Rotation wracked by injuries, but Braves’ season will go on

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Not far inside the door of the Atlanta Braves‘ spring training clubhouse, two lockers sit side-by-side looking like all the others.

A jersey that says “Medlen” hangs in one, a jersey that says “Beachy” hangs in the other. Inside are some gloves, caps, other uniform pieces, some mail. Nothing looks amiss.


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The only thing missing is the players who normally dress there, starting pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy.

Medlen, 28, is out for the year after undergoing a second Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery on Tuesday. Beachy, 27, likely faces the same fate, once a second opinion he is seeking confirms the first.

So the Braves, defending NL East champions, go about their business of preparing for the season with an odd mix of disappointment and determination.

“I feel like the team will figure it out,” said Evan Gattis, who takes over for the departed Brian McCann as Atlanta’s primary catcher. “We’ve got some other guys, we can make some moves. I feel worse for those guys than I do for the team. I feel for them for how hard they’ve worked, what they’ve tried to do, what this season means to them.”

This season can’t be put on hold. Atlanta opens on March 31 in Milwaukee. The Braves will be in Washington for the Nationals’ home opener on April 4.

“Yeah, we’re going to miss both those guys,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But the season’s still got to start on the same day. You hate to be insensitive and say get them off the field, get me another one, because that’s not the case. But you do have to go forward and keep going.”

To that end, the Braves went out and signed Ervin Santana to a one-year contract. They have another developing young star in Julio Teheran. Freddy Garcia is no longer fighting for a spot in the rotation; he has one. So does youngster Alex Wood. Atlanta signed Gavin Floyd in the offseason, though he’s recovering from his own Tommy John surgery and won’t be ready until at least May.

“Who knows what we have?” Gonzalez said. “You don’t know what you have until you get into situations like this. Teheran showed some signs last year and may turn out to be one hell of a pitcher. Other guys will get their chances.

“We went through it last year. We lost two relievers and we survived. Everyone has injuries.”

Atlanta last season did lose relievers Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to elbow problems that required Tommy John surgery. But even Venters noted losing the top two pitchers in a rotation presents a much bigger challenge than losing a couple of relievers.

It is a particular blow when one of them is a pitcher of Medlen’s caliber and, according to some in the clubhouse, character.

Beachy has shown flashes of greatness. He was 5-5 with a 2.00 ERA in 2012 but was only able to pitch in five games last season.

Medlen has shown more than flashes. He has established himself as one of the game’s best. He’s won three of the past eight National League pitcher of the month awards. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted Medlen and the Dodgers’ brilliant Clayton Kershaw are the only pitchers who have thrown at least 250 innings since the 2012 All-Star break and posted an earned run average below 2.50.

“He’s really good,” Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons said. “Really good.”

He’s also good off the field, Simmons noted — a factor that can’t be overlooked as a long season progresses with its inevitable ups and downs and mood swings. Some guys have a value well beyond their numbers and Medlen is one.

Medlen, he’s just a big character in the clubhouse,” Simmons said. “It is a blow from what he gives you on the field and definitely what he gives you in the clubhouse. The mood you set in the clubhouse is a factor in the energy you put on the field. When he is around, everybody is looser. It’s a tough loss, for sure.”

Added outfielder Jason Heyward, “He’ll still be around, that’s for sure. He won’t want to miss the season, what he can bring to the table off the field. He’s funny, silly and at the same time, a competitor. Things like that you can’t replace. I know he’s going to do his best to make his presence felt in this clubhouse.”

About 60 miles away, Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann sat icing his arm after a bullpen session, hours before the Nats took on the Houston Astros. He had Tommy John surgery in 2009 and was an All-Star last year. He said the Medlen and Beachy situations drive home the point that no pitcher is really safe.

“It’s just, I guess, bad luck,” he said. “You can’t really do anything different. If it is going to happen, it is going to happen. I could blow up tomorrow. You never know when it could be. I feel bad for those guys. It is what it is, it is the game we play and stuff like that is going to happen. I wish them all the best.”

Venters can empathize more than most with his teammates’ plight. He’s about a month away from being able to return from his second Tommy John surgery, and he knows how difficult it is to go through the process again. He said he didn’t sleep much after Medlen and Beachy were hurt on back-to-back days last week. He’s reached out to both since.

“There’s not much I can say to them to make them feel better,” Venters said. “It’s just sad and I know they’re frustrated. I just told them to stay positive and work as hard as they can like they did the last time. It’s hard going through it a second time. They do know what to do and what to expect. I think they’ll be fine.”

Simmons, too, couldn’t hide his feelings when he saw Medlen walk off the field.

“For me, it was a little emotional,” he said. “You’re not sure what it is, but you know it isn’t good when they do that. When they walk off, it isn’t because of some little thing that’s nagging.”

With that, Simmons grabbed his glove and headed for the field. An exhibition against the Yankees was a few hours away, the season opener only 12 days away. The “Medlen” and “Beachy” jerseys will hang unused but, as Gonzalez noted, the season will start on time.

“You absolutely feel for those guys. They’re your teammates, you fight along with them all season,” Heyward said. “But everybody understands we still do have a season to play. People will have to step into roles they haven’t had to before. We’re going to put our best foot forward. That’s absolutely going to happen.”

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