Hernandez makes case as battle intensifies for Braves’ rotation spots

Braves starting pitcher Felix Hernandez warms up for Tuesday’s exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Rays in North Port, Fla.

Credit: Elise Amendola

Credit: Elise Amendola

With barely three weeks to go until the Braves’ season opener, the battle for two open spots in the starting pitching rotation is commanding center stage at spring training.

The three leading candidates for the two jobs — Felix Hernandez, Sean Newcomb and Kyle Wright — have taken turns on the mound the past three games, each of them pitching effectively.

After Wright and Newcomb had scoreless three-inning stints against the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday and Monday, respectively, Hernandez limited the Tampa Bay Rays to one run on four hits in four innings Tuesday at CoolToday Park.

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The longtime ace of the Seattle Mariners’ staff, winner of the 2010 American League Cy Young award and 169 major-league games, Hernandez is in camp on a $1 million non-guaranteed contract. He finds himself competing for a job after posting a 1-8 record and 6.40 ERA with the Mariners last season.

“I mean, it’s a challenge,” Hernandez said. “I picked this team because we’re really, really good. I’m just going out there to compete and just be myself and try for a spot on the roster.”

It was clear again Tuesday he isn’t the same high-velocity pitcher that earned the nickname “King Felix.”

“I had to get out of the American League, go to the National League, see something different,” he said with a laugh. “The velo is not there, but I’ve got other weapons.”

“He was hitting spots, and I think the ball was sinking really well,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after Tuesday’s exhibition game, which the Braves lost 5-2 to the Rays. “He can maneuver through a lineup. He can execute pitches. He’s probably a guy that doesn’t have the stuff he did 10 years ago or whatever, but he knows what he’s doing.”

After three spring training appearances, Hernandez has a 2.08 ERA, having allowed two runs on seven hits in 8 2/3 innings.

“I feel healthy,” said Hernandez, the relief palpable after battling injuries the past three seasons. “I feel really, really good.

“I don’t have to prove anything. I did what I did. I just have to go out there and compete.”

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The Braves have two openings in their five-man starting rotation because the team didn’t bring back Dallas Keuchel or Julio Teheran from last season and because Cole Hamels, signed as a free agent to fill one of the spots, will likely be sidelined at least through April with an injured shoulder.

The battle for the open spots is an intriguing competition among pitchers who range from a 15-year big-league veteran (Hernandez) to a three-year veteran (Newcomb) to a rookie (Wright).

Newcomb, a 26-year-old left-hander, is seeking to return to the rotation after spending most of last season in the bullpen. Wright, a 24-year-old right-hander who started last season in the Braves’ rotation before spending most of the year at Triple-A Gwinnett, is seeking a breakthrough.

“There’s obviously some competition for spots,” Wright said, “but I don’t look at it like that. I look at it that I want to be as good as I can be.”

On Sunday, in his three scoreless innings against the Red Sox, Wright allowed one hit and struck out five. He hasn’t allowed a run this spring, retiring 15 of the 17 batters he has faced across two appearances.

“I feel like I’m always going to think I’m ready (for the big leagues) because that’s just the competitor in me,” Wright said. “But I feel like I’ve been progressing well. I made a little mechanical tweak, which I have felt really good about so far, and my command has been significantly better.”

On Monday, in his three scoreless innings against the Phillies, Newcomb gave up two hits and struck out three. In his previous outing, he allowed two runs on three hits in two innings while striking out four.

“Definitely, I feel pretty locked in,” Newcomb said. “Everything is kind of working the way it should be. Just got to keep rolling.”

Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson are other young pitchers in the mix, but the competition for rotation spots seems to center for now around Hernandez, Newcomb and Wright. Within the next three weeks, the Braves will settle on a season-opening rotation to navigate a schedule that has just one off day in the first 24 games.

“It’s nice to know you have options — and good ones,” Snitker said.

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