Category Archives: Features

Ellis Focused On Consistency With Gwinnett

The following story appears in the fifth edition of “Tomahawk Talk,” the official gameday publication of the Gwinnett Braves. Pick up a FREE copy at Coolray Field from August 12-September 3.

Chris Ellis opened the season by winning six of his first eight starts for Double-A Mississippi and earning the M-Braves’ Pitcher of the Month Award for April. After two more victories in three June starts, the right-hander was tabbed to start the Southern League All-Star Game at Mississippi’s Trustmark Park, a reward for an 8-2 record and a sterling 2.75 ERA.

But instead of toeing the rubber in the midsummer showcase, Ellis was promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett on June 16, continuing his rapid ascent towards the Major Leagues.

“It would have been really cool to have pitched in that game,” Ellis said. “It was an honor to be named to that team and to be called on to start the game, considering how many good players there are in that league, but it was even better to get called up to Triple-A instead.”

Two days after the call-up, he started for Gwinnett at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and pitched about as long as he would have in the All-Star Game, though for a far different reason. He allowed five runs on five hits while walking two and hitting a batter in just two thirds of an inning.

“That first start was really rough, so a lot of the older guys on the team, (catcher) Blake Lalli especially, talked to me and settled me down after that start,” Ellis said. “I learned very quickly how much different Triple-A is than Double-A.”

Following his shaky Triple-A debut, Ellis said he’s starting to find some consistency after each start for the G-Braves, building from one day to the next as he continues to work his way towards the ultimate goal: pitching in the Majors.

“He belongs here, he was promoted here for a reason and so you just approach it that way,” Gwinnett pitching coach Mike Alvarez said. “That debut was tough, but those things do happen, even though you don’t want them to, but they do. It was something that he was going to have to overcome at some point, it just happened to be in the first outing.”

Through July 31, Ellis had made 22 starts combined between the two levels. He said he hasn’t had any physical setbacks or problems with his body, which has helped him reach the top level of Minor League Baseball in just his third professional season.

The former Ole Miss product saw his star rise during a stellar junior season in 2014, when he went 10-3 with a 2.55 ERA to help the Rebels reach the College World Series for the first time in 42 years. The Los Angeles Angels were impressed with his performance and selected Ellis with the 88th overall pick in the June draft.

In his lone full season in the Angels’ system last year, Ellis went 11-9 with a 3.90 ERA in 26 starts between Advanced-A Inland Empire and Double-A Arkansas. He entered 2015 ranked as Los Angeles’ No. 5 prospect according to MLB.com and justified the ranking by leading the Angels’ system in wins and finishing fourth in strikeouts (132) and eighth in ERA.

But following the season, Ellis found himself packing his bags. He was traded to Atlanta along with left-handed pitching prospect Sean Newcomb and Major League shortstop Erick Aybar in exchange for shortstop Andrelton Simmons and minor league catcher Jose Briceno.

“It was weird because the Angels drafted me and a year later I get traded,” Ellis said. “It was one of those things where you finally get comfortable and then it’s like, ‘ok see you guys.’ At first I was nervous, like ‘who did I get traded to?’ and I find out it’s the Braves. It couldn’t have worked out any better for me. It’s a great organization and I’ve made a lot of friends already, so it has been a blessing.”

After joining the Braves, the team he said he rooted for while growing up in Alabama, Ellis was assigned to Double-A Mississippi to open the 2016 season. Playing at Trustmark Park in Pearl, MS allowed him to pitch less than three hours away from the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, MS.

“It was cool to be able to pitch in my ‘home’ ballpark with some Ole Miss fans in the stands,” he said. “It was a lot different compared to Arkansas and California where I was last year. I enjoyed having that feeling of being home in a way.”

Comfort is one thing, but command of your craft is something different altogether, and Ellis has worked to find consistency with his control this season. He walked 30 batters through his first 35.2 innings with Gwinnett after issuing only 35 free-passes in 78.2 innings at Mississippi.

“Until I can find that consistent command, I’m going to walk some guys. Right now, it is more about walking those guys in better situations, where it’s not going to hurt you nearly as much, or at all,” he said.

Alvarez, who joined the G-Braves as the club’s Pitching Coach on May 19, has seen Ellis improve over his short Triple-A career, but knows that the 23-year-old’s mental approach still has room for growth.

“He has taken some small steps since his first start for us, but they’ve been in the right direction. I still think he needs to find himself. He’s not quite there yet,” Alvarez said. “He shows you flashes of four Major League pitches and it’s just a matter of consistency. It starts with the fastball. He needs to know and be reminded that he’s a good pitcher.”

After entering the season ranked as the Braves’ No. 14 prospect by MLB.com, Ellis finds himself at No. 16 in the updated midseason rankings as Atlanta continues to acquire more young talent via trades, international signings and the June draft. Regardless of where he’s listed in the prospect rankings, Ellis knows not to let future projections overwhelm him.

“It’s always in the back of your head, knowing you’re a step up, so you put a little bit of pressure on yourself to do well,” he said. “I guess all I can do is go out there and pitch consistently well over a period of time and hopefully get a shot to be promoted, but you have to focus on where you are today and for your next start. You can’t be focusing on what lies ahead. That can be a recipe for disaster if you’re thinking ahead too much. I’m here in Gwinnett and I’m making the best of being here.”

Ellis produced his best start with the G-Braves to date on July 26 at Coolray Field, holding Indianapolis to just one hit over 5.0 innings and striking out seven in Gwinnett’s 11-2 win.

