Entering second season, Venters may close

Entering second season, Venters may close

ATLANTA -- Jonny Venters can't help chuckling when he thinks back to his first early pitching camp at Turner Field a year ago.

"I had never been to the stadium before and I was so nervous," the Braves left-hander said Monday. "I think I threw about five strikes the first time, and I don't think it ever got better."

As Venters prepares for Spring Training with the Braves this year, though, the jitters are long gone.

Venters established himself as one of the top rookie relievers in the Majors last year, and enters this season poised to potentially take over as Billy Wagner's successor in closing games for Atlanta.

"You can't replace Billy," Venters said. "But I think with the guys we have now, we should be OK. The bullpen is still expecting big things. I think we'll hold up our end."

Venters, 25, and right-hander Craig Kimbrel, 22, so impressed the Braves a year ago that they will both get chances to close this season, and the bullpen remains deep.

Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill have been added to the mix, bringing needed experience to help alleviate Wagner's absence.

"We know we're here to help bring the young kids along a little," said Sherrill, who was signed as a free agent.

The two-week early camp under the watchful eye of pitching coach Roger McDowell is a chance for the Braves' new bullpen to start building a relationship.

Venters, Kimbrel, Linebrink and Sherrill will all take part in the voluntary sessions, as will fellow relievers Peter Moylan and Eric O'Flaherty.

All told, more that a dozen pitchers are scheduled to participate before reporting to Spring Training in Lake Buena Vista., Fla., on Feb. 14.

"It's a good chance to get to know the new guys in a relaxed atmosphere," McDowell said.

Of course, it was anything but a relaxed atmosphere for Venters a year ago as he tried to impressive and nervously couldn't throw strikes.

Once he got to Spring Training, though, Venters wowed the Braves with his power sinker and moved up to Atlanta after a short stay in Triple-A. He appeared in 79 games while posting a 1.95 ERA and striking out 93 in 83 innings.

Comfortable now, Venters will go to camp with the goal of improving his fielding more than anything else, because he feels that any control problems are a thing of the past.

"I wasn't real good," Venters said of his fielding a year ago. "I dropped the ball on a squeeze play and threw the ball into center field a couple of times. My fielding is something I really need to take seriously in Spring Training. Being a sinkerball pitcher, I have to be able to field my position. I need to be quicker out there."

With Venters, Sherrill and O'Flaherty, the bullpen is certainly well stocked with left-handers, even with Mike Dunn going to the Marlins as part of the Dan Uggla trade.

O'Flaherty was eager to get to Atlanta for the early camp and put last year behind him. He missed the last few months a season ago because of a viral infection.

"I'm pretty bitter about the way it went," said O'Flaherty, who suffered headaches and lost more than 25 pounds.

O'Flaherty said he began feeling better a couple of weeks after Atlanta was eliminated from the playoffs and hasn't had any issues since.

"All that stuff is behind me," said O'Flaherty, who has regained the lost weight.

The Braves' bullpen also is turning the page on 2010 without Wagner. But the relief corps should still be a strength if the young pitchers can come through and the veterans do their part.

"It's exciting to be a part of this," said Sherrill, who had a down season with the Dodgers a year ago. "I'm ready to do whatever is needed. This is a good spot."

Guy Curtright is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.