If A.J. Pierzynksi played his final major league game Saturday, it was appropriate he had a big hand in the Braves’ 10-inning win against the Mets. The 39-year-old catcher made a significant and positive impact during two seasons in Atlanta.
Pierzynski was placed on the 15-day disabled list Sunday for the second time in a month, again for a left hamstring strain, and there’s a good chance he won’t play again.
It was already expected the 19-year veteran would retire at the end of the season, and now he’ll return to his home in Florida for two weeks to rehab and decide if he wants to be activated for the season’s final week.
“I don’t know what his deal’s going to be, but I hope he can stay around baseball, because I think he’s got a lot of things to teach,” Braves first-base coach Eddie Perez said. “I loved every moment that he was here, and I love A.J. You probably won’t hear that from many people, but I did. And you know why? Because he goes between the two lines and gives you everything to win games.”
Pierzynski, a two-time former All-Star, came to the Braves before the 2015 season with a reputation for being irascible, hot-headed and confrontational – with opponents, umpires and occasionally teammates. But with the Braves, he’s been a hard worker and a stern hand for a young pitching staff, still plenty fiery but with that emotion channeled in directions that helped the team on the field and off.
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“He helped our pitching staff, our kids,” Perez said. “Sometimes people think he was too hard on them; I don’t think so. I think he did great for us. He helped a lot of pitchers, he helped our coaching staff not to do things because he already did it. He told pitchers what to do. It was a great experience for us to have him.
“I think we learned a lot from him, and like I say, I hope he stays close, I hope he stays around so he can teach kids and teach everybody how to play this game.”
Braves pitcher Matt Wisler, who’ll turn 24 on Monday, has spent plenty of time with Pierzynski during Wisler’s first two seasons in the majors. He agreed that Pierzynski could be tough on young pitchers, but said his tough love was effective.
“My dad was hard on me growing up so I’m kind of used to it,” he said. “I don’t mind it, I think if somebody gets on me like that sometimes I kind of need it. Especially for me, because I kind of over-think, and when he gets on you I kind of forget about it and just go back to making pitches. He helped me in that regard. I think he’s good for young pitchers sometimes because you kind of need that kick in the butt to get yourself out of your rut.
“I wish A.J. nothing but the best. We’d talk sometimes, about pitching and about life. Sometimes just sit there and talk. Couple of times this year, like at Washington, we talked during that long game (last week). Couple of times throughout the year you’d sit down at the (dugout) railing and have a conversation.”
Pierzynski surpassed all expectations in 2015, batting .300 with nine homers and a .769 OPS in 436 plate appearances. He was so good on the field and in the clubhouse, the Braves re-signed him to another one-year contract for 2016 and planned to have him split the catching duties with Tyler Flowers.
But after seemingly defying the laws of aging at his position in 2015, Pierzynski suddenly looked like an over-the-hill catcher in 2016, batting .219 with two homers, 23 RBIs and a .547 OPS in 259 PAs over 81 games, all career lows for his 16 full seasons in the majors.
He’ll retire as one of the best-hitting catchers of his generation, and ranks in several offensive categories among the all-time leaders at his position. Pierzynski has a .280 career batting average with 407 doubles, 188 homers, 909 RBIs and a .739 OPS in 2,059 games for seven major league teams.
“He did a good job for us in those two years,” Perez said. “Even though he knew he didn’t have much left, he would give you everything. You could tell in (Friday’s) game, he sacrificed his body at home plate to get the out. That’s A.J.”
Pierzynski made his first start since Aug. 13 on Friday and helped the Braves to a 4-3 win. After Dansby Swanson led off the 10th inning with a single and advanced on a wild pitch, Pierzynski singled to advance the rookie to third base. Two outs later, Adonis Garcia hit a game-ending single for the win.
Pierzynski also made a big play at the plate in the eighth inning, tagging out Wilmer Flores trying to score from second base on T.J. Rivera’s two-out single with the score tied. Nick Markakis made a strong throw from right field and Pierzynski caught it and shifted over to tag Flores, who was knocked out of the game after sliding into Pierzynski’s shin guard.
Neither the Braves nor Pierzynski had mentioned anything beforehand about the game being his last, but speculation grew quickly due to several developments in the final moments of the game and the immediate aftermath. First, there was Major League Baseball representative near the dugout to authenticate the ball after Pierzynski’s 10th-inning single, something that obviously had to be set up beforehand by the Braves.
Then, teammates dumped a bucket of ice water on Pierzysnki and took turns hugging the 39-year-old catcher on the field and in the dugout after Garcia’s game-winning hit. Pierznski’s son, Austin, came on the field to celebrate with him.
The Braves had no announcement about Pierzynski after the game, and the catcher was coy in responses to questions regarding his seemingly imminent retirement and whether the game had been his last.
“I don’t know the answer to that question,” he said. “It’s been discussed obviously, but I don’t know. I just hadn’t played in a while. Couple of big plays and a hit, guys were happy and glad we won, but as far as me, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring, but if that’s it, then it was fun.”
Pierzynski was not in the Braves clubhouse Sunday when the disabled-list announcement was made.