PHOENIX — Pull up a chair and let’s discuss the case of Mike Foltynewicz. For in these past few months weve seen the emergence of a frontline-caliber starting pitcher, the kind of pitcher the Braves thought he would be when they traded for him in January 2015 but which seemed far from a certainty at various times in the two years that followed that deal.
Like when Foltynewicz again and again allowed his emotions to get the best of him in the middle of an inning, one mistake pitch or questionable umpire’s decision causing him to lose his focus, leading to another mistake and the loss of composure and … boom, a three-, four- or more-run inning and a game swirling down the drain.
Or after the frightening health he had scare near the end of the 2015 season, when his pitching arm swelled grotesquely overnight from a blood clot and Foltynewicz was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, requiring surgery to remove part of a rib and necessitating rest for almost an entire offseason.
He came to camp in 2016 looking frail after that difficult winter, needed a couple of months to begin catching up and posted a 4.31 ERA in 22 major league starts.
Now look at him. After a normal offseason and a full and productive spring training, Foltynewicz has made major strides mentally and physically in his first full, healthy season in the big leagues, becoming not just a solid contributor but arguably the best and most consistent on the Braves’ staff.
This after beginning the season as the No. 5 starter and the guy whose turn was skipped so the other four starters could stay on a normal schedule.
The power-armed 25-year-old is 8-5 with a 3.87 ERA in 19 games (18 starts), and in his past 13 starts Foltynewicz is 8-1 with a 3.60 ERA, 65 strikeouts and 25 walks in 75 innings. Eight of the 30 earned runs he allowed in that period – and three of 11 homers – came in one start at Washington in which he lasted 3 1/3 innings and the Braves won, 11-10.
Foltynewicz has a 2.76 ERA in the other dozen of his past 13 starts.
“That’s what the goal was coming out of spring training, not only be consistent but kind of establish yourself on the staff a little bit,” said Foltynewicz, who now speaks of what a “fun” challenge it’ll be to face the power-laden Diamondbacks lineup Tuesday night at hitter-friendly Chase Field, where they have the majors’ second-best home record.
“Kind of been a rollercoaster the last few years — have a few starts good, few starts bad, getting sent up and down (to and from minors) and all that kind of stuff. The goal this year was to be consistent and go from there,” he said. “I think I’m putting together a lot of good quality starts back to back, giving the team a good chance to win, having a little winning streak when I’m out there. So it’s all fun, and that was the plan coming out of spring training, keep pushing and keep attacking hitters. Keep going out there and pitching the way I am.”
Did we mention the Braves are 11-2 in Foltynewicz’s past 13 starts?
“I really feel like Folty’s starting to trust himself and believe in himself,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s pitching with some confidence and conviction and belief that he can withstand some adversity of the course of a game now. More just kind of trusting his stuff and believing in himself is the big thing.”
The Braves lost in each of Foltynewicz’s first five starts this season despite his pitching well in most of those, allowing two or fewer earned runs in the first four of those games. He got almost no run support – one or zero runs – while in the game in four of those five starts, but didn’t let the frustration boil over this time as it had so often in the past. Instead, he kept doing his thing, kept turning in good work during the odd early season schedule and lack of normal routine.
“It’s been huge for me,” he said of maintaining composure. “There’s been a couple of games where I kind of lost it and showed my emotions, my competitiveness, in some games when we were trying to get back to .500. But other than that, I’ve done a really good job, talking with (pitching coach Chuck Hernandez) and a bunch of coaches about how I did, they said, ‘You’ve taken some big steps. We just don’t want you to take three steps backward.’
“Couple of games that I might have, but the next game or the game after that we were right back with some quality starts and getting some team wins.”
After his first bad start of the season, a May 5 loss to the Cardinals when he gave up seven runs and two homers in four innings and Atlanta scored no runs, Foltynewicz enjoyed three consecutive starts in which the Braves scored eight, eight and five runs while he was in the game. He won all three of those to begin the 8-1 stretch he’s been on ever since as he prepares to face the Diamondbacks, who blitzed R.A. Dickey and the Braves bullpen in a 10-2 rout in Monday’s series opener that improved Arizona’s home record to 35-17.
Foltynewicz has allowed more than three earned runs just twice in his past 13 starts and issued more than two walks in only two games in that period.
“Now we get Arizona and they plug J.D. Martinez in there, too, in that already-hot lineup,” Foltynewicz said on Sunday as he looked ahead to the matchup. “That’s going to be a fun test, but we’re playing great baseball now, we’re right in there with teams…. (The Diamondbacks) have great pitching, they plug J.D. Martinez in, hitter’s ballpark too, so just got to go out there and keep pitching the way I am, knowing I can’t blow a fastball by everyone, just use pitching — inside, outside, up, down, use the off-speed when needed, get a good game plan with whoever (catches) me.”
Let’s close with this one from Calexico, the great band from Tucson, Ariz.
Through the gardens and fields ‘neath the tall green grass
You were walking ‘neath the moon while covering your tracks
Working your fingers down to the skin and stone
One hand on the hammer, one foot by the door
Pushed by the wind, fed by the need for moving on,
Moving on to nowhere
When division runs deep and down into the well
All the coins you dove after lost all their spell
Covered in moss walking for silver and blood
Out in the cafe, working in the grove
Guarding the port of the future you sold
Holding on, holding on to no one
Holding on, holding on to no one
One eye in the mirror, the other on the screen
Sewn in the pockets and down into the dream
Caught up in the mortar, bricks and heavy load
Wait in the shadows down the living road
Moving on, moving on to no one
Holding on, holding on to no one