Kris Medlen is smiling for the first time in a long time.
As Medlen took the field for warm-ups, he stopped to visit children next to the mound. He received cheers from a crowd reminiscing of his glory days.
The Braves fan favorite was back in his familiar No. 54, with the familiar tomahawk donning his chest; back with the familiar organization he calls home.
In throwback fashion, his hat read the letter “G.”
That may be short-lived.
Medlen is ascending through the minors, hoping to revive his career where it started. His comeback took another step Friday in a 3-1 loss to the Charlotte Knights. Medlen pitched 5 2/3 innings, allowing five hits and three runs in his first Triple-A start.
“I feel good,” Medlen said. “Which is better than I’ve felt the past year-and-a-half, two years for me. … I know I’ll feel fine tomorrow. I don’t feel anything in my arm. I worked really hard to get where I am and to hone in on some mechanical things that are going to take some stress off my arm.”
“I was impressed,” Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill said. “He showed good arm strength tonight, had command of all his pitches … throughout the ballgame he pitched well. Even when he started getting up in pitch counts, he showed good velocity.”
The box score won’t do Medlen justice. Despite allowing base runners every inning, he craftily escaped until Yoan Moncada took him deep in the fifth. The other four hits came courtesy weak contact that found open zones.
Medlen said he was rusty and feels as if it’s near the end of his spring training.
“I’m encouraged,” Medlen said. “I lost, but it’s better than sitting on your couch not able to pitch. I’m just grateful for the opportunity and the journey so far has been pretty exciting … I just need to knock off some rust, execute pitches better. I got ahead of some guys and didn’t get the job done when I needed to.
I have a pretty clear perspective of things. I’ve been through a lot the past few years personally, all that stuff. I’m just happy to be here.”
Moncada, Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect, had two walks and a solo shot in three appearances against Medlen. The 421-foot homer came on a 10-pitch at-bat. Berryhill referred to it as Medlen’s lone mistake.
“I just challenged him and he got me,” Medlen said. “It was a four-seamer down the middle. He’s a good hitter, I challenged him, he won and I’m OK with that.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker said Medlen needs more burn before returning to the majors, adding they may re-evaluate him in three weeks. Medlen hadn’t exceeded 80 pitches in any of his previous four starts. Sitting at 81, he came out for the sixth inning. Jason Bourgeois’ bloop bases-loaded single chased him from the game at 97 throws.
“You’ve got to test that arm and see where it’s at,” Berryhill said. “It looks healthy.”
The plan was to keep Medlen between 90-100 pitches. He said it felt good to increase his pitch count and face major league-caliber hitters again.
Medlen pitched two innings of no-hit ball before allowing a leadoff single to open the third. With two on and none out, he navigated the inning unscathed with two strikeouts and a ground out.
While it didn’t result in any outs, Medlen displayed an expeditious pickoff move. His velocity sat in the high 80s, low 90s for most of the night, though his control drifted. He walked three and hit two batters.
“It wasn’t pretty at times,” he said. “I had three walks that I don’t think made it past first base. … Even that last inning, it got a little sloppy. I hit two guys when I was ahead in the count. Just overall rust.”
It’s been a quick route to Triple-A. Medlen pitched in only four minor league games before his promotion. He earned a 1.74 ERA in two starts for the Double-A Mississippi Braves.
Berryhill nor Medlen knew if he’d take on his usual duties of starting and relieving.
“I don’t have an answer for that right now,” Berryhill said. “It all depends on what shakes out and whatever they’re willing to do up there (in the majors).”
“I’ve done that my whole career,” Medlen said. “I could give a crap. I’ll be closer, I’ll do anything. I haven’t been able to play. I just want to play.”
Medlen pitched for the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate in 2012 and 2009, the latter of which he collected a 1.19 ERA in 37 2/3 innings. Medlen was the first winning pitcher in G-Braves history in the team’s inaugural season (2009). He pitched for the Braves from 2009-13, compiling a 2.95 ERA over five seasons.
He found success in Atlanta, most notably during a 2012 campaign that featured a 1.57 ERA across 138 innings as a starter and reliever. Medlen missed the 2014 season following a second Tommy John surgery and was non-tendered in December.
Medlen admitted there’s nostalgia.
“That’s how it’s been for me,” he said. “… Just driving up to the ballparks I’ve played in, it’s nostalgic, a little surreal. I left for two years, I wanted to come back and I feel like I owe the organization everything I’ve got. I didn’t like the way things ended, with me being hurt and stuff, but I’m back and I feel like this organization is my family.
“I’m smiling again. I haven’t smiled in three or four years.”
In two seasons with Kansas City, Medlen was limited to 82 2/3 innings because of recurring shoulder problems. After contemplating retirement, he rejoined the Braves on a minor league deal Jan. 24.
The Braves selected Medlen in the 10th round of the 2006 MLB draft. He is 41-25 with a 3.25 ERA over seven major league seasons.