As a Gwinnett Striper, Mike Foltynewicz makes a familiar delivery in unfamiliar clothing. (Photo: Karl L. Moore/Gwinnett Stripers)
Photo: Karl L. Moore
Photo: Karl L. Moore

Down at Triple-A, Foltynewicz trying not to be left behind by Braves

In case anyone’s wondering, Mike Foltynewicz said he and the slider are getting along much better now. After considerable therapy, their past differences have been set aside, he insists.

Another evening in purgatory for Foltynewicz, last season’s major league All-Star who made his sixth start Tuesday since he was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett. He went three scoreless innings — throwing 40 pitches — against some other almost-big-leaguers from Durham before an 83-minute rain delay cut short his start.

And came away as upbeat as can be for a fellow who was on his way to career Disney World and was detoured to South of the Border: “Probably the best sliders I’ve thrown in the last year and a half was tonight, even if they didn’t swing at many. The location and movement and where they need to be — into lefties and away from righties. You know, it’s there.”

Have you forgotten Foltynewicz? His name scarcely passes the lips of those in power with the Braves, even in these days of roster roulette and pitching turmoil.

Foltynewicz was the Braves’ ace in the hole this spring, coming off a 2018 in which he finally seemed to tame his considerable stuff, was named an All Star and became the first Braves pitcher ever to record at least 200 strikeouts while holding opponents to a batting average under .200.

But it all went wrong in a hurry. His spring was sabotaged by bone spurs in his elbow. And when he returned, Foltynewicz pitched scared of that elbow. That important secondary pitch — the slider — was lost in the process and started getting hit a long way. In 59-1/3 innings with the Braves, his strikeouts were down (50, after averaging better than a strikeout an inning in 2018), his home runs were way up (16, just one less than all of last season) and his ERA was a corpulent 6.37. Following an ugly late-June outing against Washington — eight runs in four innings — he was sent packing to Gwinnett.   

Yeah, a lot to deal with.  

“I’m still kind of dealing with it — coming off the injury and still not 100 percent when I came off (the injured list). All these guys wanting you back, saying, ‘Hey, man we can’t wait to have you back being that ace. You were supposed to be opening-day starter.’ All that pressure gets on you pretty quick. And you don’t do well, and the fan base kind of turns on you. That puts you in a dark place for a while,” Foltynewicz said.

Gwinnett has been a good place to deal. He and his family have toured some other lesser baseball cities – they’ve joined him on road trips to Charlotte and Louisville. His numbers have healed. And he is making all the right noises about staying positive and controlling his emotions on the mound — a nagging issue in his case. Sometimes out there you can’t tell if Foltynewicz is pitching or auditioning for the lead in “On the Waterfront.”  

“It has been very positive,” Foltynewicz said. “The guys down here make it that way, they really do. You get a little salty for the first few days, you get humbled a little bit. These guys in here, these 25 guys, they make it fun. 

“No one wants to be in this situation. Everyone wants to be in the show. I reiterate to those guys, you got to be positive. I’ve got a healthy wife, healthy two kids. I was just pitching like poo in the show (he really said poo, that’s not edited). I got to come down here and work on what I need to work on — which I have — and we’re right where we need to be.”

In his six appearances since getting sent down, Foltynewicz has pitched 33-2/3 innings, struck out 31, walked eight and given up nary a home run yet. There were some hard-hit balls Tuesday, but they stayed in the park or went just foul. The velocity was good, touching 95 mph with regularity. And the slider had a bite. His ERA these past six games: 2.67.

He has some important role models in how to deal with exile.

Starter Sean Newcomb was sent down and has returned as an important part of the bullpen. And on the same day Foltynewicz was navigating the Durham lineup, outfielder Adam Duvall, just recalled from Gwinnett, hit two home runs against the Nationals. Twice a 30-homer guy in Cincinnati, Duvall struggled mightily and played his way back to the minors after he was traded to the Braves last July. 

“I watched ‘Duvey’ when I got down here,” Foltynewicz said. “He had been down here the whole year, and he went about his business, hit 30 home runs (29 in 94 games to be precise). He was quiet and went up there and continued to do it up there. He had a good mindset every day. He wasn’t coming in, F this, F that (he really used the initial; again, that’s not edited). He was always ready to get a good day going.

“Everyone has a little bump in the road. It’s how you go through it and come out of it. I’m keeping my nose down, grinding and battling and good things are happening.”

If you have forgotten him, he understands.

It is up to Foltynewicz to force his way back into the collective memory of a first-place team. It is a slippery slope between Atlanta and Gwinnett. The hold on one of 25 major league roster spots is as tenuous as an infant’s grasp. It is so easy to lose contact with this baseball dream. From All-Star to minor-leaguer in less than a year’s time, Foltynewicz can testify to that better than most.

Asked if he feels he is pitching well enough to be called back to the Braves — be that as a starter or out of the bullpen — Foltynewicz is tactful while making his case.

“The last three games have been pretty decent (16 innings, two earned runs),” he said. “Whatever they want to do, that’s up to them. They might not trust me because of the first half that I had. But I’m down here grinding. The last three games I think I’ve proven that we’re right where we needed to be coming into this year, right where I was last year.”

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About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.
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