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Braves’ Jordan Walden spring-loaded, summer-proven

By Steve Hummer - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kids, Jordan Walden does not recommend you pitch like Jordan Walden.

The Braves’ late-inning reliever, the celebrated jumping pitcher of Tarrant County, Texas, would initially have you consider a more grounded approach. Something that wouldn’t make every pitching coach you encountered over a young lifetime break out in hives.

“Pitch like a normal pitcher,” he counsels. “I don’t want kids to try it. But I guess if they can do it, then do it. But I’d say not to.

“It would be hard for a normal person to start pitching like that. I’ve just been doing it for so long — that’s what got me here.”

On display for a scoreless eighth inning during last Sunday’s nationally televised game against St. Louis, Walden’s singular delivery was the subject of slow-motion fascination by the ESPN crew.

Look how he raises up as he goes into his motion. Then, for the briefest moment, both feet actually leave the ground as he begins coming forward. Is that a hop off the rubber? Why, yes, and a good one at that, a move that would be as useful in throwing a spear as a baseball.

Nothing quite like any other pitcher you’ve ever seen. San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum takes a huge stride off the rubber, hurling himself forward with almost unnatural force. But nobody gets air quite like Walden. The move seems to defy some of the traditional physics of pitching. And still he throws in the upper 90s.

On the telecast Orel Hershiser was in amazement breaking down Walden’s delivery, as if narrating an alien autopsy.

Bizarre, weird are just a few of adjectives you’ll find in online headlines for video of Walden’s work.

He inspires great leaps of descriptive verse.

“It’s like somebody hits him with an electric cattle prod in the butt midway through his delivery,” said Hall of Famer Don Sutton, a Braves radio voice.

More Sutton: “He’s the only long jumper pitching in the majors.”

His current pitching coach is more reserved about the whole thing, unwilling to call attention to how the ball is delivered as much as where it is delivered. To Roger McDowell, Walden’s move is essentially, “forward to the plate.”

“He uses his lower half really, really well. He gets good drive in the direction of the plate, that’s where his direction is going. It’s not so much up as it is forward,” McDowell insisted.

However one chooses to categorize Walden’s method, one must grant him this: It has earned him a handsome living. He is working on his third full year of a major league career and is an important figure now at the back end of the Braves’ bullpen.

An All-Star closer with the Los Angeles Angels as a rookie in 2011 (his 32 saves ranked fifth in the American League), he lost that role the following season. He is defined now as a set-up guy. Standing in for a resting Craig Kimbrel on Monday, he blew a rare save opportunity. Otherwise, Walden has been quite useful. Through Friday he had a 2.50 ERA in 36 innings, with 42 strikeouts and 12 walks allowed.

When they dealt for him in November in exchange for another pitcher with a quirky delivery (Tommy Hanson), some among the Braves were not so much aware of the whole jumping thing. They had seen him twice during an interleague series against the Angels in 2011, but his delivery didn’t really seem so unusual in real time.

“This winter, I went in to the video and I started looking at it and said there’s something funny here,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I called Roger and said, ‘Roger, you see this guy? This guy’s up in the air.”

Once acquired, Walden was thrust into an important position after season-ending injuries to back-of-the-bullpen stalwarts Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters. The Braves would get to know his technique intimately.

And grow to love it. According to Kimbrel, teammates will kid Walden about the “moustache” he leaves on the mound, that being the double arc design his back foot carves in the dirt as it takes flight during each pitch.

Others were not always so accepting. Earlier this year an umpire approached Gonzalez after one of Walden’s eighth-inning outings.

“Hey, I need to talk to you,” the umpire said. “Walden is throwing illegal pitches.”

Recalling his confusion, Gonzalez said, “I’m like well, he’s been doing this for three years.”

“I just want to let you know you’re going to have to fix him,” quoth the ump.

Fix him? How?

That set off a scramble by all parties. The umpire checked with his supervisor. The Braves checked with the league. Each time he got some official verification that Walden’s delivery was legit, Gonzalez jotted down who he spoke with and the time of the conversation, just to have evidence on hand in case the subject came up again.

By rule, a pitcher is supposed to maintain contact with the pitching rubber. “The practicality of it is, there is not a pitcher in major league baseball whose foot is actually touching the rubber when the ball is released,” McDowell said.

Walden does not have an exact fix on when he began throwing that way; it was more of an evolutionary process. “I don’t even know how you’d teach something like that,” Gonzalez said.

There was scarcely a coach he ran across in his early years who didn’t try to change it. All the way up to and including his coach at Grayson County (Texas) College. Quickly enough Ed Marko concluded it was better to leave him alone and let him challenge hitters with near 100-mph heat. “He was born with a gift. As long as the end result is what you want, why change it?” Marko said.

All his attempts to revert to a more conventional delivery always would be undone when taking the mound during a game and giving in to the adrenalin surge. “I want to fix it, but it’s something I’ve done so long, it’s hard. Hey, I’m still pitching,” Walden said.

And pitching effectively. Adding a reliable change-up — which has made him more formidable, especially against lefties — has been the key to his success this season, Walden said. His 6-foot-5 frame, coming at the hitter like a runaway train in a 3D movie, doesn’t hurt his cause either.

“With (Walden’s) height and length and his delivery, the hitter has a short amount of time to make a decision on a pitch, location, velocity, reaction time,” McDowell said.

Purists in the art of pitching just have to give way to the pragmatists. The craft, after all, contains but one goal.

“I just want to get outs,” Walden said. So long as he meets that single essential, he may live hoppy ever after.

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