LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Aaron Blair has returned to Spring Training with the out pitch he finally developed just in time to end his frustrating rookie season, when he threw a dazzling 10-strikeout performance against the Tigers. But the Braves right-hander understands that last year's inconsistencies potentially mean he'll to need to wait for another call to the Majors.
Influenced by last season's late success, and the desire to field a much more competitive team during SunTrust Park's inaugural season, the Braves acquired three veteran starting pitchers -- Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia -- this past offseason. In doing so, they created the likelihood that Blair and Matt Wisler will both begin the season with Triple-A Gwinnett.
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"We had our opportunities last year," Blair said. "We faulted with some opportunities and took advantage of some. They're here to win. They brought in three veterans. That's what those guys are here to do. So, anything that will help the team."
Along with the right attitude, Blair now has the potentially effective breaking ball that he lacked most of last season.
Shortly after Blair arrived at last year's Spring Training, former Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell talked to the young hurler about the need to develop something more than the "get-me-over" curveball he was displaying. Veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski suggested the same when Blair reached the big league level near the end of April, and struggled to put hitters away without the benefit of being able to turn to an out pitch.
When Blair was optioned back to Gwinnett in May, he planned to develop a slider, but was called back up to the Majors after making just one more start in Triple-A. He remained in Atlanta's rotation through most of June and didn't truly get a chance to begin working on the pitch in a less stressful environment until he returned to the Triple-A level in July.
"You can get by with stuff in the Minor Leagues that you [can't] here," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "Sometimes, you have to experience that before you really buy in. Guys can tell you something, but until you experience it and get a feel for it, you don't always buy into it. The competition will dictate it. If you're going to stay around here, then you have to adjust."
Blair developed the slider and added it to his repertoire during his time with Gwinnett. He finally found a good feel for the pitch before he concluded the season, when he notched the aforementioned 10 strikeouts over six innings against the Tigers on Oct. 1. He opened the game with a three-pitch strikeout (all breaking balls) of Ian Kinsler and concluded eight of his strikeouts with either a breaking ball or changeup.
"Developing that pitch was big for me at the end of the year, and hopefully it's big for me moving on," Blair said. "Throwing it [in live batting practice on Tuesday], I had a good feel for it. It was late [break] and I kept it down in the zone. That's pretty much all you can ask for."