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Newcomb starting to look like pitcher Braves thought he could be

After a rough season debut against the Nationals, Sean Newcomb has a 1.98 ERA in his past five starts and suddenly looks like the front-line pitcher the Braves thought he could become when they traded for him 2-1/2 years ago.

The imposing left-hander from Massachusetts has figured out a lot of things, including how to utilize his change-up as far more than third pitch he throws only occasionally, which is what it used to be. 

Now it’s as important as his curveball, both complementing a fastball in the mid-90 mph range that looks even harder when hitters must be aware of those other two pitches.

“It’s definitely been a big pitch to help my fastball out,” said Newcomb, who takes a 3-1 record and 2.88 ERA into his eight start Sunday afternoon, a series finale against Miami at Marlins Park. “With (the change-up) being more in the zone, my fastball kind of makes my change-up play up, and then on the backside of that, my fastball plays up even more. So it’s been good. It’s been a good change of pace on my off-speed pitches, to kind of switch it off from my curve.”

If that explanation seems a bit difficult to sort out, just know that facing Newcomb is tougher now that he’s throwing his change-up -- it’s particularly effective against right-handers -- and now that he’s developed better and more consistent command of all pitches. He’s not as likely to walk four or five batters in a game as he was as a rookie.

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Hitters who go to the plate waiting until after he throws a strike to take their first swing are more likely than before to find themselves behind in the count against a pitcher who has the stuff to put them away quickly when he gets ahead in counts.

Newcomb checks in at 6-foot-5 and between 250 and 260 pounds – “The hot weather knocks it down sometimes,” he said of his weight – and has a real presence on the mound. He’s been overshadowed by some younger Braves, including phenom outfielder Ronald Acuna and top pitching prospect Mike Soroka, the two youngest current major leaguers. 

But Newcomb, at age 24 and after only 26 major league starts, is looking like a guy with the talent to become a middle- or top-of-rotation fixture for years to come.

After giving up five hits and six runs (five earned) with four walks in 4-1/3 innings of an April 2 loss to the Nationals in his season debut, including a three-run homer to Bryce Harper in the second inning, Newcomb has gone 3-0 with a 1.98 ERA in his past six starts. He’s posted a 1.10 WHIP, .200 opponents’ average and puny .560 opponents’ OPS in that stretch with 42 strikeouts, 14 walks and only two homers allowed in 36-1/3 innings.

He said he learned from his struggles as a rookie in 2017, when he was 4-9 with a 4.32 ERA and had 57 walks with 108 strikeouts in 100 innings.

“Last year I had some starts where I (learned) a lot out of things not going my way, just kind of taking a step back and looking at it afterward, seeing what I did wrong,” he said. “Other than that (fastball that Harper hit for a homer in his first start this season) I feel like I’ve been doing pretty well so far. So just keep focusing on what’s working for me and keep doing that.”

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