Remember when then-rookie Alex Wood got thrown out of a game he was already removed from at Washington in 2013, for shouting at and arguing with an umpire as Wood came off the mound after being replaced?
That fire and passion has always driven the Braves lefty, and a bit of it could even be heard in a comment he made Tuesday. Even though it was entirely innocuous, said in a soft tone and with a laugh, the edge was was there, along with the boulder on his shoulder that Wood probably would prefer to always have with him.
Not that he lacks for motivation, but Wood’s furnace is at least partly fueled by skeptics and doubters. Has been for a long time. He threw off the mound for what he figured was already the sixth or seventh time this winter Tuesday at Turner Field, and afterward a reporter -- me -- asked a straightforward question about how his arm felt.
“It feels good,” he said, smiling. “You can tell everybody, if they’ve got any questions they can just come watch me throw next week (at spring training). I feel really good.”
It was a morning throwing session on Feb. 10, and Wood’s competitive juices were already flowing, his fire burning. You've gotta love that, in my opinion. Nothing but good can come from it.
When he got sent down to Triple-A last season on June 10, a month after being moved from the rotation to the bullpen, it stung Wood more than a bit, even if he understood the reasoning. He said that by the end of the season he hoped for a chance to show what he could do and to establish himself as a full-time member of the starting rotation going forward. And he did.
Two weeks later Wood got that chance and made the most of it. After Gavin Floyd’s season-ending elbow injury, the lanky lefty from UGA returned from the minors June 25 and posted a 2.43 ERA in 17 starts the rest of the season, limiting opponents to a .219 batting average with 107 strikeouts and 30 walks in 111 1/3 innings over that span.
The left-hander had hoped to nail down a regular spot in the starting rotation by season’s end, and that’s precisely what Wood did.
“Yeah, he did,” said Braves All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, emphasizing the yeah. “We all really got to know Alex Wood last year, who he is. We got to see his personality on the field, we got to see the kind of determination that he goes out there and pitches with. He showed that to the fullest extent. That’s very exciting.”
Imagine how it felt for Wood. He's always believed in himself more and worried about his funky mechanics less than others did. You know, those folks who doubted he could be a top-half-of-the-rotation starter in the majors, or whether he could stay healthy. So far, he's proving them wrong.
He excelled last year in his second year in the majors, and now he’ll go to spring training needing not to prove himself or win a job, but to get prepared for the season in the starting role he’s always preferred. In the big-league rotation, along with incumbents Julio Teheran and Mike Minor, newcomer Shelby Miller, and a fifth starter to be determined.
“It’s definitely nice to feel like you’ve got somewhat job security,” said Wood, who turned 24 in January. “You’re never secure at this level, but it’s nice to have somewhat solidified myself as part of the rotation. You want to be able to set new goals for yourself going into every year. That’s exciting for me as far as being able to have new goals and not just making the team or solidifying myself in the rotation, but having other goals for myself going into spring training and the season.”
Wood finished last season with an 11-11 record and 2.78 ERA in 35 games including 24 starts, with 170 strikeouts in 171 2/3 innings. The won-lost record was modest considering the impressive ERA, but that’s what can happen when a pitcher has the third-lowest run support among National League qualifiers.
He had a 2.59 ERA as a starter but only an 8-11 record, as the Braves scored one or no runs while Wood was in half of his 24 starts. They scored just two runs while he was in four of the other 12, meaning he got more than two support runs while in the game just eight times as a starter.
Wood was scratched from his final start as a precautionary measure because of a forearm strain. He was already near the innings limit the Braves had set for him and with the team out of the playoff race, they saw no reason to take any chances with their prized lefty. But the Internet and the radio airwaves being what they are, alarms were sounded and doom-and-gloom forecasts were made.
Wood didn’t object to the decision to scratch him from the start, but was perturbed to see some pundits and other outsider observers begin to speculate immediately that his injury was serious, that his unorthodox pitching motion had led to another major arm injury for a guy who had Tommy John elbow surgery while still in high school.
