Blair displays improved slider after shaky beginning vs. Yankees

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The first batter faced by Aaron Blair on Saturday in a split-squad game knocked him out of the game with a comebacker that hit the pitcher in his glove hand, and the first batter he faced Friday took him deep on the third pitch of the game.

But things got better Friday not long after Brett Gardner’s leadoff homer in the Yankees’ first inning. Blair gave up a single to the next batter, Jacoby Ellsbury, and walked Aaron Judge before inducing a double-play grounder from Chris Carter.

Beginning with that double play, Blair recorded eight outs in his last 10 batters to give him a solid outing in his third game, an 8-7 loss in which the Braves got five RBIs on two late-innings homers from journeyman Matt Tuiasosopo, an extra brought over from minor league camp for the day.

Taking the scheduled turn of Julio Teheran, who’s away at the World Baseball Classic, Blair pitched 2 2/3 innings and was charged with five hits, one run and one walk with three strikeouts.

“He started pitching,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “The dam could have broke a couple of times on him, but he made pitches, location got a little better, he started hitting (spots with) those fastballs, threw some good breaking balls. I keep forgetting that, shoot, he missed his last start pretty much. He was OK today.”

Blair struck out the last two batters he faced, Judge and Carter, and left after throwing 36 strikes in 56 pitches. After falling behind in counts at the outset of the game, he began throwing his fastball for strikes and complemented it with a slider that he’s worked hard to improve since his disappointing rookie season.

“First inning was big,” Blair said, “getting the first three guys on base and then making one pitch to get two outs, then being able to get (Aaron) Hicks to pop out to right, that was big for me. And getting the two strikeouts in the third, that was big for me.”

Blair struggled mightily in seven of his 15 major league starts as a rookie in 2016, when he had to get by mostly on fastballs and change-ups. He went 2-7 with a 7.59 ERA for the Braves and gave up 82 hits including 14 home runs and 34 walks in 70 innings while recording 46 strikeouts.

“Fastball felt like it was coming out a little better than two times ago,” Blair said, referring to his first spring outing, when he gave up three hits, one run and two walks in two innings against the Astros. “The last (start) was, like, four pitches (before he left the game). Slider was there today, change-up was there when I needed it, so I felt pretty comfortable.”

The slider could be a key to bigger things for Blair, he said.

“It was there all game, got some swing-and-misses, threw it for strikes when I needed to,” he said. “That, with my change-up, was kind of an equalizer for right-handed and left-handed hitters… I threw Judge a 2-1 slider today. Last year that would have either been a fastball or a change-up, so this year having a third weapon for me, hopefully it’s big.”