ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Collin McHugh’s Grapefruit League debut for 2023, which came Thursday, was uneventful.
That’s a good thing.
“He looks like he hasn’t missed anything, really,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He’ll fall right back into the thing and be right where we need him to be, too, when we get ready to go.”
In the Braves’ 5-1 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field, McHugh pitched two scoreless innings. He struck out a batter and allowed one hit. Of 24 pitches, 17 were strikes.
Before this, McHugh had done work on the back fields at the Braves’ CoolToday Park spring training complex in North Port, Florida – one of those times was because of the weather. Even if he didn’t appear in a spring game until March 16, he has been building up like normal.
“As a reliever, (time is) not gonna be an issue,” McHugh said. “You can get three outings in a week without thinking twice.”
This season marks McHugh’s third as a full-time reliever. He’s been able to settle in and focus on that. Relievers don’t need as much time as starters to ramp up before opening day.
Last season, McHugh posted a 2.60 ERA over 69-1/3 innings. In a job that often features tons of inevitable volatility, McHugh has achieved consistency.
“You just gotta continually tweak things, continually make adjustments,” he said. “This league’s gonna make adjustments to you and you’ve gotta continue to evolve, as a pitcher and as a ballplayer, as a clubhouse guy. When you’ve been in the game long enough, you see that there’s not one way to do it. So you’ve gotta figure out what works for you and you’ve gotta really be committed to kind of selling out to what it takes to do your job and do it well.”
McHugh is a lock to make the opening-day roster if he’s healthy. He’s expected to again be a major part of the bullpen.
“He was versatile,” Snitker said. “He could open for us if you wanted him to, he pitched high-leverage innings in the back of the game, or can cover one-plus (innings) in the middle as a bridge to get you to the back-end guys. He’s got a lot of value. He throws strikes, he changes speeds. He had a heck of a year last year.”
Charlie Morton pitches into the fifth
Over 4-1/3 innings Thursday, Charlie Morton allowed four runs. He hit one batter and walked another, but had seven strikeouts.
Three of those runs crossed on a first-inning homer. Before that ball left the yard, Morton walked one batter and hit the next to begin his outing.
He then got better as the game progressed.
“I felt like my stuff was pretty good,” Morton said. “It was just a hit batter, walk, homer.”
If healthy, Morton will be in the Braves’ rotation to begin the season. This spring, he has surrendered five runs over 9-2/3 innings, with 12 strikeouts.
Despite the rough sequence to begin his start, Morton felt that was explainable – he walked someone, hit someone else and grooved a fastball down the middle. But the context is important.
His cutter earned swings and misses, as did his change-up. His arm feels like it’s getting in shape. He said his off-speed pitches have progressed well.
“All in all, how I look at that is kind of try to look at it collectively, not just the bad things that happen,” Morton said.
Kyle Wright, Michael Soroka getting closer
Snitker said Kyle Wright and Michael Soroka are on the verge of pitching in spring games.
Wright pitched two innings on a back field Wednesday, and Snitker said it went well. Soroka has continued to progress.
Wright is behind after receiving a cortisone injection in his shoulder in January. Soroka has dealt with a hamstring ailment.
Lefty Jared Shuster will start Friday’s game in Fort Myers versus the Red Sox.
It will mean something: Shuster and fellow left-handed prospect, Dylan Dodd, are competing for the final spot in the rotation.
If Dodd stays on schedule, he would start Saturday’s game.
When the Braves optioned Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder to Triple-A, they also freed Shuster and Dodd to pitch against major leaguers (for the most part). Had Shuster and Dodd continued to follow other starters, they would have faced the minor leaguers that often are in the game late in spring contests, once the regulars are out.
This will be a good test for both. Their final starts will determine who makes the rotation.
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