“I feel great,” said Wood last week, when he was already well into his offseason throwing program. He also incorporated three-times-a-week swimming workouts into his strength and conditioning regimen this winter. “That’s what I’m most excited about, too, is my body has finally come back around to where I feel good, I’m ready to head off and get started, get going.
“I hear all this crap (with people after he was scratched) talking about forearm injury. You play long enough and you realize, you know when something’s serious and when it’s not, and when it’s actually just a little strain in your forearm, when you only need two weeks to rest. And that’s what it was. I was never worried about it at all.”
Yes, he has an edge, but Wood is able to channel that in the right direction. Specifically, it never shows when it comes to teammates, as in when he was asked after numerous starts last season about the utter lack of run support he received in a game where he was saddled with an underserved loss or no decision in a game when he pitched extremely well. Wood never had a moment of weakness where he cast blame on anyone but himself.
Along similar lines, he had nothing negative to say about the Braves’ offseason moves, including trading away three of the top four hitters – Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis -- from an offense that ranked 29th in the majors in runs scored. The way Wood sees it, there’s nothing to be gained by worrying about things you can’t control. He said he'd really miss Heyward's Gold Glove defense in right field. But it was clear he’d rather focus on the potential positives in a situation such as the one the Braves are in, rebuilding for 2017 and beyond while trying to remain competitive in the interim.
“Especially at this level, I think if you just worry about what you need to take care of on a daily basis and just try to be the best teammate you can with the guys around you, you can’t really control all the other circumstances,” Wood said. “So it’s hard to get mad or say, oh my God, they traded away three great hitters. Because you know, we also got some guys coming in who know how to play the game and it’s exciting from that standpoint.”
After being plagued by high strikeouts and low averages with runners in scoring position last season, the Braves added some contact hitters including right fielder Nick Markakis, infielder Alberto Callaspo and Cuban outfielder Dian Toscano. And they added an element that many thought sorely lacking on last year’s team: veteran leadership and enthusiasm.
Veteran additions Markakis , left fielder Jonny Gomes and catcher A.J. Pierzynski have all enjoyed major success as well as disappointing seasons in the majors. Markakis is known as a leader by example, and Gomes and Pierzysnki have reputations for toughness along with being outspoken and wearing their emotions on their sleeves.
“I think it’s great,” Wood said. “I feel like there’s not a lot in-between -- you’ve got kind of the young group and you’ve got the veteran group, which I think will be good. I’ve heard good things about a lot of those guys, how great a clubhouse guys they are. I don’t think there will be much tomfoolery going on. I think it’ll be a well-run clubhouse, something we might have missed a little bit last year as a whole. And I think it might also help bring the guys together as a whole unit, instead of splitting off into your cliques and all that stuff.
“So from that standpoint it’s exciting, because that’s the fun part about it, the team aspect of it and guys coming together and being friends with everybody, and everybody hangs out with everybody. Hopefully that’s what it’ll turn into this year, and I think that it will. Time will tell. I’m definitely looking forward to getting around all those new guys.”
The Braves also added some veterans to the pitching staff, including former closers Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson and fifth-starter candidates Eric Stults and Wandy Rodriguez, who’ll compete with several younger pitchers -- including a pair of winter acquisitions, highly regarded prospects Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos -- for the final rotation spot.
“It’s fun,” Wood said of being part of a potentially formidable starting five. “I think the thing I’m most excited about is being around Julio and being around Shelby and those guys. I spent some time with Shelby when he was here last week. I think it’s going to be really fun, really competitive. I think we’ll all push each other, in a good way…. The thing about having all those (fifth-starter candidates), it keeps you on your toes. You’ve got to throw well, otherwise they’ve got plenty of guys waiting in the woodwork to come and sneak in there. So it’s good for you.”
• Just over a week until pitchers and catchers report, folks. Feb. 19. It's here. The long and memorable offseason is just about over. Let's close this blog with this great tune from Eels.
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