English, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamentu. Jeopardy answer: What are the languages Braves pitcher Jair Jurrjens absorbed while growing up in the cultural stew of Curacao?
Two words, though, fit any tongue; two words that, when combined, require no translation wherever a dialect of baseball is spoken.
Having attached themselves to Jurrjens for the first time, those two little words carry great heft. They signal to fans here that he officially has joined a royal line of Braves starters. Jurrjens will pack up his 12-3 record and his major-league best 1.87 ERA and head to Arizona for Tuesday’s All-Star game. In the desert, he’ll represent a franchise grown haughty the last two decades on the deeds of its starting staff.
At 25, he is the same age as Tom Glavine when he threw his first pitch in the All-Star game, one year older than John Smoltz and a year younger than Greg Maddux. Jurrjens is right on schedule.
And he wafts into Phoenix like a Caribbean breeze, having won his past four starts by a combined score of 27-4 on a team that otherwise has trademarked the white-knuckle close game.
For those on his island home — to find Curacao on a map look just off the northern coast of Venezuela — his new status means the citizenry has reason to pay attention again to a major league exhibition. Not since Andruw Jones had his last All-Star at-bat in 2005 has the Willemstad metropolitan area had one of its own in the game. And never before a pitcher.
Now, as Jones navigates the downhill slope of his career, Curacao baseball has a new face.
Not a distinction Jurrjens really sought, but one that is being bestowed by island consensus. “Right now, I think [Curacao’s Mr. Baseball] is my son, yeah,” his father, Carl, said last week from the family home on the island. “Everybody, when they meet me on the street, they talk about Jair. They love to see him pitch.”
“I try to represent the island as much as I can, try to show the world we have a lot of talent back home,” Jair said. “Andruw Jones did a lot of good stuff and opened the door for me. I’m trying to follow that and trying to open more doors for young kids.”
Among those watching him Tuesday from afar will be the players on the under-19 team Marchena, based in an area near the family home. They wear uniforms bought by Jurrjens and are, naturally, called the Marchena Braves.
As he does every other outing, Jurrjens will wear his connections to his home country Tuesday night. You just have to know where to look.
Peeking out from beneath the All-Star jersey probably will be some sort of shell or coral necklace, if his sister Charlotte comes through with a replacement for the one that broke last week.
Somehow, he managed without his tropical talisman in his most recent start, giving up one run in six innings to Colorado. But he doesn’t want to press his luck against a stacked American League lineup.
The names of all the roughly 145,000 inhabitants of his country won’t fit, so beneath the bill of his All-Star cap, he’ll write those of his parents and his older brother and sister. And as he does at the beginning of every game, he’ll lift his lid and glance ever so subtly at those names as he makes his walk to the mound.
“That reminds me who I’m doing this for. It makes me really focus,” he said.
One Jurrjens in particular has always inspired him, and a good portion of this first All-Star experience will be dedicated to him.
Jair grew up watching his older brother, Carl Jr., play ball. Big brother was his blueprint to the bigs, and, fittingly, he will be joining his father and sister in Arizona to take in the Jair’s big moment first-hand.
“Carl Jr. had a better arm as a pitcher when they were young because Jair was a third baseman then,” Fermin Coronel, a part-time major league scout and long-time coach on the island, said.
But, Carl Jr. is hearing impaired, and “scouts were scared to sign him because they didn’t know how they were going to talk to him,” Jair said.
“In a way, I’m living his dream. You don’t have a lot of big brothers looking up to a younger brother. I think that’s special, and I try to cherish it.”
When in Curacao during the offseason, Jurrjens finds himself the subject of a familiar joke on the streets. “They say, ‘When you’re pitching, the roads are quiet because everyone is in watching the game.’ They say all the wives love me because that’s the only day the husbands are home,” he laughed.
There might be a few other folks closer to Atlanta watching Tuesday with some vested interest as well.
The arrival of another All-Star starter has come just in time for a team trying to match the formidable hand-picked staff in Philadelphia.
Frank Wren announced his presence with authority just 18 days after his 2007 promotion to general manager when he traded shortstop Edgar Renteria for Jurrjens and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. In Jurrjens, Wren found a young arm he could plug immediately into a starting role. What Wren’s scouting reports couldn’t tell him was how Jurrjens would mature into a technician.
His velocity is not what it was just a couple of seasons ago and yet here he is having his most effective season. Wednesday’s start against Colorado was typical enough. His first two innings, Jurrjens did not venture into the 90s, according to the Turner Field radar gun. He topped out at 92 mph in the middle innings. Yet the Rockies never seemed to get comfortable at the plate.
Jurrjens got himself a new toy when he borrowed Jonny Venters’ variation on the two seam fastball grip, lending that pitch a nasty downward bite. He’s also confident enough to pitch more to contact, trading the strikeout for the often more efficient ground out. The one stat he hasn’t improved upon in the first half of 2011 is strikeouts per nine innings, his 5.29 this year is down from the 6.38 of the previous three seasons. That tells the story of a pitcher coming to rely upon guile as much as power.
“This year has been a really big stride for him,” teammate Tim Hudson said. “This is the year he hasn’t had his best fastball all year, but what he’s done is he has learned to pitch. He’s locating things well. He’s mixing it up. He’s understanding hitters.
“It’s really, really impressive. It’s fun to watch. He has carved ’em up, man.”
Wren chirped: “He has done a good job of figuring out who he is.”
What has made this season all the more rewarding was the aggravation that preceded it. The momentum of Jurrjens’ two prior seasons with the Braves came to a jarring halt in 2010. He never was quite healthy, his season ultimately ending in mid-September with a torn meniscus in his right knee. And it took a good part of that year to adjust to the trade of his close friend and mentor Javier Vazquez to the Yankees. “The guys here always used to make fun of us, calling [Vazquez] my dad,” Jurrjens said.
Having started 2011 on the disabled list with one of those infamous oblique injuries, Jurrjens nonetheless left the mound Wednesday night leading the Braves in innings pitched. Last season proved to him, he said, the need to take his body less for granted and to begin a more rigorous stretching program in addition to his conditioning.
And, now, instead of looking for a teammate to lean on, Jurrjens is acting as a voice of experience, particularly with rookie starter Brandon Beachy. Whenever he comes out of a game, it’s always Jurrgens who sidles up next to the 24-year-old first in the dugout, often bearing a familiar message.
“I always feel like he is trying to impress us too much, not really having fun,” said Jurrjens of the hyper self-critical rookie. “I tell him have fun; you don’t need to try to impress anybody; be you; throw your game.”
Here in the Big Arm Era, where pitchers are the apex predators, Jurrjens is stating a case to be included among the most dangerous of his kind.
His pitching coach is cautious in such assessments. “We’re still in July,” said Roger McDowell. “When we talk about any pitcher, we wait and see where we’re at at the end of a year. Let’s see if he maintains the dedication he has had to his conditioning and all the things he does between starts.”
This week no one can dispute, in any language, his place among the elite, because Jurrjens is an All-Star.
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