud father-ish, you tell him something and he’ll go do it.

“He’s a real special breed to me.”

We’re only three games in, folks. The Braves are going to lose a lot of games this year, we all know that. Probably more than they win, although I think they have a real chance to surprise some people in regards to that.

But my question is this: How many times do you recall hearing anything about the inside-the-clubhouse workings of the team in the last year or two that gave you as much reason to feel good about its leadership and direction than you’re hearing and reading lately?

• We’ll close with this sensational tune from Boz Scaggs and the late, great Duane Allman. R.I.P., mighty Skydog.

“LOAN ME A DIME” by Boz Scaggs & Duane Allman

Duane Allman

Duane Allman

Somebody loan me a dime,
I need to call my old time, used to be.
Somebody loan me a dime,
Mmm, I need to call my old time, used to be.
Oooo, little girl’s been gone so long,
You know it’s worryin me.
Hey, it’s worryin, worryin me.

I know she’s a good girl,
But, at that time I just didn’t understand.
I know she’s a good girl,
But, at that time I just didn’t understand.
Oh, you know I didn’t.
Somebody loan me a dime,
You know I need, I need a helpin hand.
Somebody.

Yeah, she’s a good girl,
But, at that time I just didn’t understand.
Oooo, I know she’s a good girl,
But, at that time I just could not understand.
Whoa, no.
Somebody better loan me that dime,
To ease my worried mind.
Whoo.

Now, I cried, just cried,
Just like a baby, all night long.
Ooo, you know I cried, just cried,
Just like a baby, all night long.
Whooo, somebody better loan me that dime,
I need my baby, I need my baby here at home.
Oooo, yeah.

 


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