WASHINGTON — From the independent league Sugar Land Skeeters to the big-league Braves in 10 months, it’s been quite a journey for left-hander Hunter Cervenka.
An eight-year minor league veteran released by the Triple-A Cubs in May 2015, Cervenka stood in the Braves clubhouse at Nationals Park on Monday, ready for his first major league game. He was called up from Double-A to give the Braves a second left-hander and help plug their leaky bullpen.
“It’s special,” Cervenka said. “It’s still not real yet.”
The Braves purchased the contracts of Cervenka from Double-A Mississippi and right-handed reliever Joel De La Cruz from Triple-A. The two spots were created when right-hander Jose Ramirez was designated for assignment and Dan Winkler on the disabled list after fracturing his elbow throwing a pitch in Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals.
Ramirez allowed five runs in one inning Sunday against the Cardinals and has a 15.83 ERA and .400 opponents’ average in 10 major league appearances for three teams since the beginning of the 2015 season.
De La Cruz allowed four hits and two runs in two innings of his only appearance at Triple-A Gwinnett and is expected to be sent back Tuesday when the Braves activate No. 5 starter Jhoulys Chacin.
For Cervenka, 26, there is an opportunity to stick around if he pitches well. Not bad, considering where he was less than a year ago, wondering about his future in baseball.
“That was a tough deal,” Cervenka said, “getting released and not throwing well, then waiting that long and finally getting an opportunity and it was in indy ball. It helped me grow a little bit more and figure out what type of pitcher I was.”
Cervenka pitched parts of eight seasons in the minor leagues without a major league call-up before this. Adding him gives the Braves two lefties in their bullpen and alleviates the need to rely so heavily on Eric O’Flaherty.
“To put the uniform on and go to a big-league stadium is something else,” Cervenka said. “There’s not many lefties here anymore. Unfortunate injuries (and other moves). But I’m just happy to get the call and finally be here, be where I feel like I deserve to be.
“I worked hard to get here. I signed in 2008. That’s been eight or nine years. It’s been a long road.”
Cervenka impressed in spring training, particularly in a few appearances when brought back over for Grapefruit League games after he was reassigned to minor league camp March 14.
He has a 4.56 ERA in 205 games (23 starts) in parts of eight minor league seasons, with 389 strikeouts and 253 walks in 383 innings. He’s allowed no earned runs in 23 2/3 innings in 19 appearances over two seasons with Braves affiliates, totaling 33 strikeouts and 10 walks.
That included 16 2/3 innings at Triple-A Gwinnett last season. He pitched three innings this season at Double-A Mississippi, allowing one hit and one walk with two strikeouts, before getting the call Sunday.
Cervenka is in major league uniform just 10 months after pitching for the Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters in the independent Atlantic League.
“Being told I was going back to Mississippi to start the year was a little disappointing,” he said, “but now it’s worked out for the best so far. I knew the organization was struggling with lefties. I wanted to take every opportunity I got and run with it, make the best of it that I could. Glad to be here.”
Winkler worked his way back from Tommy John surgery in 2014 and been arguably the Braves’ best reliever in spring training and the early season before reinjuring the surgically repaired elbow.
Braves relievers have blown leads in the late innings of four of five games in the team’s 0-5 start, and have allowed a majors-worst .423 opponents’ batting average.