Injured Braves hurlers making strides in rehab
Minor, Floyd, Venters, Vasquez all give positive reports after mound work
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- While they are all at different stages in their respective rehab processes, Mike Minor, Gavin Floyd, Jonny Venters and Luis Vasquez all shared the opportunity to celebrate the small victories they notched at Champion Stadium on Wednesday morning.
Before driving to Clearwater, Fla., for Wednesday afternoon's game against the Phillies, Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell watched the hurlers move one step closer toward regaining the strength they need to serve as valuable members of Atlanta's pitching staff this year.
While Venters and Minor threw off a mound for the first time this year, Floyd and Vasquez were introduced to a more competitive setting, as they threw live batting practice for the first time since coming to Spring Training with the hope of showing why they were considered the two key offseason additions to Atlanta's pitching staff.
"Everything was great," McDowell said. "They were healthy when they left the mound. Hopefully, they'll be OK tomorrow."
The Braves certainly had reason to feel good about the fact that Minor got through his 21-pitch session without his left shoulder proving cranky. That's what happened when he reported to Spring Training, as Minor immediately felt the lingering effects of the month-long stretch of inactivity he experienced after undergoing a urinary tract procedure on Dec. 31.
"My mechanics are obviously not all there," Minor said. "My leg was coming out, and I was leaning back more. That's not something I want to do. I want to be more compact and get back to what I was last year. But for this being the first time, I think it went pretty well."
Minor will attempt to steadily increase his arm strength as he throws off the mound on an every-other-day basis for at least another week. If he continues to progress through the live-batting-practice sessions that will follow, he believes he could still be on track to join Atlanta's rotation near the end of the regular season's second week.
Once Minor completed his session, Floyd stepped on the bullpen mound to warm up before throwing a five-minute live-batting-practice session. This marked the first time he threw with hitters in the batter's box since he underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in May.
"It's the same mound, same distance, same setup with the catcher and you've got the plate in front [of the catcher]," Floyd said. "But there's something about getting a hitter in there that you just get a little bit more adrenaline going, and it gets a little different."
Other than maybe being a little too amped up for this session, Floyd continued to impress the Braves with a fastball that came out of his hand effortlessly and the breaking pitches that he began throwing a little more than a week ago.
Floyd expects to continue throwing live batting practice over the next couple of weeks. Once he has gained the necessary strength and endurance, he will be cleared to begin pitching in games. The 31-year-old right-hander is still aiming to join Atlanta's rotation during the early portion of May.
"[Floyd] threw some good curveballs and some good sliders," Laird said. "The ball was coming out of his hand really well. It didn't look like he was holding back on anything. I liked what I saw."
Venters had a little extra hop in his step before he headed to the bullpen to throw off a mound for the first time since he underwent a second Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in May. Although the left-hander is still more than two months away from potentially rejoining Atlanta's bullpen, the short mound session allowed him to realize he is at least moving closer to finding light at the end of the tunnel.
"It felt like [the ball] was coming out decent," Venters said. "Obviously, the first time on the mound, the timing seems a little bit different. But overall, I was pleased with everything -- the way my arm responded and the way the ball was coming out."
Venters, who posted a 1.89 ERA over 164 appearances from 2010-11, realizes the odds are not necessarily in his favor as he attempts to return from his second Tommy John surgery since 2005. But he has drawn some inspiration from Brian Wilson, the former All-Star closer who also underwent the procedure for a second time before making a successful return as a member of the Dodgers' bullpen last year.
"If you would have told me I'd be feeling this good right now, I'd have been excited," Venters said. "I couldn't be happier with where I am right now."
As Vasquez faced Evan Gattis and Edward Salcedo during his five-minute live-batting-practice session, the right-hander proved he has overcome the right lat strain he suffered in January while pitching in the Dominican Winter League. At the same time, the sidearm reliever displayed the above-average fastball that led the Braves to sign him as a Minor League free agent in November.
"If he can control that from down there with what they say -- 95 or 96 [mph] -- that's tough to hit," Laird said. "I could tell it was getting on me when he was letting it out. With that arm angle and that deception, that can be hard to pick up. That could be a big pickup for us if he pitches like he can."
Vasquez showed some signs of rust as he struggled to produce consistent action with his slider. But he could begin pitching in Grapefruit League games after throwing one more live batting practice on Friday.
If Vasquez remains healthy and impresses over the next few weeks, there is still a chance he will have enough time to earn the opportunity to begin the season in Atlanta's bullpen.
"I felt good and that's what we're looking for," Vasquez said, echoing the comments of each of the other four Braves' pitchers who took a step forward on Wednesday.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.