Ten months after Hunter Cervenka had to ply his trade in an obscure Texas independent league to keep his career alive, the rookie left-hander found himself facing David Ortiz with runners at second and third and two out, in front of a raucous crowd at Fenway Park, where “Big Papi” is king.
Cervenka induced an inning-ending groundout, preserving a Braves lead in that April 28 win at Boston. The well-traveled 26-year-old reliever from Baytown, Texas, retired the retiring 510-homer slugger with a lead in the balance, the type of situation that Cervenka hopes to be in plenty more times.
“That’s fun for me,” he said. “I like going out there and facing those guys, grabbing the bull by the horns, you know? It’s fun. A year ago I was facing has-beens. Now I’m facing the best in the league.”
And he’s more than holding his own. Cervenka pitched a scoreless seven inning Saturday with the Braves trailing the Diamondbacks, 3-2, extending his own Atlanta franchise record to 14 consecutive scoreless innings to begin a career, six innings longer than the previous mark by Mike Stanton in 1989.
Cervenka allowed a hit against the first batter he faced in his April 12 major league debut at Washington, and hasn’t allowed a hit since then, holding batters to 0-for-27 since then with six walks and 12 strikeouts.
His .036 opponents’ batting average led all major league relievers who had pitched at least nine innings, and his .050 (1-for-20) against lefty batters would’ve ranked third among all relievers if Cervenka wasn’t a few plate appearances shy of qualifying before Sunday.
Clearly, he has surpassed any and all expectations for a guy who was released by the Triple-A Iowa Cubs in late May 2015. He made eight appearances for the indy-league Sugar Land Skeeters in Texas before signing a minor league deal with the Braves in July 2015.
Cervenka didn’t make the Braves’ major league team out of spring training, but he was up by the second week of the season, and his 14 appearances in 29 team games through Saturday were tied with Jim Johnson for second-most among Braves relievers, one behind lefty Eric O’Flaherty.
“Here’s a guy who you feel like, in a crisis against a left-hander, he’s going to do a good job,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Cervenka. “And so far he has. And I don’t see any reason why it’ll change. We’ve just got to keep an eye on his appearances. I think he’s done a terrific job.”
With the Braves off to a franchise-worst start, it’s been a trying time for just about everyone. But relievers face their own particular challenges when the team trails late in the vast majority of its games.
“It’s tough right now because we’re just not ahead when we come in games,” he said. “Pitching behind, you’ve got to work a little bit harder to stay there, throw up a zero, keep your team in the game, rather than just go out there and go, ah, we’re losing, and just serve up fastballs over the middle of the dish.
“So it’s a little bit more taxing on the mind and frustrating, to say the least. We just kind of stay prepared from the first pitch of the game to the last, because you just never know what’s going to happen.”
Cervenka said he’s gained a lot of knowledge facing accomplished hitters, and being around veteran teammates during spring training and in his first four weeks in the big leagues.
“It’s been a huge learning period for me, being here and having some success,” he said. “And watching guys like (Jason) Grilli and JJ (Johnson), watching how they go about their business.”
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