20-year-old AJ Smith-Shawver excited for first career MLB start

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

In the middle of April, AJ Smith-Shawver made his season debut in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for High-A Rome.

Less than two months later, he will make his first career MLB start, and it will come in front of what could be a sellout crowd at Truist Park.

If you would’ve told him that back in April?

“I probably would’ve just laughed,” Smith-Shawver said.

But the moment is here: On Friday, the 20-year-old Smith-Shawver will start the series opener versus the Nationals.

He is past his call-up. He already made his major-league debut, and pitched 2-1/3 hitless innings versus the Diamondbacks.

Now, it’s time to start.

“I’m just excited,” Smith-Shawver said. “I think it’s a good opportunity. Just time to really kind of step up and execute pitches.”

His parents will be at Truist Park. “It’ll be pretty cool getting to share the moment with them,” he said. And his high school buddies, who have been asking him questions since the Braves called him up, will have even more after he starts a big-league game for the first time.

Smith-Shawver found out earlier in the week that he would be starting. The Braves didn’t announce it until Thursday.

Pitching coach Rick Kranitz told Smith-Shawver he would pitch Friday. “All right, sweet, let’s do it,” Smith-Shawver thought. Then Tuesday he threw a bullpen session, which starters do in between outings.

During Smith-Shawver’s bullpen session, Kranitz wanted to get a feel for his routine before making any adjustments. Smith-Shawver is a starting pitcher, so this all will be natural for him. But, of course, he’ll pick up things along the way.

“I think the other (starting pitchers) are kind of aware of that kind of stuff, too, and they’ll help him out and be there as a sounding board for him and reference,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “They kind of look after a kid like that.”

Smith-Shawver said he’s picked the brains of the other starting pitchers. He also has two catchers – Sean Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud – who are adept at preparation and game-calling.

“Huge,” Snitker said. “Probably more than what people really realize, what they can do and the confidence they can put in those guys to kind of let them run the show. And then they don’t have to try and over-analyze and overthink things, and I think it’s very important to have guys like that, and we’ve got two really good ones.”

And the guys behind Smith-Shawver?

Many are stars.

“Just having those guys behind you, you know that they’re going to make all the plays,” the right-hander said. “It’s kind of just trusting it. If they put it in play, even if they hit it hard, they still might get out. That’s just kind of great having these guys behind you, knowing they’re going to make the plays.”

Of course, this is still pitching. The venue will be different. The approach will be the same.

“I think just something I’ve taken to heart is just trust your stuff, throw strikes,” Smith-Shawver said. “If you get ahead of hitters, it makes the game a lot easier for you.”

It might’ve been difficult to envision Smith-Shawver pitching in the majors this year.

It didn’t totally surprise Snitker, though. In 2022, less than a year after they drafted him, the Braves put him on the mound in a big-league spring training game. He pitched in two others this spring.

So none of this comes as a shock to the manager.

“Because you know that you’re going to need a lot of (starting pitchers),” Snitker said. “And he was kind of one of the next in line because he’s got stuff. That plays here – stuff, talent and all that.”

He then added: “You just know that kid’s out there and he’s on the track, so you just wanna put your eyes on him.”

And now, that kid is here.

The rest of the rotation for the weekend

Jared Shuster, whom the Braves skipped in this latest turn through the rotation, will pitch Saturday against the Nationals. He hasn’t pitched since May 31 because the Braves wanted to line up their top starters for the Mets series.

Bryce Elder will start Sunday’s series finale before the Braves go on a three-game trip to Detroit.