Braves reliever Jackson Stephens’ role is ‘worth its weight in gold’

Braves relief pitcher Jackson Stephens (53) celebrates the victory over the Washington Nationals 16-4 at Truist Park on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

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Braves relief pitcher Jackson Stephens (53) celebrates the victory over the Washington Nationals 16-4 at Truist Park on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

MIAMI – During his months in Venezuela, Jackson Stephens had Wi-Fi at his hotel and at the ballpark, but no cellphone service anywhere. He could use iMessage and FaceTime to catch up with his wife, but they couldn’t call one another over the phone. And when he would go on bus rides that lasted six to eight hours, he couldn’t talk to anyone, so he watched movies on his iPad.

He experienced a culture shock when he went to Venezuela to play in the winter league.

“It’s completely different down there,” Stephens said. “I loved it down there. I mean, I thought it was a great place. It’s beautiful down there, for anybody that hasn’t been down there. But I mean, it’s completely different from here. You can’t just get around easily down there, as you would here.”

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From October through almost the end of December in 2021, Stephens lived at a hotel in Barquisimeto, a city in Venezuela. The hotel was attached to a mall, so he would go to the mall for food. He took a taxi to the ballpark every day.

This all worked out, but he didn’t speak Spanish. “I can order food, that’s about it,” he said. But speaking fluently? “It was tough on me,” he added.

Stephens became the Venzuelan Winter League Pitcher of the Year. He’s now with the Braves, and entered Friday’s series opener in Miami with a 1.50 ERA over 12 innings. He hasn’t allowed an earned run over his past eight innings.

He possesses a valuable quality: He has found a way to pitch well in a role that subjects him to not knowing when he will pitch next.

“He’s done exactly what he needs to do in that role, and it’s hard to find those guys,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You struggle really hard to find a guy that can sit a while and come in and throw the ball over, and understand the role. He gets that. He’s done a great job with that. On days you want to stay away from some of your guys, that you don’t have to warm somebody up behind a guy like that is worth its weight in gold.”

Stephens has tried to stick to his routines and stay ready. He lifts weights every couple of days. He continues to get his massages after pitching. He keeps his body and mind ready for his next outing.

Snitker has said he’s been pleasantly surprised with Stephens’ stuff. Stephens said he thinks only that he’s using it better. He’s always had a two-seamer, four-seamer and curveball. He believes his slider has improved since the winter. But overall, he feels his success comes from using his arsenal in a way that benefits him.

And of course, his consistency has helped the Braves.

“I treat every day like there’s an opportunity to pitch,” Stephens said.

Acuña to stay off the turf

Friday marked the first time Ronald Acuña arrived at LoanDepot Park since July 10, when he tore his ACL in his right knee.

He was in Friday’s lineup as the leadoff man and designated hitter, which probably will stay that way, Snitker said.

The Braves won’t put Acuña in right field, the manager said, because of the turf. If it were a natural surface, Acuña would be playing in the outfield.

“We just want to keep him off that (turf),” Snitker said.

The Braves plan to do this for now, Snitker said. It will obviously change at some point. In late April and the first day of May, Acuña was their designated hitter at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, which has synthetic grass.

It might be a while for Tyler Matzek

The Braves backdated Tyler Matzek’s placement on the injured list to May 14, but don’t expect him back May 24, when he’s eligible to come off the injured list.

This process could take a while.

Matzek, who has left shoulder inflammation, is shut down from throwing for two weeks. Furthermore, he won’t start throwing until that inflammation is gone.

And even after that, he’ll need to go through a progression – throwing on flat ground, long-tossing, bullpen sessions, simulated games and a rehab assignment. That isn’t an exact schedule, but it’s a look at some elements he could progress through before joining the Braves again.

Braves search for momentum

To this point, the Braves have not been able to gain momentum. They haven’t been great and haven’t been terrible.

They are the only team in the majors not to have a three-game win streak or three-game losing streak.

The message?

“Stay level,” Snitker said. “Today’s a new day. Yesterday’s gone, tomorrow’s a long way off, and only worry about today and preparing, and these guys are really good at that. They’re really good at compartmentalizing and preparing for today. You know what? Whatever happens, happens. You go out there and you give it hell for three hours, and then turn the page when it’s over.”

The offense has been inconsistent. The defense had a rough stretch for a few games. For the most part, the pitching has been good.

The defense returned in Milwaukee. The pitching remained consistent.

The Braves are still waiting for some hitters to come around. But they expect guys like Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Marcell Ozuna, Adam Duvall and Ozzie Albies to return to form.

They’ve been great before and …

“These guys are going to do it again,” Snitker said. “That’s what the painstaking process of this business and this job is. You know that that’s going to happen and at some point in time, it will. Getting there is not the easiest thing in the world to do. These guys, they’re going to do what their baseball card says they’re capable of.”

Friday begins a stretch of 17 games in 17 days for the Braves. But their next 29 games are against teams that have losing records. They won’t play a team currently over .500 until hosting San Francisco on June 20.