Dan Winkler’s season didn’t begin as he hoped, but the late start has provided optimism that he’ll again be a pivotal piece of the Braves’ bullpen.
Winkler, 29, opened the season at Triple-A Gwinnett because of a baseball quirk: He had options remaining, whereas several other members of the bullpen, including Luke Jackson and Jesse Biddle, did not. The Braves could store him in the minors without risking losing him.
He returned in mid-April, since tossing five scoreless appearances. He’s allowed two hits, striking out six and walking three in 4-1/3 innings. He recorded his first hold Wednesday in a win over the Reds.
“I worked on some things, got my confidence,” Winkler said of his minor-league stint. “I’m just doing my job. When the phone rings, I’m ready. This bullpen has great talent. I wanted to be part of it.
“It was hard not being up here. That fueled a little bit of a fire. But I felt like I was in big situations last year and I want to be in those situations, help us get to the playoffs. I’m just doing my job, trying to throw strikes and get outs.”
Winkler explained in spring training that last season’s disappointing end served as his offseason motivation. After a scoreless August, Winkler fell apart in September – so much so that the team left him off its postseason roster.
It spoiled a breakout season. Winkler appeared in 69 games, earning a 3.43 ERA and striking out 69. That was overshadowed by September, when he allowed nine runs in nine appearances.
Which is what made missing the cut for opening day that much more difficult, even though Winkler was aware of the circumstances.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It hurts your confidence at first. But I want to be up here and be in those big situations. I want to help this team win. That’s a big thing for me. Taking it off myself and more on the team, doing what I can to help us win.”
With Arodys Vizcaino down for the season, Winkler becomes all the more important. He has a full season under his belt. He’s pitched in the intense situations. As the Braves shuffle pitchers between the majors and minors, they’ll still need a consistent presence.
Perhaps a fully operational Winkler is just that. He’s already making a difference: His debut came with the bases loaded, when he struck out Arizona’s Christian Walker to escape. His 23 holds led the team last season, and a duplicate performance would be welcomed.
“He had a good year last year,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He was a big part of what he did. I’ve told these guys, until you amass a long baseball card, you have to judge in spring a little bit. I hate guys losing their job in spring training, but with a pitcher, you do have to look at stuff. And at the time we left spring training, the stuff wasn’t where it was last year. It’s trending up now. He’s experienced the high-leverage, and he’ll be big for our bullpen if we can get him back to where he was a year ago.”
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