The solid outing was a step in the right direction for Ellis, who now looks to pitch deeper into games. At the Double-A level, he tossed six-or-more innings in 10 of 13 starts for the M-Braves.

Alvarez believes that if Ellis continues to put in the work, he’ll be still going strong in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.

“He’s going in the right direction and I don’t foresee anything different the rest of the way. We’ll see that guy that can put together 7.0 innings consistently,” he said.

Q&A: Kelly Revitalizing Career With Braves

The following story appears in the third edition of “Tomahawk Talk,” the official gameday publication of the Gwinnett Braves. Pick up a FREE copy at Coolray Field from May 27-June 26.

Right-hander Casey Kelly has experienced many highs and lows over a nine-year professional career. Orginally selected by Boston in the first round in 2008 as both a shortstop and a pitcher, Kelly was one of the Red Sox’ rising stars before being traded to San Diego in 2010. Two years later, he made his Major League debut for the Padres, going 2-3 with a 6.21 ERA in six starts.

Kelly hoped for a return to San Diego in 2013, but suffered an elbow injury that required “Tommy John” surgery. He made just four starts in 2014 and went 2-10 with a 5.16 ERA between the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2015.

A trade to Atlanta last December offered Kelly a fresh start, and he’s thrived thus far with the Braves. Over his first seven games with Gwinnett, he went 2-1 with a team-best 2.63 ERA.

Andrew Constant of Tomahawk Talk caught up with Kelly to talk about his days with the Padres, battling back from surgery, his goals with Gwinnett and more.

Andrew Constant: Last year was not a great year for you. What did you do in the offseason to get yourself ready and come back stronger in 2016?

Casey Kelly: My whole goal last year was to get a full season in and not have any setbacks and make all my starts, which I did. The first year coming back from “Tommy John” surgery, you’re going to have some ups and downs, and I definitely went through that last year, but this year I’m back to where I was before the surgery. Each time out there, getting more and more reps and getting more comfortable.

AC: Sometimes players just need a change of scenery. Do you feel a fresh start with the Braves has been good for you?

CK: I didn’t have a sour taste in my mouth moving on from the Padres at all. They are a great organization and they let me start my major league career there and have a lot of opportunities with them, so my time there was awesome. I wish I could have done more to help the team win, but being traded over to the Braves, I love it. It’s a legendary organization and growing up watching them on TV, seeing how they go about their business, it’s exciting to be a part of now. We’re in this kind of rebuild process, it’s fun to be a part of.

AC: You’re from Florida and said you watched the Braves growing up. Were you a ‘TBS kid’?

CK: Yeah, absolutely. TBS was always on, I was always watching the Braves with Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones and all those guys.

AC: In your Major League debut with the Padres on August 27, 2012, you threw 6.0 scoreless innings against the Braves and also recorded your first big-league hit. What do you remember about that game?

CK: It was a very memorable experience. It’s something I’ll never forget and being able to call my parents and tell them that I was going to the big leagues was a very special moment for me and my family. And it worked out that my dad (former Major Leaguer and current minor league manager Pat Kelly) had an off-day and he got to come out to San Diego and watch my debut, so a lot things just went well there and it was unreal. It was a magical day; to be able to go out there and pitch how I did, and get my first hit too, it was such an amazing day.

AC: You had the highs of reaching the Majors in 2012 and the lows of having “Tommy John” surgery in 2013. How did you deal with that and remain positive throughout the whole process?

CK: It was definitely tough, especially as a young guy, wanting to prove yourself. The days that all you can prove is not having a setback that day or going into rehab and doing the best you can do at it that day were tough. I just had to stay day-to-day and stay positive. I had a lot of support from family and friends and they helped get me through that process. Coming out of that, I learned a lot about myself and I learned a lot about what kind of a pitcher I am. So looking at it now, it was all worth it.

AC: Tell me about the early part in your career when you were splitting time between shortstop and pitcher. What went into committing to be a pitcher full-time in 2010 and did you think that you might have a future early on as a shortstop?

CK: It was a crazy experience, being 18 and getting drafted in the first round, having the opportunity to play shortstop and pitch and having them not know what they wanted you to do was pretty cool. I did it for a year and we sat down in the offseason and had some very real talks about the future. As a 19-year-old kid, there are things you don’t want to hear, but I grew up really fast and ultimately it got me to the big leagues and my dream, so if it was going to be at shortstop or pitcher or batboy, whatever was going to get me to the big leagues I was going to be cool with.

AC: You’ve been part of a couple of trades now (from Boston to San Diego, San Diego to Atlanta). Are these trades something you just have to accept and learn from or do you kind of dweel on the trade for a little bit?

CK: The first trade was the hardest for me. I was so young and I loved the Boston Red Sox organization and all the people there. But when I got traded to the Padres, it was a great opportunity to get up to the big leagues at a young age and not have the pressure of the media in Boston. San Diego is much more relaxed in that way. This trade, I was a little bit more mature and that helped me this year. I took the feelings out of it and knew it wasn’t personal, it’s a business. For me, I’m still the same person I was back then, I just need to keep going out there and show it.

AC: You were drafted out of high school as an 18-year-old and you’re only 26 now. You’ve been in professional baseball for nine years now. How have you matured from being a first-round pick in 2008 to now?

