ATLANTA -- When Michael Tonkin made his MLB debut for the Twins on July 11, 2013, the Braves were in Atlanta, where Tim Hudson pitched seven solid innings and got the win against the Reds.
When Kirby Yates debuted for the Rays on June 7, 2014, the Braves were in Phoenix, where their closer Craig Kimbrel allowed their future Gold Glove center fielder Ender Inciarte to score a game-tying run in the bottom of the ninth.
Much has happened since these two events. When Kimbrel comes out of the Phillies' bullpen this week, he’ll be making a postseason appearance for a fourth different team since making his first for Atlanta way back in 2010. The Braves won the NL East in 2013 and have become an October staple during their current streak of six consecutive division titles.
With Charlie Morton not available until the National League Championship Series, Yates and Tonkin are the Braves’ only NL Division Series pitching candidates who were born in the 1980s. But neither has ever thrown a pitch in a playoff game.
In fact, going back to their respective debuts, these Braves relievers have waited longer to appear in a playoff game than any other member of one of this year’s postseason teams.
“It’s cool, it’s nerve-wracking and exciting, kind of all of those things,” Yates said. “I’ve been waiting for that opportunity. I think it’s pretty neat.”
Yates will be on the Braves’ NLDS roster when it is announced before Game 1 on Saturday at Truist Park. Tonkin has been a key contributor throughout the season, but the 9.49 ERA he produced over his final eight appearances (12 1/3 innings) creates reason to wonder whether he’ll be included.
Still, it’s remarkable that Tonkin even created a candidacy this year. He made 141 appearances for the Twins from 2013-17, spent 2018 in Japan and then played for a variety of Minor League and independent teams, ranging from Long Island, N.Y., to Tijuana, Mexico, before the Braves signed him to a Minor League deal last year.
Tonkin was a surprise addition to this year’s Opening Day roster and might not have stuck around had Max Fried not been placed on the injured list on the season’s second day. But he earned his spot by posting a 3.33 ERA through his first 37 appearances (67 2/3 innings) for Atlanta.
An opportunity to rest this week could aid Tonkin. Even if he isn’t selected for the NLDS roster, he could be part of the plan for future rounds.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Tonkin said. “There were definitely points along the way where I didn't know if I was going to keep playing baseball or ever make it back to the big leagues or any of that. To be on a team that's headed to the postseason is way more than I could have ever dreamed of.”
Yates bounced around from the Rays to the Yankees to the Angels, before landing with the Padres. He became an All-Star closer with San Diego, but the team never made it to the playoffs.
The Braves reportedly offered Yates a one-year, $9 million deal after the 2020 season and then took it off the table because of medical reports. The Blue Jays spent $5.5 million on him, but the reliever underwent a second Tommy John surgery in March 2021. The first surgery was performed while Yates was in college.
Yates struggled when he returned to the Majors late last year, and it took him some time to feel right this season. But he posted a 2.70 ERA over his 57 appearances through Sept. 13, which is when the Braves clinched the NL East. His success has positioned him to be available as a middle-inning option during the playoffs.
“I have it some days and some days I don't, and the battle is trying to eliminate those days that you don't have it,” Yates said. “I always kind of prided myself on, 'If I did suck, it was still kind of good.' This year, when I’ve sucked, I’ve really sucked. So, we’re trying to get better at sucking, you know what I mean? When it’s good, it’s still pretty good.”
This comical evaluation provides a glimpse into why Yates has established himself as someone who keeps the clubhouse loose. He’s been around for a long time and has benefited from countless experiences. There will be a lot of happy Braves when he is introduced to the one experience that has eluded him over the past 10 postseasons.
“He’s part of the glue,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “He gets everybody to laugh. He’s a goofball. We all have so much fun with him. We’re all so thankful he is here.”