NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Three weeks after coming to Spring Training not knowing what to expect from Félix Hernández, Braves manager Brian Snitker has gained reason to believe the veteran could prove to be an asset within his rotation.
Hernández took another step toward winning a rotation spot when he allowed one run over four innings during the Braves’ 5-2 loss to the Rays on Tuesday afternoon at CoolToday Park. The 33-year-old right-hander allowed three singles in the first inning and then retired 10 of the last 13 batters he faced.
“He’s a guy that knows what he’s doing and he can maneuver through a lineup and execute pitches,” Snitker said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t probably have the stuff he did 10 years ago, but he knows what he’s doing. Guys like that hit spots and change speeds. They keep hitters off-balance. That’s what it looks like he does.”
Hernández has allowed just two earned runs while totaling 8 2/3 innings through three spring starts. If he continues to show he has distanced himself from the shoulder issues and other ailments that led him to post a 5.46 ERA in just 59 starts over the past three seasons, he should gain one of the two vacancies within Atlanta’s rotation.
After facing lineups filled with Minor Leaguers in his first two outings this spring, Hernández proved up to the challenge of facing a Rays lineup that included six players projected to be on the Opening Day roster.
Hernández sandwiched a José Martínez strikeout between singles recorded by Brandon Lowe and Kevin Kiermaier in the first inning. Yandy Díaz followed with what would have been a double off the center-field wall had Lowe not been deked by Ender Inciarte. Díaz was limited to a single because Lowe went back to second base to tag up and could only advance to third. Hernández then found his groove, giving up a sacrifice fly before getting out of the inning and allowing just one more hit the rest of the way.
Now healthy, Hernández might finally find success with the curveball, two-seamer and changeup mix he was forced to adopt after injuries robbed him of the ability to continue being an overpowering pitcher.
“I can control both sides of the plate,” Hernández said. “My curveball is always there. I’m just working on my changeup a little bit. If I can throw those three pitches, I’ll be just fine.”
It didn’t take long for Chris Martin to show why the Braves were willing to bring him back with the two-year, $14 million contract he signed in November.
Pitching for the first time since straining his left oblique before throwing a pitch in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series, Martin struck out each of the three Rays he faced in Tuesday’s sixth inning. The Braves opted to slowly prepare the 6-foot-8 reliever, who has battled back discomfort and a few other ailments during his career.
“It was good to just get him back out there,” Snitker said. “He’s got the strike zone and stuff, too. For the first time out, that was pretty impressive.”
Braves right-hander Jacob Webb didn’t fare as well in his spring debut. But as Webb allowed four hits and four runs in one inning, it appeared he was fighting himself with the over-excitement attached to pitching for the first time since he was shut down last July with an elbow impingement that was surgically repaired in September.
“I could tell from the look on his face he was out there trying to strike everybody out and he was forcing the ball a little bit,” Snitker said. “But the biggest thing was with everything he’s been through, he was back out there. If he feels good tomorrow, then today was a huge success.”
The Braves say a power surge caused the dim lighting that existed when they hosted the Phillies on Monday night for the first official night game in CoolToday Park history. Stadium personnel said they had to wait until the game concluded to address the issue.
The Braves are scheduled to play three more night games at their new spring home.
Mike Soroka will make his second spring start when the Braves travel to Bradenton, Fla., to play the Pirates on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. ET. Coming off a stellar rookie season, Soroka is expected to be given his first Opening Day start this year. Freddie Freeman is scheduled to tally two plate appearances in this game, which will be available on MLB.TV.