CK: I don’t think I’ve matured at all (laughs). No I’m just kidding. Each year you figure out what you need to do to get ready for your starts and I know as a starter you’re going to get 30 starts; five you’re going to feel really good and five you’re going to feel really bad and the others are going to fall in between, so you have to learn how to manage the game and minimize damage and not let the game get too out of control. I’m just very excited to be healthy this season. Everything is back to normal and I’m excited to be here and get the chance to throw every fifth day.

AC: What kind of goals do you have for 2016?

CK: This year, professionally, I’ve gotten to 500 innings and my next start will be my 100th career start, so I’m doing some pretty cool things, having played now for almost a decade. To be able to hit some landmarks is pretty cool and it helps me stay positive and not dwell on the negatives. It’s been fun this year and I’m excited to see where I end up as the season goes on.

Ruiz Making Strides in Triple-A Debut

The following story appears in the third edition of “Tomahawk Talk,” the official gameday publication of the Gwinnett Braves. Pick up a FREE copy at Coolray Field from May 27-June 26.

When Rio Ruiz was acquired by the Atlanta Braves in a January 2015 trade that sent the popular Evan Gattis to Houston, the expectations began to pile onto the then-20-year-old third baseman. It had been three seasons since the legendary Chipper Jones retired, and the Braves had yet to find a new star at the hot corner.

Ruiz, who had registered 70 doubles, 23 home runs and 140 RBIs over the prior two seasons in the Astros’ system, seemed nearly ready for the spotlight and a promotion to the big leagues.

But playing for Double-A Mississippi was anything but a rousing success for Ruiz in 2015. He struggled to a .233 batting average over 127 games, hitting only five home runs while setting a career high with 94 strikeouts and making 16 errors at third base.

“Last year was an adjustment period for me in pretty much all aspects of the game. New level, new team, new organization, new guys,” Ruiz said.

The 6-foot, 2-inch kid from Covina, California, batted just .179 (24-for-134) in April and May for the M-Braves before getting hot in June (.310 average) and embarking on a 15-game hitting streak in August.

“I think I tried to do too much to impress a lot of people too early in the year instead of just being myself,” he said.

Heading into the 2016 season, the expectations were a bit lower for Ruiz, understandably after his up-and-down season with Mississippi. But he got off to a scorching start for Triple-A Gwinnett this year, collecting 26 hits in April, the fourth-most in the International League.

“I just think that a new year gave me a new opportunity to show what the Braves really found in me and (why they traded for me),” Ruiz said. “It’s a clean slate for me now. It was a lot of new things for me last year and this year, I’m a lot more comfortable with the organization and good things happen when you’re comfortable and when you’re yourself.”

Ruiz, Atlanta’s No. 16 prospect according to MLB.com, has found himself on the lineup card in all but two games through May 16, helping get him more comfortable each day. He said that over the offseason, his focus was on getting better every day and getting back to the way he played in 2013 and 2014 before the trade that brought him to Atlanta along with right-hander Mike Foltynewicz.

“I worked really hard this offseason and I continued it in Spring Training and now here in Gwinnett. Luckily things have worked out so far. We all know this game; you have to stay even-keeled and not get frustrated or even too high,” he said.

The Braves invited Ruiz to Major League Spring Training this year, allowing him to interact with some of the more veteran players and pick their brains to help himself improve. Two players Ruiz singled out – infielders Gordon Beckham and Kelly Johnson – made the biggest impressions on him.

“Those guys helped me tremendously in Spring Training,” he said. “I would just ask them questions about certain situations about playing the field and hitting of course, but I really wanted to learn what their mindset was when they’re on the field. They’re professionals and have been in the big leagues a long time. I wanted to do as much as I could with them and get as much out of it as possible. In that aspect, it was a success for me.”

It’s in the field where Ruiz’s growth has taken the biggest leap in 2016. He posted a fielding percentage of .950 or lower in three straight seasons, committing 52 errors over that span, but by taking ground balls every day and devoting himself to the defensive side of the game, he’s made just three errors in 85 chances (.965 fielding percentage) through May 16 this year.

“My high school coach told me ‘hitting is going to get you there, but defense is going to keep you there.’ That really stuck with me and of course everybody that gets to the big leagues wants to stay there, so I feel if I follow the game plan that I have as far as working and taking ground balls every day, everything should take care of itself,” Ruiz said.

The extra work needed to be successful with the glove is reminiscent of the time Ruiz had to put in at Bishop Amat Memorial High School (La Puente, CA) where he starred as a two-sport athlete, both on the diamond and on the gridiron.

Ruiz verbally committed to play quarterback at the University of Southern California as a freshman in high school and went on to throw for 3,364 yards, 33 touchdowns and a 63 percent completion rate over three years. But when Houston drafted him in the fourth round of the 2012 June draft, Ruiz traded the pigskin for a bat full-time. He batted .433 with 138 hits and 102 RBIs in 104 games at Bishop Amat, helping make the decision a little bit easier.

His experience in conquering a position as physically and mentally demanding as quarterback has helped Ruiz become a better athlete now that he’s a professional baseball player, even though his days on a football field are long gone.

“Some things translate from playing quarterback and now being a third baseman, but that was four, five years ago,” he said. “I don’t do the same things that I did in high school and when I played football. I work specifically now on just baseball-related workouts and working on baseball-centric quickness, but I’m sure a lot of it helps, having that experience.”

Rarely seen without a smile on his face, Ruiz stressed that his experience in Gwinnett to begin the 2016 campaign has been one of his favorites to date, helping keep his mind off the potential next step in his career.

