Tough task: Braves’ Banuelos to debut vs. Nats’ Scherzer

Having spent most of the past decade in the American League, Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski heard plenty about former Yankees top prospect Manny Banuelos before this spring, when the veteran catcher and the rookie pitcher became teammates in the Grapefruit League.

Banuelos will make his major league debut Thursday for the Braves with a start against the rival Nationals and ace Max Scherzer. The Braves confirmed it late Wednesday, opening a roster spot by optioning reliever Ryan Kelly back to Triple-A Gwinnett.

“I heard about him with the Yankees for a long time,” Pierzynski said of Banuelos, a consensus top-30 prospect in 2011 and 2012, before missing the 2013 season recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery. “But after seeing him in spring — I know he’s coming back from some injuries — he’s got good stuff. I thought he had good life (on pitches). I know he competes, which is the biggest thing. Throws strikes. He’s left-handed. Those are three pretty big positives.”

Banuelos is 6-2 with a 2.29 ERA and .215 opponents’ average in 15 starts at Gwinnett, with 69 strikeouts, 38 walks and two homers allowed in 82 2/3 innings. He will temporarily fill the rotation spot of Williams Perez, who is on the 15-day disabled list with a bruised foot.

It’s a formidable task for a kid in his debut, facing the surging Nationals and Scherzer, who threw a 10-strikeout no-hitter on June 20 against Pittsburgh and a 16-strikeout one-hitter June 14 at Milwaukee.

“Bobby (Cox) told me one day, sometimes you feel like you’re going to lose a game that you win,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “A crazy matchup like the one tomorrow, the possibility of a young starter against Scherzer. But you win that game, and then the other way around – you’ve got Scherzer pitching for you against a young pitcher, and you lose. That’s baseball.

“You’ve got to play the game and execute.”

Banuelos was dominant in a two-hit shutout June 22 against Indianapolis, with five strikeouts and no walks in a season-high 101 pitches. That was the 10th start of an impressive stretch in which he posted a 1.21 ERA and .200 opponents’ average, with 50 strikeouts, 24 walks and only one homer allowed in 59 1/3 innings.

Saturday at Pawtucket, that streak ended when he allowed four hits, three runs and four walks in three innings, his briefest start of the season.

The Braves got Banuelos in a Jan. 1 trade for relievers David Carpenter and lefty Chasen Shreve. Last year was Banauelos’ first full season coming off TJ surgery, and the Yankees were unusually cautious with him, limiting him to a few inning per start for most of the season and only 76 1/3 total innings.

He’s already surpassed that innings total this season, and the Braves are expected to limit his innings to 120-130. Because of that limit, there have been discussions about having Banuelos make a start or two in place of Perez, then moving to the bullpen.

“I know he had a chance to make our team out of spring,” Pierzynski said. “It didn’t work out because of the numbers game, but I know he’s done really well down at Gwinnett, so I’m looking forward to seeing him tomorrow.”