Sean Newcomb had the kind of auspicious major league debut that we always want to see from top pitching prospects, but rarely do.
The Braves’ big left-hander struck out the first two Mets batters looking at nasty breaking balls, the start of a most impressive showing — 6 1/3 innings, four hits, one unearned run — for a kid whose control issues in the minor leagues never surfaced in his first game on the bigger stage of SunTrust Park.
Yoenis Cespedes’ ninth-inning grand slam off reliever Luke Jackson turned a one-run deficit into a 6-1 loss for the Braves to start a day-night doubleheader, but Newcomb’s debut was nonetheless a rousing success.
“I’d say after the first at-bat — I got him, obviously — I was like, ‘All right, I belong here,’ and just kept going forward,” said Newcomb, who pitched with about 40 friends and family members in attendance.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Massachusetts native issued just two walks (one intentional) and collected seven strikeouts before leaving to a standing ovation in the seventh inning.
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“That was awesome,” he said of the applause from crowd of 27,684. (Click here for full postgame Q&A with Newcomb.)
Newcomb, who turns 24 on Monday, was called up from Triple-A after Bartolo Colon was placed on the 10-day disabled list following the latest in a string of dreadful performances by the 44-year-old pitcher.
“It was satisfying to watch,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who said a decision would be made in the next two or three days as to whether Newcomb stays in the rotation for another start — or perhaps a lot more. “I mean, he was outstanding. He was on the attack and threw a lot of strikes.
“I don’t know, that might have been his best outing as a pro. Maybe we had him in the wrong league.”
Newcomb was only the second Braves pitcher since the team moved to Atlanta to pitch as many as 6 1/3 innings in his debut without allowing an earned run.
“Hopefully that’s the first head of the next rotation coming in,” Braves catcher Tyler Flowers said. “We’ll be in a good spot.”
Coincidentally, the other time it was done was also in the first game of a doubleheader against the Mets — by Larry McWilliams in 1978.
“I couldn’t really have pictured it going any better than it did,” Newcomb said, “other than that one throw into center field.”
Indeed, his only costly off-target delivery was his throwing error to second base on Asdrubal Cabrera’s fielder’s choice grounder in the second inning, after the ball caromed off the end of Newcomb’s shoe and straight up into his glove.
“I didn’t even think I was going to get a glove on it; it hit my toe and up into my glove,” he said. “I was like, got it, and made a quick throw and I obviously threw it into center field. (Things) sped up a little bit.”
The error led to the unearned run on T.J. Rivera’s sacrifice fly. That provided a 1-0 lead for Mets starter Robert Gsellman (5-3), who pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings to win his third consecutive start.
They pushed the lead to 2-0 with an eighth-inning run against Jackson before Brandon Phillips hit a leadoff homer in the Braves’ eighth, the fourth home run of his first Braves season for the veteran second baseman from Stone Mountain.
The Braves had the potential tying and go-ahead runners on first and second base with one out in the eighth after an error and a Matt Adams single, but reliever Addison Reed struck out pinch-hitter Matt Kemp and induced an inning-ending ground out from Rio Ruiz to preserve the 2-1 lead.
The bottom fell out on Jackson in the ninth, when he hit a batter and gave up a double to Juan Lagares before intentionally walking Michael Conforto to bring up Cespedes with one out. The risky strategy backfired in the worst way — a homer to the left-field seats.
It was the fifth grand slam of Cespedes career and second in a row in Atlanta, where he hit one Sept. 11 at Turner Field.
The performance of Newcomb was no less impressive for the outcome. He fired 70 strikes in 96 pitches, relying primarily on 92-96 mph fastballs, a curveball that’s a “plus pitch” by major league standards, and an improving slider.
“Had electric stuff with his fastball and he was able to locate the curveball,” Adams said. “He did a good job.”
Twenty-one of his first 23 pitches were strikes, an encouraging sign after Newcomb issued 33 walks in 54 2/3 innings at Triple-A Gwinnett, including three or more walks in seven of 11 starts.
“He used his off-speed; very good curveball,” Flowers said. “His slider was a whole lot better than I remember it being (at spring training). I know that’s a newer pitch for him. We actually threw in a couple of change-ups, too, which is another pitch he’s working on.”
Veteran umpire Tom Hallion, long known for his animated strikeout calls, emphatically rang up the first two batters Newcomb faced on called third-strikes — curveball to Juan Lagares, slider to Conforto.
“That was cool,” Newcomb said, smiling. “A couple of pitches weren’t even where I was looking to throw them, but it still worked out. But that was cool.”
He didn’t throw a ball until an 0-1 pitch to No. 3 hitter Cespedes, who fouled off a couple of pitches before grounding out to end a 13-pitch perfect first inning.
Newcomb had a lot of walks in Triple-A but also had 74 strikeouts, and his repertoire generated not just whiffs against major league hitters, but also surprised looks from Mets who perhaps didn’t expect his breaking pitches to break as much as they did – or to be in or near the strike zone.
He had three perfect innings that included two strikeouts apiece.
“He has good life on his fastball,” Flowers said. “Curveball, he has the ability to throw for strikes and then for ‘chase-lates.’ That’s an important part of it, being able to throw it in there for strikes so that they have to honor it and respect it, then you get them to expand below the zone off of that.”
It was the fifth consecutive strong outing from a Braves starters, giving them a 1.32 ERA in the past five games, with just five earned runs and 23 hits allowed in 34 innings.
The streak began the day after Colon (2-7, majors-worst 7.78 ERA) gave up five extra-base hits and eight runs in 3 2/3 innings of an 11-4 loss to the Phillies. A day later Colon was placed on the 10-day DL with what the Braves called a left oblique strain.
After the way Newcomb pitched Saturday, it’ll be interesting to see if and when Colon starts again for the Braves.