“Ultimately it’s the front office’s decision about whether or not to call someone up and decide if he’s ready or not. My job is to enjoy the time I have here in Gwinnett and not worry about what is ahead of me,” he said. “I can’t say this enough: the group of guys we have here is awesome. I thoroughly enjoy coming to the park every day, knowing the group we have here is great. I don’t put too much pressure on myself at all. Everything will take care of itself if you play the game the right way.”

After being named Gwinnett’s April Player of the Month by Atlanta, Ruiz cooled a bit in early May, batting .200 through his first 14 games. But he remains confident in his abilities while seeing some of his power come back with nine extra-base hits – including two triples and a pair of home runs.

“All it is really, is getting a good pitch to hit and not missing it,” Ruiz said. “I’m already checking some goals off this season. I’m happy with where I am now, nothing is going to bother me. Every day is a new opportunity to get better and it’s a new chance to make my way towards the big leagues.”

Blair Was Off To Hot Start With Gwinnett

The following story appears in the second edition of “Tomahawk Talk,” the official gameday publication of the Gwinnett Braves. Pick up a FREE copy at Coolray Field from April 29-May 20.

When the Atlanta Braves traded away right-hander Shelby Miller to the Arizona Diamondbacks in December, they got back three potential building blocks to accelerate the rebuilding effort heading into the opening of SunTrust Park in 2017.

One – outfielder Ender Inciarte – was set to help the major league club immediately and another – 2015 No. 1 overall draft pick, shortstop Dansby Swanson – has the makings of the next face of the franchise. But the third member of the package acquired at the Winter Meetings in Nashville was hardly considered a throw-in to the biggest trade of the offseason.

Aaron Blair was Arizona’s 2015 Minor League Pitcher of the Year after going 13-5 with a 2.92 ERA between Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Reno and found himself ranked among baseball’s top prospects entering this season.

As a 23-year-old, he navigated through the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, going 7-2 with a 3.16 ERA in 13 games with the Aces and allowing just five home runs in 77.0 innings. Many of his starts came at elevation, and he routinely faced older, more experienced hitters.

“You always heard about the Pacific Coast League and how it’s such a hitters’ league and I had good success there,” Blair said. “Coming to the International League, it’s more a pitchers’ league and I’m just trying to go out there and build off of each start and build off of last year.”

Atlanta’s No. 4 prospect, according to MLB.com, Blair has already shown Braves fans what the future may hold. Blair went 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA over his first three starts for Triple-A Gwinnett this season, including a nearly historic performance in his third start on April 19.

Blair flirted with perfection that night at Coolray Field, keeping the Durham Bulls off the bases into the sixth inning and out of the hit column through the seventh inning. He allowed no hits, walked one and struck out 10 before being pulled with 87 pitches over 7.0 innings in Gwinnett’s eventual 7-2 win.

In each of his outings, Blair has displayed the mound-presence and maturity needed to be successful in the big leagues, whenever that call does come.

“There’s some guys you do talk to [about the big leagues] but with him, just go out and do what you do. What he does here is what they’re going to want in the big leagues,” Gwinnett catcher Blake Lalli said. “He knows how to pitch to the pace of the game and that’s why he’s been so successful.”

Lalli, who has Major League experience with the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, played with Blair at Reno last year and caught three of his starts. Lalli said he knew about the 6-foot 5-inch workhorse before Blair even arrived in Triple-A for the first time.

“I had heard nothing but good things about him before he got to Reno and honestly, he was just good from start to finish out there,” Lalli said. “He’s a gamer and he’s going to be out there in the seventh inning and he’s going to keep you in the game and you’re going to be ahead when he’s pitching.”

Once the shock of the trade that brought him to Atlanta finally wore off – Blair said it took him about a week to fully realize he would be pitching for a new organization in 2016 – the righty’s attention shifted towards the future and helping a new team get back to winning ways.

“Coming to the Braves, it was a good opportunity; they’re in a rebuild mode and they brought me in so hopefully I can help them out soon,” Blair said.

Atlanta has reloaded its farm system since the 2014 season ended, adding Blair, lefty Sean Newcomb (the club’s No. 2 prospect according to MLB.com), and right-handers Touki Toussaint (No. 6) and Tyrell Jenkins (No. 8) in trades aimed towards getting itself back to the pennant-winning days when the Braves’ starting rotation was the focal point of success.

Lalli has noticed that Blair won’t get rattled with more attention paid to each of his minor league starts this season, pointing to the fact that he’s “always been a big deal” as to why little seems to unnerve his battery-mate.

“He’s a guy that isn’t affected by the lights in the stadium. You can put 40,000 people in the stands and he’s just calm and cool and collected,” Lalli said. “I don’t think the hype of being a top prospect, that won’t affect him. He doesn’t think about stuff like that.”

Blair got to be a “big deal” – both literally and figuratively – between the sophomore and junior years in both high school, saying he shot up four inches and started to throw harder and be more noticeable on the mound.

His biggest leap forward, however, came during the summer of 2012, prior to his final collegiate season at Marshall University. Blair found himself nearly 3,000 miles away from his Las Vegas home, playing in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. In the Cape League, players live with “host families” and are forced to grow up on the job, while many of their friends and college teammates enjoy their summer vacations.

“Going to the Cape Cod League was huge; I was living really far from home and kind of doing things on my own and growing up,” Blair said. “I got drafted out of high school but wasn’t mature enough, physically or mentally, to go play pro ball, so three years in school, being so far away from home was huge for me.”

