‘Good teams hang out’: Braves relievers a tight-knit group built on brotherhood

Braves pitcher A.J. Minter throws a ball before Game 4 of the 2022 National League Division Series Championship at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Saturday, October 15, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Braves pitcher A.J. Minter throws a ball before Game 4 of the 2022 National League Division Series Championship at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Saturday, October 15, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

NORTH PORT, Fla. — On their off-day in Miami on May 19 last year, the scuffling Braves went to the beach and hung out. They put a cooler with drinks in the ocean to float beside them. They talked about life and baseball and golf and kids and family and everything else under the sun.

People talk about manager Brian Snitker’s team meeting in Arizona as a turning point, A.J. Minter said, but …

“We almost kind of consider the Miami off-day – we call it the greatest reset of the season,” Minter said. “That was almost another turning point for us. We were struggling, obviously, and we had that off-day in Miami, and we all got on the beach together, Snit and everyone was down there just having a good time. We knew, ‘This is our reset, boys. After this, we’re going to get it going.’

“That’s what we did.”

That beach day in Miami, which involved the entire team, perfectly encapsulates the brotherhood in the Braves’ bullpen. The relievers are a tight-knit group. They go to team dinners together. They golf on off-days. They enjoy plane rides to road cities.

The Braves have a slogan: “Good teams hang out with each other.”

Minter knows someone might think this is a cliché – that after spending all day with one another, the Braves’ relievers wouldn’t want to spend another second together away from baseball. But the truth is this: They’re brothers. Their bond also exists away from the sport.

“Really get to know who our teammates are outside of what they do on a baseball field,” Tyler Matzek said. “I personally care about all of my teammates as who they are, how their family’s doing, stuff like that. And when you can gain that kind of insight into people’s lives, you can see what makes them tick and help them out in the best way possible.”

The relievers are brought together by one commonality: their jobs. They don’t appear for a large chunk of the game, like position players. They don’t receive the acclaim of starting pitchers. They serve a thankless role.

“The bullpen is kind of like the kicker on a football team – the field-goal kicker,” Minter said. “I guess you can win the game, but people remember you when you lose a game. There’s more, I feel like, heartache. When we come in and do our jobs, we’re expected to do our jobs. But whenever we come in and blow the game, it’s (put in a brighter) light. So as a bullpen, you really have to stick together and make sure you’re having fun and keep things light because as a bullpen pitcher, it can be a very, very dark time.”

Added Jackson Stephens: “You can’t put your head down and just be so serious, in my opinion, all the time. You lose what you love about this game, right? I feel like all of us have different personalities, different points of view, but we all love each other, and we want to have fun. Having that confidence and that relaxing state of where we all know how to flip on a switch, we know when it’s game on, we know not to mess with somebody when it’s about that time. But at the same time, we all know we can’t just be down here serious the whole time.”

Each member of a bullpen experiences ups and downs. Relievers can be volatile. This doesn’t say as much about those pitchers as it does about the difficult jobs they do. It’s difficult to win a major-league game, but it’s easy to lose one.

Relievers have their inside jokes between themselves. They also have superstitions. Collin McHugh and Stephens often would get coffee in the second inning and head to the perched seats in the bullpen. And then if the Braves scored a couple of runs, they would stay seated there for an extra inning.

“We’re far away from home plate,” McHugh, “but we like to feel like we’re in it.”

Over the past few seasons, the Braves have had the likes of Darren O’Day, Will Smith and Luke Jackson in their bullpen. Regardless of how they pitched, they served as veteran leaders. So, too, has 39-year-old Jesse Chavez. Matzek and Minter are a part of the crew, as are McHugh and Stephens. Kenley Jansen spent one season with them, and Joe Jiménez and others are preparing for their first year in this bullpen.

McHugh mentioned something else he feels is important: The freedom to learn from anyone. Sometimes, he picks Chavez’s brain. But last spring, he even asked the inexperienced Dylan Lee – whom he hardly knew at the time – questions like, “What are you thinking when you do this?”

“You’re around these guys for essentially eight hours a day for eight months straight – like, every day,” McHugh said. “It becomes like a family. … What are you gonna do? Just sit around and not talk for that long? I like to believe that I can make it work with any group of people, but I think we’ve been really fortunate to have the guys we’ve had in this bullpen the last couple years.”

Can the positive vibes translate to success on the mound?

“It’s hard to quantify,” McHugh said. “But to me, it’s got to be better than the opposite, right? It’s gotta be at least a positive tick in some percentage.”

Relievers are responsible for getting some of the game’s most important outs. They can be heroes, but their work often goes unrecognized by casual fans. They can be scapegoats in gut-wrenching losses.

This comes with a lesson. When Minter was younger, veteran relievers would tell him it was important to be the same person every day. Yes, it’s acceptable to express emotion and be upset right after a rough performance. But bad games can’t run into the next day.

“You got to wipe it clean, show up, be the same person every day because when one person shows up and drags and complains and sulks, it’s contagious,” Minter said. “We have to be ready to go out again the next day and pitch again.”

Each day during the season, the relievers will show up in the clubhouse hours before the game. They often mingle or joke with one another. They spend around four hours together before the game, then they shake hands and greet one another when they head out to the bullpen to watch that day’s contest together. (Yes, they still say hello to one another after spending so much time together before that because, as McHugh said, “you’ve gotta go through the whole routine.”).

All this talk about the bullpen’s brotherhood leads McHugh, who has had a terrific career to this point, to a realization.

“The thing I’m realizing (is) when I’m done playing baseball, the thing that I’m gonna miss and the thing that I’m gonna have to figure out a way to work back into my life is a team atmosphere,” he said. “Because there is something about being on a team, being in a small group, that lights something up in me that’s hard to replicate.”

The Braves, as a whole, are a close group. The front office pays special attention to chemistry when it builds the team. President of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos and his team try to blend different personalities together as much as they attempt to stockpile the clubhouse with talent.

Through everything from team dinners to plane rides and inside jokes, the Braves’ bullpen has built an unbreakable bond.

“I think it just creates a brotherhood where you’re not out there by yourself, you’re out there as a group, and then that spreads over to the rest of the team,” Matzek said. “It just brings everybody together – that’s what the whole point of the whole thing is. If you go out there and succeed, it’s because of the team. If you go out there and fail, it’s because (of the team). You don’t isolate yourself and you become a tight-knit group, and that’s how winning is done.”