When public-relations staffers passed out voting sheets for National League reliever of the month in August, Dan Winker had one of the more impressive cases.
He’d appeared in 13 games, allowing no runs and holding opponents to a .163 average, his second-lowest month total of a breakout season. Winkler didn’t win the honor (that went to Hector Neris of the Phillies), but it was perhaps the peak of his ascension into becoming a valuable bullpen cog for the up-and-coming Braves.
The rest of his season was a dud. He allowed nine runs in nine appearances in September. He walked a month-high six hitters and struck out a month-low two. So the man who played such an important part in helping the Braves to the playoffs was left off the postseason roster.
“That’s what drove me all offseason,” Winkler said. “Every morning when I woke up, that’s what I thought of. Every last rep I didn’t want to do, that’s what I thought of. That’s what pushed me all offseason.”
Winkler worked out four days a week. He’s put on eight-to-10 pounds after dropping weight during the season. He’s in great shape, he said, though he spared the clichés.
His offseason musing wasn’t just lip service. Winkler made it back from Tommy John surgery and a broken elbow to finally have the year for which he waited. He’s 29, but in many ways that was a rookie season. It was his first time as a full-time reliever (Winkler came up a starter). It also was his first time enduring the sport’s grueling regular season.
“I think I just lost it mentally,” he said. “It was a grind - 162 games is a lot to take on mentally. Maybe physically I could’ve done more things during the season just to help me.”
Winkler would love to be part of the Braves’ closer-by-committee, though he’s trusting manager Brian Snitker will put him in the right spots. He appeared in 69 games during his quasi-rookie year. When asked if a strenuous workload influenced his final month’s showing, he deflected that proposition.
He had no qualms with his usage, even with the two major surgeries in the background. If it were up to him he would have pitched even more. His mindset is a microcosm of the Braves’ reliever corps.
“I want to be in that situation,” Winkler said. “I want to throw every night. I told Snit that when I’m walking from the bullpen and I don’t get to throw, I’m disappointed. I want to be in every game. I want to compete.
“I missed too many games, too many years to not be in the game pitching in that situation.”
The Braves have more MLB-ready pitching depth than a season ago. Winkler and most other relievers have options remaining, meaning the team could flip them between the majors and minors while trying to maximize its glut of arms.
In other words, Winkler shouldn’t be relied upon so heavily this time around. He himself referred to the group as “phenomenal,” which is another recurring thought among the relievers (even if outsiders are skeptical).
Last season was a monumental steppingstone in his career, but the most lasting memory Winkler has was watching the Braves and Dodgers square off with him sidelined. The Braves didn’t have much choice; they needed fresher arms. Winkler, Carle and Sam Freeman, each of whom provided valuable innings through the 90-win season, were spectators at the most important time.
“I had such a good year going before that (September),” Winkler said. “Just not helping the team as much as I wanted to in September and not making the playoff roster was very disappointing to me. … And I think that’s one of the reasons I’m in the best shape I’ve been in in a long time. I think that’s going to push me through the season.
“I think I’ve got to learn from it. I’ve learned the most from failures in my career and in life. I’m just going to learn from that September that I had.”
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