Blair shined on Cape League stage, going 8-0 with a 1.08 ERA over 50.1 innings, starting the All-Star Game and guiding his squad to within one game of the title. It was there that Blair put scouts and fans on notice. A year later he became the highest-drafted player in Marshall baseball history when the D-backs took him with the 36th overall choice in the first round of the 2013 Draft.

Three stellar minor league seasons followed in which Blair went 23-13 with a 3.22 ERA in 64 games, 63 starts. He begins season four with Gwinnett, refusing to get complacent with prior achievements and instead focusing on honing his craft and remaining sharp

“There’s always stuff you can work on, whether you’re in short-season, Triple-A or even the big leagues,” he said. “You can’t go out there and throw everything perfectly. Right now, I’m trying to just control my changeup and get my fastball down more.”

As he continues to work on the command of his pitching arsenal, Blair’s star keeps rising. But the weight on his broad shoulders coming from being both a top prospect and a member of a blockbuster trade isn’t going to faze him.

“The recognition [being ranked highly on all major prospect rankings] is awesome,” Blair said. “It’s cool to be recognized as a key part of such a big trade, but there’s always things to be worked on and it’s still a work in progress for me.”

Q&A: “Folty” Rebounds from Scary Injury

The following Q&A appears in the Opening Week edition of “Tomahawk Talk,” the official gameday publication of the Gwinnett Braves. Pick up a FREE copy at Coolray Field from April 14-20.

Right-hander Mike Foltynewicz experienced his fair share of ups and downs in 2015, his first season as a member of the Atlanta Braves organization.

Acquired as part of the trade that sent catcher Evan Gattis to the Houston Astros on January 14, 2015, Foltynewicz entered the year ranked the Braves’ No. 3 prospect by MLB.com. He began the season in Triple-A Gwinnett and was the club’s Opening Day starter. After posting a 2.08 ERA in his first four starts with the G-Braves, he was recalled by Atlanta and joined the Major League rotation on May 1.

Foltynewicz displayed a fastball that touched triple digits while going 3-2 with a 3.96 ERA in his first six starts with the Braves. He struggled over his next 12 outings, however, going 1-4 with a 6.97 ERA.

As he worked to refine his pitches and regain his early-season form, Foltynewicz was dealt a pair of health setbacks in September.

On September 2, he was placed on the Braves disabled list with costochondritis, an inflammation of the cartilage that connects each rib to the sternum. On September 21, a life-threatening blood clot was discovered in his right arm that prompted surgery to remove part of one of his ribs.

Six months later, Foltynewicz is fully healed from the surgery and is beginning his journey back to Atlanta with a stint in Gwinnett. Andrew Constant of Tomahawk Talk caught up with the man fans call “Folty” to talk about the surgery, his rehab and moving forward.

Andrew Constant: I know it was a weird offseason for you, but are you feeling good and getting back to full-strength now?

Mike Foltynewicz: Right now I’m just trying to focus on getting my strength and stamina back in the game. My body feels good now; I dropped 20 pounds, so I’m trying to get a little of that (weight) back and maybe that’ll help me with the strength and stamina, but other than that the arm feels good.

AC: The injury you suffered last year was an uncommon one. Was there any fear in you when it first happened?

MF: There really was. My right arm was three times the size of my other arm and I didn’t know what happened. I went to the trainers and they said to get to the hospital immediately. It was just sinking in that ‘this is life-threatening’ and you don’t even worry about baseball at that point. You worry about getting healthy. It was scary, but once (the doctors) knew what it was and they could figure it out, it was a little easier on my mind. It wasn’t a fun process.

AC: You had to have part of a rib taken out. What was it like having to rehab from that procedure this offseason?

MF: It wasn’t that bad, really after that two-week span where we found (the blood clot) and got rid of it and then all of this stuff took care of itself. It was really an easy process after that, but it was a lot of sitting around and I couldn’t do a lot of the things I like to do like golfing or playing basketball with my friends. I’m just glad I got it taken care of and I’m healthy and I’m back out on a baseball field and still pitching after that. I’m a lucky guy and I’m thankful for all of it. I hope I can get back to 100 percent and keep battling.

AC: This is your second season in the Braves’ organization. Do you feel more comfortable this year?

MF: Oh yeah, 100 percent more comfortable. A lot of these guys are in the same position I was last year, being a new guy in the organization. I was luckily a part of it last year with like 20 new guys, so there were a lot of guys in that boat with me and that really helped me get through it. We’re all buddies now and this is a great group of guys right here. We’re going to have a lot of fun here and hopefully all get to go up to Atlanta together. (Braves) fans are going to have a lot of fun watching this group for the next 4-5 years.

AC: You got off to a late start in Spring Training, how would you sum up your pitching in Florida?

MF: It was a little bit shaky down there. It’s weird, my off-speed pitches are there, but my fastball isn’t, which is kind of the opposite from last year. I was working on the (change-up), slider and curveball last year in the spring. But everything is there, I just need to get back to pitching and not (worrying about how I feel). We know at the same time though that I need to be worried about both. Once I get that happy medium and I’m ready to go, then I’ll start pitching and I’m just happy to be back on the mound. I was at 70 pitches in my last outing (of Spring Training) and everything felt good. I just left a few pitches up and I gave up quite a few home runs, but get them out of the way early is what I like to say. I think I’ll be just fine when I’m reading swings and whatnot.

