Sean Newcomb said upon arriving at spring training last month that he considered a spot in the rotation to be his and that he didn’t intend to allow anyone to wrest it from him.
In his third Grapefruit League start Tuesday, he pitched like he meant what he said.
Working three innings against a strong Blue Jays lineup, Newcomb allowed one run on one hit – a Teoscar Hernandez homer – and one walk with two strikeouts in a 5-1 Braves win at Dunedin Stadium. The left-hander threw 31 strikes in 59 pitches in his longest and best outing of the spring.
Of the four hits allowed by Newcomb in three spring starts, three were homers.
He retired eight of the first nine batters before Hernandez’s wind-blown homer in the third inning, on a day when the Braves got three homers in a three-inning span from Rio Ruiz, Carlos Franco and Austin Riley.
“Newk was really good,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of his second-year left-hander. “I thought he threw some good behind-in-the-count breaking balls, even-the-count breaking balls. Fastball had some good life and a really good change-up.”
After issuing three walks in three innings over his first two spring starts, Newcomb’s only walk Tuesday came with two outs in the first inning against slugger Josh Donaldson, whom he tried to get him to swing at a two-strike off-speed pitch rather than giving the noted fastball hitter the pitch that Donaldson was looking for.
“That one walk was to Donaldson, and I tried getting him on 2-2 and 3-2 change-up,” Newcomb said. “He almost bit. It was pretty much a good at-bat (for Newcomb) against someone like that.”
Cutting down walks is crucial if the 6-foot-5, 255-pound lefty is to realize his considerable potential.
“Yeah, I think that and my aggressive (approach) kind of go hand-in-hand,” said Newcomb, who said he pounded the strike zone and went after hitters more aggressively Tuesday. “I’ve been trying to turn it up a little bit even though it’s kind of hard for these spring games sometimes.”
Newcomb debuted in June and stayed in the Braves’ rotation the rest of the season, his 19 starts in 2017 more than double the combined total made by late-season call-ups Luiz Gohara and Max Fried, the other prominent young pitchers competing for two spots in the Braves rotation.
But whatever advantage Newcomb might have in big-league experience is offset by command issues: He had 108 strikeouts in 100 innings last season, but issued 58 walks, a big reason he averaged barely five innings per start and didn’t have a better ERA (4.32).
He had four or more walks in seven of his 19 starts and lasted 5 1/3 or fewer innings in each of his last seven games.
In his first two starts this spring, Newcomb allowed one run, one hit and on walk in one inning against the Astros and two hits and two runs in two innings against the Tigers, including a homer in each outing. He was significantly better on a breezy day in Dunedin against a representative lineup rather than one dotted with minor leaguers.
“Yeah, a good amount of good hitters,” he said. “Kind of again helps the aggressiveness, facing some guys that I see during the season. I felt pretty comfortable with everybody. Got to that nine-hole and doubled up on a fastball in to (Hernandez), so I would have liked to get that fastball in more or done something different. He’s a guy with some quick hands and he just got one up in the air, one of those days when the ball’s flying a little bit.”
For the Braves, Ruiz had a two-run homer in the fourth inning and Franco and Riley homered to start the fifth and sixth innings, respectively.