MIAMI – Fredi Gonzalez is uncertain about his future as Braves manager, but he won’t risk the health of his best reliever by wearing him out trying to save his own job.
Arodys Vizcaino has progressed toward becoming the dominant closer that he was long been projected to be. He threw a career-high 35 pitches to get a four-out save in Friday’s 6-3 win against the Marlins, snapping a season-opening nine-game skid that was one shy of the longest in Braves history.
Vizcaino struck out Marcell Ozuna with bases loaded to end the eighth inning, and coaxed a game-ending grounder from J.T. Realmuto with two on in the ninth. Five Braves relievers combined for 4 2/3 scoreless innings.
“The bullpen was great,” Gonzalez said after the game, “but I’m not real happy about my usage of the bullpen, to be brutally honest with you. But it was good, they did a terrific job.”
Asked to elaborate, Gonzalez said, “I don’t like putting players in position where they may hurt themselves. And I think Vizcaino — not that he got hurt or anything — Vizcaino throwing 35 pitches in Game (10) of a season, it doesn’t sit well with me. But we won the game, and he may not pitch again until, like, Wednesday.”
Eighteen hours day later, Gonzalez said Vizcaino would not be available for Saturday night’s game and that they would wait to see how he felt before determining whether he could pitch in Sunday afternoon’s series finale against the Marlins.
Gonzalez said if Vizcaino hadn’t recorded the final out facing Realmuto, Jason Grilli would have been brought in to face the next hitter (Adeiny Hechavarria was on deck). Vizcaino has emerged as the Braves’ primary closer over Grilli, who is still working his way back from Achilles surgery that ended his 2015 season in July.
“That was the last batter,” Gonzalez said. “What’d he have, 35 pitches? Before he went out for the ninth — because he threw 11 or 12 (to get the third out in the eighth inning) — I asked (pitching coach) Roger (McDowell), what do you feel comfortable with? And he said no more than 35. I said, OK, that’s fine.
“So that was his last hitter, no matter what happened.”
Vizcaino, 25, is in his second stint with the Braves after 2 1/2 years in the Cubs organization. The hard-throwing right-hander still has what is known as “electric” stuff in the baseball vernacular, despite missing elbow problems that caused him to miss two seasons in 2012 (Tommy John surgery) and 2013 (surgery to remove calcium deposits).
An 80-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs cost him half of the 2015 season, but Vizcaino has been impressive since returning in July. He has a 1.43 ERA and .214 opponents’ average in 41 appearances during that period, with 42 strikeouts and 16 walks in 37 2/3 innings, and has converted 10 of 11 saves.
He hasn’t allowed a run in 15 appearances since mid-September, posting a .173 opponents’ average with 17 strikeouts and five walks in 13 2/3 innings and converting six of six save opportunities.
“Here’s a guy who, because of where we were last year, we gave him that opportunity to pitch in the back end of games,” Gonzalez said. “Grilli was out with the Achilles, J.J. (Jim Johnson) had been traded, so Vizky was (closer) by default, really. And got a lot of experience closing ballgames out. Not that we had a bunch of opportunities, but every chance we had he pitched the back end of a game (the Braves led).”