AC: This is your second year with Gwinnett, is familiarity with this team helpful in returning?

MF: A little bit, but once you get out on that mound in front of all those people, you get a little nervous and some butterflies in the system. After that first pitch, it’s another baseball game and you just go out there and pitch. It is kind of cool, having been here last year and knowing what to expect. It’s always a rush out there on Opening Day and in that first series. I’m glad I get to be a part of it.

AC: Does it also help that you’ll face some International League opponents for the second or third time this season, as opposed to last year when you were just learning the league?

MF: Absolutely. Sitting in the dugout watching or charting from the stands, you are able to see it in front of you and all the video we have now is helpful. Hopefully being here last year helps give me a leg up seeing some of those guys. It’s a good league, there’s a lot of good hitters so you have to study up or they’ll take advantage of you.

AC: Do you have a certain goal for the 2016 season?

MF: My goal in the spring was to just get out there in a game and I did that. I haven’t really set a goal after that. I didn’t know what to expect; I had never had a surgery before so I wasn’t sure how this would go. I’m just hoping it’s all going to stay intact and nothing goes badly. But beyond that, just get back to the Major Leagues and while I’m here, get my work in and grind it out. There’s really nothing else you can do, just go out and pitch. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m just thankful to be able to still pitch after what happened. I’m excited for the season.

Bantz makes his mark at, and behind, plate

Brandon Bantz has hit nearly .300 since the All-Star break. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

Brandon Bantz has hit nearly .300 since the All-Star break. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

The life of a catcher in the minor leagues can be a tiring one. The lengthy roadtrips and extreme temperatures, taking a toll on the players that strap on the tools of ignorance. The turnover on pitching staffs and pressure to keep up with new players on a nearly daily basis.

But for Brandon Bantz, as the season has gone on, his performance has spiked instead of dipped.

Bantz, who has played semi-regularly for the Zephyrs since joining the club in late-April, is batting .298 (17-for-57) in 19 games since the All-Star break and displaying above-average ability to throw out base runners. In his seventh year of professional baseball, Bantz has learned how to improve as a player over the course of a long season, just focusing on himself day in and day out.

“It’s always a grind, especially in this league with the travel as it is. If you’re not used to it, first year up, it’s kind of like ‘holy smokes, what is going on here?’ But you get used to it after that first year and you start to get into a routine and know what to expect, so that’s a plus coming in after being in this league for a couple of stints,” he said. “I have specifically learned for myself is just more growing and who I am as a player. Getting better at understanding who I am and what I do and what it’s going to take for me to contribute and be a player at the next level.”

Bantz had a very brief cup of coffee in the majors in 2013 with Seattle, batting twice against Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees. Since then, he has been in both the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins organizations, settling in this season as a backup for the Zephyrs.

He hit .286 in 15 games in May before struggling in June (.224 average, 14 strikeouts), but Bantz’s defense has never waned. His ability to throw out baserunners has been lethal this season, as he’s nabbed 12 of 34 potential runners (.353 percentage) and it’s something he takes serious pride in.

“A lot of times it gets boring back there when nobody runs, so for me I love when you get a team that runs a lot. I take it personally. I love that challenge when I know a team is going to run and I try to own that and win that battle,” Bantz said. “It’s a strength of mine and I have to continue to maintain and get better at.”

If he had enough games played to qualify for the league leaderboard, Bantz would rank third among Pacific Coast League catchers in throwing out baserunners. It would also be the best mark by a Zephyrs backstop since Gustavo Molina in 2008.

When he’s at the plate and not behind it, Bantz has taken off offensively, hitting .324 (11-for-34) in August and significantly cutting down on his strikeout totals. Over the season’s first three months, he struck out 27 times in 99 at-bats, and since July 1, Bantz has struck out only seven times in 76 plate appearances.

“With this being my seventh year, I’ve been through it a little bit and I am more accustomed to the rigors of a season and everybody is different, everybody’s bodies are different, but I have learned what works for me during the season to keep me healthy and fresh towards the end of the season. If I were in the big leagues, we’d have a whole month to go now. You have to be ready for that,” he said.

If Bantz is to make it back to the big leagues, whether it be with Miami or another organization, his dual-threat ability to not only hit when given the opportunity but to also neutralize an opponent’s running game plays in any situation.

“I think it’s something I take pride in, being able to be an everyday player in the big leagues. That’s our goal: to be that kind of a guy. Obviously we all can’t be that, but that’s the mentality and you want to be out there every day helping your team,” he said.

Ozuna finds his footing in New Orleans

Marcell Ozuna has batted .353 with 12 extra-base hits in his first 18 games with the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Marcell Ozuna has batted .353 with 12 extra-base hits in his first 18 games with the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Coming into 2015, the Miami Marlins had reasons to believe that this would be the season to break a 12-year playoff drought since winning the franchise’s second World Series in 2003.

The team had acquired Dee Gordon and Dan Haren from the Los Angeles Dodgers, and veteran righty Mat Latos from Cincinnati. They gave superstar slugger Giancarlo Stanton a 13-year, $325 million contract extension, the richest contract in American sports history.

Miami had the makings of one of the best outfields in the game, with all three positions occupied by players 25 years old or younger. Christian Yelich, a 2014 National League Gold Glove winner, also signed a new contract with the club prior to the season after batting .284 with nine home runs and 54 RBI in his first full season.

