ANAHEIM, Calif. – The numbers don’t jump off the page, but make no mistake, the early stages of Kris Medlen’s Braves comeback tour have been successful and encouraging.
In his third minor-league rehab start and first for Double-A Missisippi on Tuesday, Medlen warmed up, waited through a 1 1/2-hour rain delay in Jackson, Tenn., before the first pitch, then worked 4 1/3 innings and gave up six hits and three runs, only one of which was earned.
He had four strikeouts and two walks, threw 52 strikes in 80 pitches and — most important — felt fine physically, as he had after his two starts in high Single-A.
“I’m encouraged with how my body felt after a rain delay, and was able to go out there and feel good,” said Medlen, 31, whose comeback has drawn much interest from fans who remember the boyish-faced California native as one of the most popular Braves players of the past decade. “Another step in the right direction in this process.”
Medlen, now a father of two, signed a minor-league contract with the Braves in January, reporting to their spring-training camp in mid-March and spending two months working to strengthen his arm and work on a different pitching delivery designed to reduce the stress on his arm.
The right-hander has a 3.45 ERA in three starts over 11 days including two with the high-A Florida Fire Frogs. In his first start May 20, he pitched six scoreless innings and allowed one hit and three walks with three strikeouts.
Medlen was charged with nine hits and five runs in 5 1/3 innings – all but one of the runs came in the sixth inning – in his second start for Florida, then moved up to Double-A. After joining the team in Pearl, Miss., last week, he took a bus ride with his much-younger teammates for a series in Jackson, Tenn., where he pitched Tuesday.
On Memorial Day, Medlen posted a video on his Instagram of top Braves pitching prospect Mike Soroka, who is Canadian, playing a rousing rendition of the United States national anthem during the bus ride, with Mississippi teammates crowded around him and one standing at attention, hand over heart.
“It just feels good to be part of a team again,” Medlen said, “no matter where it is.”
He was amused by the reaction of some teammates Tuesday when Medlen got a base hit batting left-handed, then laid down a sacrifice bunt batting right-handed in his third time up. For those who might’ve forgotten, he’s the extremely rare switch-hitting pitcher.
“I love the National League,” said Medlen, who missed not batting in the American League. “Some of the younger dudes (on the Mississippi team) said they thought I was messing around on deck (swinging right-handed).”
Medlen had a 41-25 record and 3.25 ERA in 173 games (75 starts) over five seasons with the Braves through 2013, and created a buzz around baseball in 2012 when he went 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA in 50 games including 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts after a midseason move to the rotation.
He had a $5.8 million contract for 2014 and was set to be a featured piece of the Braves rotation before again tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow during a 2014 spring training start, requiring Tommy John surgery and causing him to miss the entire season.
He left after that season when the Braves offered nothing comparable to the two-year, $8.5 million deal he got from Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore, a former Braves assistant GM who thought highly of Medlen and took a risk on him despite no guarantee he could make it back from a second Tommy John surgery.
After going 6-2 with a 4.01 ERA in 15 games (eight starts) for the Royals in 2015, Medlen twice was sidelined by shoulder woes in 2016 and went 1-3 with a 7.77 ERA in six major league starts. The Royals declined his 2017 option and he considered retirement last fall, but changed his mind after meeting with a biomechanics expert in New Orleans and becoming convinced that changing his delivery could reduce stress on his arm and allow him to pitch effectively again.
There is still work ahead and no guarantees, but Medlen is optimistic about returning to the majors and thankful the Braves have given him the opportunity.
“I’m guessing if it does happen, I’ll feel a lot like when I got called up for the first time,” Medlen said.
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