NORTH PORT, Fla. — Dylan Dodd didn’t imagine this either. Just a few years ago, he had an ERA over 5.00 at Southeast Missouri State. And despite jumping three minor-league levels last season, Dodd still was an unheralded prospect.

It turns out, his career 156 minor-league innings pale in comparison with the eight he’s thrown this spring. The innings that don’t count have counted for everything to Dodd.

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He’s a finalist for the Braves’ final vacant rotation spot. He’s two weeks away from potentially being part of one of MLB’s best rosters. Neither he nor the Braves expected this to be a discussion one month ago.

“To be honest, probably no (I couldn’t have envisioned this),” Dodd said. “But I feel like the game has changed. Years ago, it took minor leaguers a real long time to go through levels. The Braves have shown if you perform well, they’ll push you. I think that’s a great thing.”

The Braves gave their mostly unnewsworthy spring an adrenaline shot Tuesday when they optioned starting pitchers Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder to Triple-A Gwinnett. Those pitchers were the presumed favorites for the fifth-starter spot. But their dispiriting performances positioned them to be leapfrogged by lefties Dodd and Jared Shuster, who essentially have blown the Braves away.

It’s a potentially career-altering opportunity for both players, neither of whom has made his MLB debut. Shuster’s candidacy was unexpected but not overly stunning, given he was a first-round pick in 2020 who generated buzz last season.

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Dodd’s ascent, however, was unforeseen. He was a third-round draft pick in 2021 out of Southeast Missouri State. He’s made strides in the minors, but even the more astute Braves fans likely barely recognized his name entering the spring, especially with all the talk about the team’s diminished farm system.

“I saw him on that back field, and I’m like, ‘Who’s this Dodd guy,’” manager Brian Snitker said.

But as Snitker reminds about this quirky sport: “You come to spring training, you never know where that (Tyler) Matzek is going to come from. Those types of stories. It gets exciting when your young players that you have start taking strides forward.”

Dodd, 24, will become an increasingly familiar name now. He hasn’t allowed a run across 8 ⅓ innings during the exhibition slate. He’s struck out 11 without walking a batter. Even against the World Baseball Classic’s Dominican Republic team – a lineup stacked with All-Stars – Dodd showed some moxie before the offense finally got the best of him.

In the first inning, after surrendering a leadoff single to Julio Rodriguez, Dodd struck out Rafael Devers and retired Manny Machado and Teoscar Hernandez. In the second frame, he retired Robinson Cano, Gary Sanchez and Eloy Jimenez in order. There were 19 All-Star appearances among the six consecutive batters he set down.

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While the start unraveled in the third – Dodd was charged with five runs and didn’t complete the frame – he still showed the qualities that have made him successful in his other spring outings.

“We make a play or two for him, that (game) is a different story even,” Snitker said. “We were excited to watch him pitch against that competition. That’s pretty good what he did, really good. It’s kind of hard not to pay attention to that when they’re doing it right there in front of you.”

Anderson and Elder danced around the strike zone and racked up walks, which led to them getting optioned Tuesday. Dodd has been the opposite. He’s aggressively attacked the zone and has been rewarded for his conviction. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound southpaw’s mound presence and confidence have drawn acclaim.

“Dodd is fun to watch throw,” Braves starter Spencer Strider said. “He’s a good competitor and good guy. He has one of those electric fastballs. It may not look like it on the gun, but it’s hard to pick up, and he beats guys all the time.”

Dodd has told the Braves, “I’ve been throwing strikes my whole life.” The statistical evidence, at least in his young adulthood: Dodd had 233 strikeouts to 46 walks in three seasons with Southeast Missouri State. In two minor-league seasons, Dodd has struck out 173 against 34 walks.

He improved considerably during college, setting up a quick climb through the minors. Dodd said he threw around 84 mph in high school, physically a late bloomer. (“I think junior year of high school, I was like 5-foot-7,” he said.) In his two seasons at Kankakee Community College in his native Illinois, he said he threw 88 mph.

In 2019, Dodd had a 5.33 ERA over 14 starts in his first season with Southeast Missouri State. In Dodd’s final collegiate season – an extra one granted by the NCAA’s COVID-19 rules – he had a 3.17 ERA in 15 starts. His velocity grew significantly over that time, topping around 95 mph when the Braves drafted him. He’s developed a better idea of how to use his slider and change-up.

“I feel like I’m a pitcher who doesn’t beat himself,” Dodd said. “At the same time, I feel I’ve gotten better (since college). I’ve moved my arm slot around a little bit. I’ve really developed some better pitches since then.”

Dodd now ranks among the Braves’ emerging young arms, outpitching Anderson, who’s excelled in multiple postseasons, and Elder, a higher-ranked prospect, to earn the real possibility of flying to Washington with the Braves for opening weekend.

It’s Dodd versus Shuster for a rotation spot. Each likely will have two more appearances this spring.

“He’s a phenomenal pitcher, too,” Dodd said of Shuster. “It’s crazy because I’ve had conversations with him, ‘We’re almost the same person.’ We throw about the same velocity. We have about the same pitch arsenals. We both fill it up at a higher rate. It’s funny, we’ve joked about that.”

Whether it’s in the initial rotation or down the line, Dodd seems destined for the majors soon.

“I can’t control the decision they make,” Dodd said. “I can control the work, how I go about my business, and taking care of what I’m supposed to do.”

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