But the player who manned the outfield between Stanton and Yelich flashed two-way ability that could impact the game like few others in the league. 24-year-old Marcell Ozuna, the club’s starting center fielder, was coming off a season in which he hit .269 with 23 home runs, 26 doubles and 85 RBI. He played defense at a high level, racking up 10 outfield assists to rank second in the National League.

However, the 2015 season has not gone the way Ozuna or the Marlins would have liked it to, as the Dominican Republic native went 1-for-37 over a 10-game stretch before being optioned to New Orleans on July 5. He had been hitting .249 with four homers and 26 RBI for Miami in 79 games. It was the first demotion of any kind for Ozuna since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2008.

“It’s funny, I have so much history with Ozuna; I’ve know him since he signed,” Zephyrs manager Andy Haines said. “I managed instructional league the day he came in and it’s funny to see him go from a little kid, basically, to what he is now and in the grand scheme of things, like I’ve told him about 10 times, this is the best thing that could ever happen to him. I think he’s a major league All-Star and I think he could be a superstar-type player.”

Ozuna has come to New Orleans and performed the way he’s capable of, batting .353 with 12 extra-base hits in 18 games, while collecting four homers and nine RBI. He recently rescued the Zephyrs with a game-tying home run in the ninth inning in Nashville, and has hit .524 (11-for-21) in the seventh inning and later.

“You just don’t see guys that can do what he does with the bat,” Haines said. “Some of the balls he’s hit and the way he can play the outfield and throw. I don’t know if I’ve had a player handle it better, coming from the big leagues to Triple-A. He just plays with a joy about him and he’s happy and he’s been a good teammate.”

For now, as he continues to rack up the hits against Pacific Coast League pitchers, Ozuna awaits the call that will bring him back to Miami. He said it’s been tough, but he continues to put his best foot forward and hone his craft.

“I am just waiting for Miami to give me the chance again to play in the big leagues,” Ozuna said. “That’s what I work for and what I wait for.”

As for his recent run of success with the Zephyrs, Ozuna said he isn’t trying to do too much, instead focusing on the basics.

“I’m just going out there trying to hit the ball. I don’t do anything specific. I just hit the ball and stay back,” he said.

Rienzo makes most of All-Star opportunity

Andre Rienzo worked a scoreless second inning during the PCL's 4-3 loss to the IL. Photo by: Chris Donahue

Andre Rienzo worked a scoreless second inning during the PCL’s 4-3 loss to the IL. Photo by: Chris Donahue

When the Pacific Coast League announced the players it had selected to attend the 2015 Triple-A All-Star Game at Werner Park in Omaha, Zephyrs starter Andre Rienzo’s name was not on the list, despite a 2.75 ERA.

But when fellow starter Adam Conley was summoned from New Orleans to Miami for a spot start the Saturday before the break, Rienzo was chosen to replace his teammate for his third career All-Star nod. It was an honor that Rienzo said he was very humbled to accept.

“Conley deserved it and couldn’t go after he got called up, so I went and I really appreciate that the team gave me a chance to go,” Rienzo said.

Having previously pitched in the 2011 California/Carolina League All-Star Game and the 2013 Futures Game, Rienzo was able to draw from his experience and work around a leadoff walk to toss a scoreless second inning in an eventual 4-3 PCL loss to the International League’s best.

“I have been in the bullpen before so I just tried to relax and not do too much, because sometimes when you go to the bullpen you do too much and get a loss. I just wanted to go to the All-Star Game and have fun. The game is about having fun and I tried my best and had fun with the whole thing,” Rienzo said.

The 27-year-old right-hander from Brazil had set down the two batters he faced in the California/Carolina League tilt and then followed that up two summers later with a perfect frame with a national audience at the Futures Game at Citi Field. Pitching for the World Team, Rienzo got San Diego’s Austin Hedges to pop up, got Cincinnati’s speed demon Billy Hamilton to ground out, and struck out Texas’s Delino DeShields Jr.

Rienzo said he didn’t think too much about his impressive performance two years ago, instead opting to just go out there and try his best and have fun.

“The Futures Game was different. Everybody in that game was just happy to be there, and our league’s All-Star Game is in the middle of the season so we can just have fun and see friends from other teams on the other side,” he said.

After walking Dixon Machado to open the second inning last Wednesday, Rienzo got Jackie Bradley Jr. to line out and then induced a groundout from James Beresford before striking out Matt Hague to end his night in front of the national TV audience on MLB Network.

Setting aside the TV cameras, Rienzo focused on his task and has now thrown 2 2/3 scoreless innings in three career All-Star appearances.

“It’s really cool because this is one of the things you work for,” Rienzo said. “You care a lot about your teammates and your team, but sometimes when you have that kind of chance to be by yourself in an All-Star Game, it’s pretty cool.”

Galloway making a difference on defense

Isaac Galloway has made highlight-reel catches routine during his first Triple-A campaign. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Isaac Galloway has made highlight-reel catches routine during his first Triple-A campaign. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

On any ballclub, there always seems to be at least one player that makes highlight-reel plays and impacts games with his glove and arm.

For the New Orleans Zephyrs, that man is clearly Isaac Galloway.

Galloway has hit .243 in 67 games in his first season at Triple-A, but has been a difference-maker for the Zephyrs in the outfield, consistently running down fly balls and on occasion robbing home runs from the opposition.

Galloway has said that he takes batting practice seriously, using the time before games to practice his routes to fly balls and keep his legs in shape so he can be a game-changer.

