LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When John Gant recently was asked about a preference for starting or relieving, the Braves prospect didn’t hesitate with his reply.
“I’m just here to pitch,” he said. “I’m just here to throw baseballs.”
He’s thrown them well this spring, so well that Gant has vaulted into strong consideration for the Braves’ opening-day roster as a long reliever or backup option for the starting rotation.
The Braves bumped Ryan Weber from a split-squad start Friday against the Tigers and replaced him with Gant, who they want to stretch out as a starter, just in case.
He responded by allowing one run, no hits and three walks with one strikeout in four innings before the game was rained out with the Braves ahead, 3-1, erasing the statistics. Gant had a 1.08 ERA with a .200 opponents’ average in four relief appearances before Friday, with one walk and five strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings.
The 23-year-old right-hander has been a starter in the minors and provides insurance now if Braves officials decide to give Mike Foltynewicz more time to build arm strength before putting him in the rotation. A former Mets prospect, Gant hasn’t pitched above Double-A and came to the Braves as part of a July trade for Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe.
Foltynewicz had September surgery to remove part of a rib after a serious blood-clot scare in his pitching arm and didn’t make his first spring-training appearance until March 17, though he’s been quite impressive.
Gant, too, has impressed, working 2 2/3 scoreless innings in each of his past two relief appearances before his first Grapefruit League start Friday, when several top Braves officials made the trip to Lakeland to see him pitch.
Foltynewicz had five strikeouts in 3 2/3 scoreless innings Tuesday against the Astros while consistently clocking 97 mph with his fastball. That greatly increased the optimism over his chances of being ready April 12, the seventh game of the season and first time the Braves would need a fifth starter.
However, if the Braves decide Foltynewicz would be better served making a rehab start or two after spring training, they could go with Gant for a couple of early starts. And if he were to pitch well in those games, Gant might them have a foot in the door to a possible long-term stay or return to the majors by summer.
Gant, a 6-foot-5 Savannah native, is known for a funky windup featuring what’s been described as an extra step or “false step” with his left foot midway through. Gant taps his toe as he steps toward the right side of the mound and then, as if it was a false start, moves backward and steps forward again, continuing an otherwise normal delivery. (Pitching from the stretch with runners on, he doesn’t have the extra step.)
Selected by the Mets in the 21st round of the 2011 June draft out of a Florida high school, Gant has compiled a 30-19 record and 3.24 ERA in 74 games (71 starts) in the minor leagues.
After being traded in July, he had one of the best stretches of his career, going 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA in seven starts at Double-A Mississippi, with 43 strikeouts and 14 walks in 40 2/3 innings.
“I was very comfortable,” Gant said of his transition and immediate success after the trade. “I expected to show up and be kind of the new guy who was sitting in the corner twiddling his thumbs. But everybody was so welcoming to me in Mississippi. I spent a week with those guys. When I got there, the next day we had to go on a road trip, a five-day road trip. And when we came back I felt like I’d been with them the whole season.”
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