McHugh comes full circle with hometown Braves

March 17th, 2022

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- As  watched his beloved Braves face his former team in last year’s World Series, friendships didn’t trump his lifelong passion. 

“It was tough because all those guys in Houston are some of my best friends in baseball, and I love them with all of my heart,” McHugh said. “I didn’t know how it would all play out in my emotional landscape. I found myself like, ‘Let’s go Braves, let’s go Braves.’” 

McHugh spent six memorable seasons (2014-19) with the Astros and helped them win the 2017 World Series. But none of that mattered as he spent last October rooting for Houston to lose to the Braves club he proudly joined earlier this week. 

Looking to strengthen their bullpen, the Braves signed to McHugh to a two-year, $10 million on Tuesday. The 34-year-old suburban Atlanta resident has spent a lifetime hoping for this opportunity to play for the hometown Braves.

“I’ve been a Braves fan for as long as I can remember, which has been a long time,” McHugh said. “There’s a lot of who I am today that is that way because the Braves were competitive when I was growing up. It’s like the arc of my career is full circle right now.”

McHugh went to high school at Providence Christian Academy in Lilburn, Ga., which is also the home of Parkview High School -- the alma mater of Matt Olson, the Braves’ new first baseman who was acquired from the A’s on Monday.

While Olson aimed to be like Chipper Jones and the Atlanta sluggers of yesteryear, McHugh idolized Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, the former trio of Braves starters who are now enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“I wore No. 31 because of Greg Maddux,” McHugh said. “I met John Smoltz at a Krystal when I was 10. I wanted to emulate Tom Glavine on the mound by being stoic as much as I could. I am the baseball player I am because of all of those guys. So to be part of this storied organization, in the place we are now, with the momentum we have built, I couldn’t ask for a better landing spot.”

McHugh should fortify what was already a pretty strong relief corps. His ability to be used as either a setup man or a high-leverage middle-relief option could take some of the strain off fellow right-handed reliever Luke Jackson. Just having another reliable piece in the bullpen should also reduce the wear and tear experienced by lefties and .

After spending the first few years of his career as a starter with Houston, McHugh moved to the bullpen and thrived. He posted a 1.99 ERA over 58 relief appearances with the Astros in 2018, then had a 2.67 ERA in 27 relief appearances during the 2019 season. He chose to sit out the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, before becoming one of the Rays’ top pitchers last year.

McHugh posted a 1.55 ERA, recorded 74 strikeouts and issued 12 walks over 64 innings for the Rays last season. He made 37 appearances, 25 of which consisted of more than one inning. Opponents hit .207 and produced a .252 on-base percentage against him.

“He’s going to fill a real big role because he can give you length or pitch in any situation,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He threw the ball really well last year. We’re excited about getting him.”

Though he was just 5 years old at the time, McHugh said that one of his first memories of the Braves was Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series against the Pirates. That was the game where Francisco Cabrera capped a three-run ninth with a walk-off single that scored a sliding Sid Bream from second base ahead of Barry Bonds’ throw.

“I remember being in our living room watching Sid Bream round third,” McHugh said. “My mom freaks out, throws her hands up in the air and smokes my dad right in the face and breaks his nose. It’s pandemonium there, and bedlam. That was the beginning of it. From that point on, you could catch me 162 days of summer watching Braves baseball.”