Touki Toussaint ready to win spot in Braves’ rotation

The Braves are hosting a pitchers’ free-for-all to determine their lone open rotation spot. The front-runner, in most eyes, is electric righty Touki Toussaint.

But that contest isn’t on the 22-year-old’s mind. Just ask him.

“Not at all,” Toussaint said. “Honestly, you just never know what’s going to happen. … I’m still a rookie. I think you don’t get comfortable until (you’re set on the roster).”

Toussaint started the Braves’ spring training opener Saturday in Port St. Lucie against the Mets. He went his scheduled two innings, retiring the first four hitters before taking a ball off the foot, then serving up a two-run homer to slugger Pete Alonso in an eventual 4-3 loss.

“I feel like I executed that pitch and he went down and got it,” Toussaint said, while adding it’s the hardest hit he’s allowed in his life. “That’s baseball. I feel like I threw it where I wanted it.”

His first inning was impressive. Toussaint came out aggressively with 11 strikes in 14 pitches. He struck out Jeff McNeil, induced a weak comebacker from Juan Lagares and avoided damage when Robinson Cano’s deep fly to left fell short of the wall.

The second inning wasn’t as smooth. J.D. Davis hit a sharp grounder that bounced off Toussaint’s foot and opposite leg. Alonso demolished a center strike over the center-field wall before Toussaint ended the inning with a pair of grounders.

“It felt good,” he said. “I tried to do too much on some of them. … I just have to keep trying to build. Throw my fastball where I want it. That’s my biggest downfall, I keep saying, that’s really important to me and I want to get that down. Work on other things after that.”

In just seven games a season ago, Toussaint tantalized as a starter and reliever, boosting his status as one of the Braves’ best pitching prospects. He pitched six innings, allowing one run, in his debut win over the Marlins. Weeks later, he held his own against the potent Red Sox for four innings before their bats finally did him in.

Toussaint made the postseason roster. Rather than a youngster learning his way, the Braves viewed him as a positive asset. He’s a weapon as a starter or reliever. His curveball – on full display Saturday – is vicious. He was already thought to have vast upside, but he pushed beyond expectations.

His stint as a reliever offered a new challenge. He invoked bullpen coach Marty Reed’s words of wisdom: As a starter, you have to out-pitch everyone. As a bullpen guy, you have to out-stuff everyone.

“That didn’t really make sense to me because I went out against Washington (on Sept. 15) and gave up three runs (as a reliever),” Toussaint said. “I was in the dugout like, ‘OK, I have another inning.’ But then (former pitching coach) Chuck (Hernandez) came over and said it was over.

“So you just have to settle down and go get those three outs as fast as you can. As a starter, you give up those three runs and you go five or six innings, then you did a good job that day. But as a bullpen guy, you give up three runs, that’s a bad day.”

Toussaint’s maturation has been noticeable. He’s adapting to life in the majors. He’s always been a devoted worker, but now he knows where to apply his energy. His confidence is evident, but not overbearing. His teammates and coaches love his contagious charisma.

“He’s an engaging kid,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s an interesting young man to talk to. I love talking to him. He’s just a really cool kid.

“He’s starting to figure it out. He’s starting to get it. You just never know. You keep running those guys out all the time and keep letting them pitch, letting them play, eventually they figure it out.”

Toussaint entered spring an early favorite to make the rotation, and with Mike Soroka experiencing another setback with his shoulder, Toussaint is the driver’s seat. He’s competing against lefties Max Fried and Luiz Gohara, among others, to lock down a starter spot.

And while he won’t acknowledge thinking about it, Toussaint wants to take the ball every fifth day. He’s well-aware it will require an “A” performance every outing to secure it.

“I think all of us want to be a starter, but at the end of the day, there’s only five starters,” he said. “You have to be on your best game every day or someone’s going to pass you up. It’s a special group. Yeah, if I was on another team maybe I’d be the fifth starter, but nobody knows. It’s not going to be given to you. You have to earn it. I like that and I feel like everybody likes that.”

Toussaint preaches fastball command. His operation centers on delivering the fastball for strikes, opening up his wipe-out off-speed. The biggest knock on Toussaint are the walks – he issued 21 in 29 innings last season – which shifts his emphasis to getting ahead early and attacking. Sometimes that’ll bear results like Alonso’s shot, but Toussaint’s confident he’ll win that battle much more often than not.

His most valuable advice comes from Blue Jays starter Aaron Sanchez, a fellow Scott Boras client with whom Toussaint consults daily. A friendship forged three years ago, Toussaint even sends video to Sanchez asking for evaluation. At times that ends with Sanchez simply telling Toussaint to stop overthinking.

“(Sanchez) was like, ‘You have all the stuff. Now you just need to pitch,’” Toussaint said. “He told me something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘You need to learn how to throw 88 (mph).’ I was like, ‘What?’ He said throw 88, go out every outing for your first five outings and throw 88-mph fastballs. People say, “Oh hitters get themselves out.’ You see it in (batting practice), guys are popping stuff up. It’s like, do you really feel like that? I went out there and I had success and I knew I could do this. Ever since then, it’s just been: Throw the ball over the plate.”

Reflecting on his first taste of MLB is all the fire Toussaint needs. As he said, he’s not a lock for the 25-man roster. But he doesn’t want to re-live Triple-A.

“It motivated me,” he said of his big-league experience. “Everyone says it’s easy to get to the big leagues, it’s harder to stay there. So just hearing that, I don’t want to go back down there (to minors). It gives you the extra boost you need, that extra motivation, whatever it is. You get up every morning and you’ve got to go do this.”

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