In the aftermath of Jason Grilli’s season-ending Achilles injury Saturday, veteran Jim Johnson will take over closer duties for the Braves, at least for as long as Johnson is with the team.
There have been persistent trade rumors involving Braves veterans including Grilli and Johnson, and the latter could be even more valuable as a potential trade chip now that the Grilli injury reduces the number of proven closers and/or setup men available on the trade market.
Johnson, 32, is a former All-Star closer who had consecutive 50-save seasons for the Orioles in 2012 and 2013. The hard-throwing sinkerballer had a 2.09 ERA and five saves in 44 appearances before Sunday, with 31 strikeout and 14 walks in 43 innings.
“He’s been pitching really well for us, and he’s got the experience, so you replace (Grill) with J.J., you feel good,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, adding that the tougher issue would be filling the primary setup role.
“Getting the ball to J.J.,” he said. “Before, our starters had to go seven innings, we felt comfortable with J.J. and Grilli (in the eighth and ninth). But now, we’ve got another inning that we have to fill. I really like the way (rookie Arodys) Vizcaino is throwing the ball lately. I think there’s opportunity, we’ve got (left-hander Andrew) McKirahan coming back just on the other side of the All-Star break, so you feel good about that. And then some of the guys that are here – (David) Aardsma, Avi (Luis Avilan). Some of the guys are going to have to contribute.”
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Vizcaino and his 100-mph fastball could be a closer candidate in the not-too-distant future.
Johnson isn’t concerned about trade rumors, only about trying to help pick up the slack now with his friend Grilli is down. The two of them were the veteran leaders of the Braves bullpen, with Johnson serving as primary setup man and backup closer until now.
“Everybody’s got to pitch in,” Johnson said. “It’s been a lot of guys in and out this year, especially in the bullpen. Guys just have to pitch and do what they can to help the team. Got to get all 25 guys pulling in the same direction.”
With Grilli not in the bullpen, it will likely fall on Johnson to assume even more of a leadership role.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “Being one of the last guys standing now, the responsibility’s on me. And that’s fine. I’ll do whatI can to help the guys and try to … you can either fall apart or you can rally together. There’s two ways to look at it. Nobody’s going to fill sorry for us. We still have to go out and win games. Unfortunately that’s not going to be with Jason. But the best thing we can do is just try to do what we can, our part, to win games.”
Johnson and Avilan were in the clubhouse watching on TV Saturday when Grilli crumpled to the ground, clutching his lower leg.
“It’s really tough,” Avilan said. “First of all, because other than being a really good pitcher, he’s a really nice guy. Especially in the bullpen, he talked to you a lot. And the second part is, he was having a really good season. He was a solid piece in our bullpen. It’s really tough to lose a guy like that.
“Him and Jim Johnson have made a nice impact on the young guys in the bullpen. They’ve been teaching a lot of stuff, they talk to us a lot. They’re really nice guys. It’s really, really tough when you lose a guy like that.”
Johnson said, “It was heartbreaking to watch. Obviously Jason is a big part of this team. Watching him go down is just devastating.”
And so, Johnson is suddenly thrust into the closer role, much as Grilli was after the Braves traded Kimbrel on the eve of opening day. Grilli converted 23 of 25 saves and served as the vocal leader, steadfastly supporting other relievers and defending them at times when the bullpen drew criticism from media members.
Gonzalez said he has encouraged Grilli to remain with the team as much as possible the rest of the season.
“You hate to have any of your players hurt, and to watch him get hurt that way really takes a lot out of you,” Gonzalez said. “Almost like Huddy (former Braves pitcher Tim Hudson), when Huddy got hurt (covering) first base. They’re tough injuries. For a guy to go down like that, it takes a lot out of you, saps energy — for a team, too, I think. He’s really, really well like and respected. Same thing as Huddy….
“He’s meant a lot to us since Day 1, the way he carries himself, the way he goes about his business. He gets the young pitchers together all the time, talking baseball. He’s a mentor to the young pitchers, and he was real valuable to us.”
Grilli posted a 2.94 ERA and .217 opponents’ average in 36 appearances, with 45 strikeouts and 10 walks in 33 2/3 innings. He had been perfect in five appearances in July, striking out nine of 15 batters faced before Saturday, when Drew Stubbs, the first and only batter he would face, was credited with an infield single after Grilli collapsed in agony before he could get to the base to take a throw from first baseman Chris Johnson.