With rotation spot available, Blair shows poise

Braves' No. 4 prospect looks comfortable in two scoreless innings vs. Blue Jays

With rotation spot available, Blair shows poise

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Looking much more comfortable than he did during last week's Grapefruit League debut, Aaron Blair took advantage of a chance to keep himself in the mix to earn one of the two open spots in Atlanta's starting rotation.

Blair showed poise as he delivered two scoreless innings during Monday's 3-1 loss to the Blue Jays. In the process, the 23-year-old right-hander showed why he is considered the most advanced of the Braves' pitching prospects who have not yet appeared at the Major League level.

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MLBPipeline.com ranks Blair as baseball's No. 56 overall prospect and the No. 4 prospect in Atlanta's talent-rich farm system.

"His sinkerball was working and his other secondary pitches, as well," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "The more you run him out there, the more you'll see him get comfortable and get in some kind of groove."

When Blair debuted against the Orioles in Sarasota, Fla., last week, he was pitching for the first time since the Braves had acquired him, Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte in the blockbuster trade that sent Shelby Miller to the D-backs in December. He completed a perfect first inning in that debut, but then he surrendered five hits, including homers hit by Chris Davis and Jonathan Schoop, during a four-run second inning.

Given another opportunity to escape trouble again on Monday, Blair used a pair of strikeouts and a Troy Tulowitzki groundout to pitch around Kevin Pillar's leadoff double in the first inning. He extended his success in the second inning, when he hit Junior Lake with a pitch and then retired the next three batters he faced, including Darwin Barney, who lined out to right field with Lake at third base.

"The first time with a new team, you're a little amped up and a little anxious," Blair said. "But today was a lot better. I had better feel. I had a good week of work, and I'm looking forward to going back out there."

Although there could be some benefits to giving Blair a chance to extend his development for at least a couple of months with Triple-A Gwinnett, Gonzalez has repeatedly said that Blair remains a candidate to begin the upcoming season in Atlanta's starting rotation.

"You don't necessarily want to think, 'If I do good one game, I have the spot, and if I do bad, I lose the spot,'" Blair said. "It's just controlling what you can and going out there and getting your work in and keeping the other team off the scoreboard."

Worth noting

Mallex Smith was removed from Monday's game after he made an unsuccessful slash bunt attempt to end the top of the third inning. While this might one day become a part of the speedy outfielder's repertoire, the Braves want him to continue developing his offensive skills with a more conventional approach.

"It was a conversation that me and Mallex have been having," Gonzalez said. "It was a perfect time to have a teaching moment, and I'll leave it at that. He'll play [Tuesday against the Mets]."

• With a perfect fifth inning against the Blue Jays, Hunter Cervenka strengthened his bid as an underdog candidate to begin the upcoming season as a lefty in Atlanta's bullpen. Cervenka has retired each of the six batters he has faced, including four left-handed hitters. The 26-year-old southpaw did not allow an earned run in the 16 2/3 innings he completed for Gwinnett last year.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.