“My legs are important. I have to make sure I keep them fresh to run down balls,” he said. “But I try and take good routes in BP and I take that pretty serious. I try to make my defense as important as my offense.”

The offensive side of the game has slowly started to come around for the 26-year-old Galloway, who has hit .300 (9-for-30) in nine July games. He has been in the lineup 66 of 71 games since joining the club in late-April and Galloway said that being in there nearly every day has helped him mature as a player.

“Last year my playing time and at-bats were sporadic and that was kind of the first time for me that I had to deal with that,” he said. “It was an adjustment for me and I didn’t know how to handle that. But this year, I’ve gotten a lot more playing time and more consistent playing time so that has helped me get into more of a rhythm.”

Galloway is tied for the team lead with six stolen bases, despite not having one since June 17. He said he wants to run as often as possible for the Z’s, who have the third-fewest stolen bases in the league, but knows he needs to pick and choose his spots well.

“I try and go for it as much as possible when I get on base,” Galloway said. “This isn’t a team that runs too much and when I get on I try and make something happen.”

A player that relies on his speed to be dangerous, Galloway has set a new career-best with seven triples this season, and had a walk-off RBI single against Omaha on June 13 during a stretch where he had at least one hit in 13 of 16 games.

He has hit .274 with six doubles, five triples and two home runs at home, compared to .213 with six extra-base hits on the road. Considering New Orleans is no paradise to hit in compared to some of the higher-elevated cities in the Pacific Coast League, Galloway said he doesn’t change his approach depending on where he’s digging into the batter’s box.

“I’ve never thought about it or even realized it,” he said. “I have the same approach, home or away, so I guess I am just a little more comfortable at home.”

For a player that collected his first Triple-A hit off Barry Zito on April 25, Galloway has not eased up at all, knowing he’s nearly assured of being slotted into center field upon arrival into the Zephyrs’ clubhouse.

“When I first got called up here, I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” he said. “But I just try to play hard and play well and I definitely don’t take playing every day for granted.”

All-Star Wittgren grasping closer’s role

Nick Wittgren has converted 10 of 11 save opportunities since joining the Zephyrs in mid-April. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Nick Wittgren has converted 10 of 11 save opportunities since joining the Zephyrs in mid-April. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Nick Wittgren has only been a professional baseball player for three and a half seasons now. But he’s starting to get accustomed to being named an All-Star.

The closer was one of two Zephyrs selected to the 2015 Triple-A All-Star Game, to be played at Omaha’s Werner Park on July 15, along with starting pitcher Adam Conley.

Wittgren has now been chosen to represent four different leagues in mid-summer All-Star Games since being selected by the Marlins in the ninth round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft out of Purdue.

“It’s awesome. Being selected with Conley is definitely an honor,” Wittgren said.

The 24-year-old right-hander was previously an All-Star in the New York-Penn League in 2012, the Florida State League in 2013 and the Southern League last season. But the bump up in level of play has elevated Wittgren’s performance, as he has tied for fourth in the Pacific Coast League with 10 saves since being promoted from Double-A Jacksonville in mid-April.

Wittgren said he started to grasp the mentality of being a closer when he got to Purdue after spending one season at Parkland College in Illinois.

“I thrive on pressure and it all started once I got to Purdue. My coach asked me if I wanted to close and I said ‘sure.’ It started from there,” he said. “Sure enough, I had success and he looked at me at the end of the season and asked if I wanted to start again and I said, ‘whatever you want, but I love closing.’ He said they were going to keep me there and I’ve been loving it since. I just love going out there and competing.”

Wittgren set a new school-record with 22 saves at Purdue and was the winning pitcher in the Big Ten Tournament championship game in 2012. He became the first Boilermaker to record a double-figure saves total in consecutive seasons and pitched to a 1.46 ERA for Jamestown in 17 games after being picked by the Marlins.

He has been on the fast-track through the Miami system since, recording 25 saves in 29 chances for Single-A Advanced Jupiter in 2013, which earned him a late-season promotion to Jacksonville, where he converted he only save chance.

Wittgren had 20 saves in 25 chances for the Suns last season, becoming one of only four minor leaguers to notch at least 20 saves in each of the last two years, but faced some adversity by allowing six home runs and posting a 3.55 ERA in 52 games for the Southern League champions.

His first season with New Orleans has been nearly adversity-free, as he successfully converted his first eight save chances before blowing a one-run lead on June 28 at Iowa.

“It’s always tough when you give up the lead and essentially lose it for your team, but as a baseball player in general, you have to have a short memory and if you hold onto things, it’s going to eat you alive in this game,” he said.

Wittgren responded with a perfect ninth the following day and now has 11 saves in 12 chances for the Zephyrs to go along with a 2.18 ERA in 33 innings. The hard-thrower has 34 strikeouts compared to just five walks, and he has allowed the second-fewest number of baserunners per nine innings in the PCL at 8.45.

He said that when the Zephyrs’ starters pitch well – the club leads the PCL with a 3.13 ERA – he gets the itch to get out there and do the same.

“It’s definitely contagious when our starters are going well. You see the starter going out there and competing and that fires up the bullpen. I want to be in the game and who doesn’t want to be a part of a shutout?” Wittgren said.

Conley is slated to start the All-Star Game in Omaha later this month, and if all goes to plan, Wittgren could be in line to save it for his teammate, a proposition that sounds just fine to the closer.

“That would be pretty cool if he got the start and the win and I got the save,” he said.