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Simmons shines in Braves debut hours after arriving from Double-A

MIAMI – When Double-A Mississippi Braves manager Aaron Holbert told his team after it swept a doubleheader Friday that reliever Shae Simmons had been called to the majors, Simmons was so surprised he asked Holbert if he was messing around.

“At the end of his speech about the series he said, ‘and Simmons is going to the big leagues,’” Simmons said. “I didn’t know what to say after that. I was kind of like, are you being serious? He was like, ‘Seriously.’”

He has been so dominant this season, Braves officials saw no point in the hard-throwing right-hander making a stop at Triple-A, especially since they were looking for another power arm to help get leads to closer Craig Kimbrel.

And so, Simmons caught a 6 a.m. flight Saturday from Jackson, Miss., to Atlanta, and another to Miami, and was at Marlins Park in time to work out with the rest of the pitching staff before a 4:10 p.m. game against the Marlins.

And a few hours later, he was thrust into a highly pressurized situation — two on, two out in the eighth inning with a one-run lead — and recorded what was the biggest out of the game to that point, striking out Jarrod Saltalamacchia to get the Braves out of the inning in a game they would go on to win 9-5.

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“I’m sure he’s tired, I’m sure he didn’t sleep much last night,” said Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, who entered the game in the ninth with two runners on and recorded is 154th career save to tie John Smoltz’s franchise record. “That was big for (Simmons) to come in in that situation, one-run ballgame, tying run and winning run on base. That’s great to see. I’m happy for him and glad he could come in here and show his presence on the first day.”

Simmons said it’s a moment he would remember for a long time.

“Oh, yeah. La Stella and I were talking about it,” he said, referring to Braves rookie Tommy La Stella, who singled in his major league debut Wednesday at Boston. “And the first hit he got was off (John) Lackey. Both guys (Lackey and Saltalamacchia) that have been around for a while, household names.”

Simmons, 23, converted all 14 save opportunities at Mississippi while posting a 0.78 ERA with 30 strikeouts and six walks in 23 innings (20 appearances). He features a 95-98 mph fastball and hard slider, and opponents hit .183 against him this season including .163 by right-handed batters.

“Saw him in spring training,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who had recent discussions with general manager Frank Wren and pitching coach Roger McDowell about adding Simmons to the major league bullpen. “We’ve been talking six or seven days about trying to bridge that gap to the eighth inning or ninth inning, getting an arm down there that could do that for us, whether it was righty or lefty, and this kid’s been pitching really well.

“The numbers that really stand out are the strikeouts to the walks and innings pitched. That’s all good, good signs. And we’ll see what we’ve got. He’s not a young kid. So let’s give him an opportunity do it.”

Left-hander Ian Thomas was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett to open a spot on the major league team, and Gwinnett reliever Wirfin Obispo was designated for assignment to create a spot on the 40-man roster. Obispo had a 4.66 ERA in 19 appearances and issued 12 walks in 19 1/3 innings.

Veteran setup man Jordan Walden sis on the 15-day DL recovering from a hamstring strain and not expected back for at least another week. Even after Walden returns, the Braves might keep Simmons on the major league team if he performs like they believe he can.

The 23-year-old Missouri native has drawn comparisons to Craig Kimbrel and Billy Wagner due to his velocity and undersized frame. In three minor league seasons he has 40 saves and a 1.43 ERA in 86 appearances, all but one as a reliever. Simmons has 148 strikeouts with 44 walks in 101 innings and has not allowed a home run.

He’s excelled this year much as he did in 2013, when he spent most of the season at low Class-A Rome and had 24 saves, a 1.49 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings to earn a late-season promotion to Double-A.

Listed at 5 feet 11, Simmons’ size contributed to his being passed over until the Braves selected him in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft out of Southeast Missouri State.

“Yeah. I didn’t figure I’d be drafted too high,” Simmons said. “I mean, I had decent velocity in college, but my arm was kind of dragging throughout that season, and my first year of pro ball it was bothering me a little bit. Then after that I rehabbed that offseason, before my first minor league spring training, and it felt better, and I just felt like I got stronger and just kept progressing with my abilities. And there was a lot of coaching that just helped me really just slow everything down and be true with myself and know what I’m capable of doing.”

It’s taken him less than two years to get from the 22nd round to the major leagues, which even the confident Simmons said is more than he could have initially hoped for.

“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “I feel very fortunate, just blessed for the opportunity that God’s given me and the Braves have given me.”

Although Simmons was surprised the call to the big leagues happened this early in the season, he said Alex Wood’s rise from Double-A to the majors in 2013, less than a year after being drafted out of the University of Georgia, had given Simmons reason to believe it was possible.

Simmons made a good impression with Braves officials and the major league coaching staff during a stint in big-league camp during spring training, although he also draw attention from curious onlookers when he was seen riding a pink children’s bicycle to workouts each morning.

That was part of his good-natured “punishment” from veteran Braves after he was spotted hitching a ride on one of golf carts driven by clubhouse attendants, a perk that is reserved for established major leaguers. The Braves were impressed with how well Simmons handled that potentially embarrassing situation and everything else in camp.

“To his credit, he took it great,” Gonzalez said. “He took the punishment and smiled and kept going, where you see some guys go the other way and get (ticked) off and not want to do it, and all of a sudden it becomes even more of a distraction. But he took it really, really well. I remember talking to him about that, I said, ‘Hey, just wear it for a couple of days. Somebody else will screw up and then they’ll get on him and they’ll leave you alone.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”

Asked Saturday about the pink bike, Simmons smiled sheepishly.

“I mean, I know I looked kind of silly on it,” he said. “But don’t tell anybody, it was kind of nice having a ride from field to field.”

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