PHILADELPHIA – When Michael Kohn and John Cornely worked out together during the offseason a couple of years ago in Mount Pleasant, S.C., the two relief pitchers never could have imagined being called up to the majors on the same day by the Braves.
But it happened. The right-handed relievers had their contracts purchased from Triple-A Gwinnett late Thursday and flew to Philadelphia on Friday, joining the Braves for their series opener against the Phillies. They replaced Sugar Ray Marimon and Brandon Cunniff, who were each optioned to Gwinnett.
It’s the first major league callup for Cornely, and for Kohn, a former Angels pitcher, it’s the first time pitching for the team he grew up dreaming about playing for.
They were notified late Wednesday by Gwinnett manager Brian Snitker, after the Triple-A team’s bus ride from Norfolk, Va., to Durham, N.C.
“I was just getting out of the bus, like waking up almost,” Cornely said, “and our skip, Snitker, says, ‘Hey, man, I’ve got some good news.’ I said, OK. I had no idea what it was going to be. And he said, ‘They just called me and said they’re making some moves, they want to see what you can do.’ I said, that’s some great news, it’s not just good news. So it was a good night.
“ I didn’t sleep much. Just excited. Hopped on the flight. Luckily I had Michael to kind of show me the ropes a little bit, so that was nice. Otherwise I don’t know how I would have gotten in the stadium.”
Both pitchers were uniform in the visitors’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank park 3 1/3 hours before Friday night’s game.
Cornely was asked about his initial impressions of the big leagues.
“It took me almost 26 years of working, so I’d say it’s paid off, and it’s awesome,” said Cornely, the first former Wofford College player to reach the major leagues since another right-handed reliever, John Boozer, who played from 1962-1969.
Coincidentally, Boozer spent his entire career with the Phillies.
“I carry a lot of Wofford pride,” said Cornely said.
Kohn grew up in Camden, S.C., hoping someday to play for the Braves. But he got drafted by and was developed by the Angels, and he already had some major league time with the Angels when he worked out for all of an offseason with Cornely, a Mount Pleasant native who was a fringe prospect and Single-A pitcher in the Braves organization that offseason at the time.
Mount Pleasant is a suburb of Charleston, where Kohn has lived for the past 10 years. Hard-throwing Kohn signed a minor league contract with the Braves this winter after posting a 3.04 ERA in 25 appearances last season for the Angels, with 26 strikeouts and only one homer allowed in 23 2/3 innings — all before being optioned to Triple-A on June 3.
“Down in spring training was awesome, being able to put the Braves uniform on,” Kohn said. “But to actually live it out now and to be on the field in a major league game in a Braves uniform, is something that I dreamed about as a kid. To do that now is definitely a dream come true.”
He had a 3.67 ERA in 126 appearances in parts of four seasons with the Angels, with 107 strikeouts and 73 walks in 110 1/3 innings. Kohn made a career-high 63 appearances for the Angels in 2013 after missing the 2012 season recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery.
His issue, as it’s been throughout his career, was control. He walked 20 batters to go with those 25 strikeouts last season in the majors, which explains a .327 opponents’ on-base percentage despite a stingy .141 batting average allowed in 2014.
After coming to Braves spring training as a leading candidate for a spot in the opening-day bullpen, Kohn was a little too erratic with his command and was sent to Gwinnett to begin the season. The Braves wanted him to cut down on the walks and also pitch multiple innings, something new for him. He handled both requests to their satisfaction.
Kohn had 10 strikeouts with two walks in 8 1/3 innings over five appearances at Gwinnett, with a 4.32 ERA and 1.080 WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitched).
“Keep the walks down and just throw strikes,” he said of his time at Gwinnett. “Throwing multiple innings is something that I had never (previously) done, but since I’ve been in Triple-A I’ve done it every time, and it’s been going well. After the first couple of times you kind of get used to sitting down, warming back up. The last two outings have been very good.”
Being hard-throwing, right-handed relievers from the same part of South Carolina isn’t all the two had in common. Cornely’s problem area also been too many walks, and he made significant progress at Gwinnett this season.
Cornely had a 1.04 ERA and puny 0.692 WHIP with 12 strikeouts and just one walk in 8 1/3 IP during five appearances at Gwinnett. A 15th-round pick out of Wofford in 2011, Cornely will turn 26 next month. It’s taken a while, but something clicked for him in regards to learning to pitch more than merely trying to blow away hitters.
“I haven’t been throwing as hard, I’ve just been getting the ball over the plate,” he said. “It took me a while, but eventually you figure out that you can get outs doing that.”
When asked if any specific incident or instructor had gotten through to him, Cornely said, “It just sunk in. I had heard it probably 30 different ways 30 different times. The 30th time’s the charm. So…I got lucky.”
Cornely has 297 strikeouts with 116 walks in 219 2/3 innings during 151 relief appearances over parts of five minor league seasons, with 27 saves, a 17-8 record and a 2.75 ERA. He had 11 saves and 70 strikeouts in 50 2/3 innings at high-A Lynchburg in 2013, and a 2.49 ERA and seven saves in 46 appearances at Double-A Mississippi in 2014.
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