Straily stays focused, rises to occasion

Right-hander turns in strong audition for bullpen job

Straily stays focused, rises to occasion

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- For the first time this spring, practically everything went Dan Straily's way.

A walk to Kelly Johnson was all the Braves could muster against Straily through four innings Friday at Champion Stadium, Straily's first scoreless spring appearance since March 9, 2014, with the Oakland Athletics. Oddly enough, his first start this spring in five appearances was a bullpen audition.

"It's coming down to the end of camp; there's only a few guys really left," Straily said after the Houston's 1-1 tie vs. Atlanta. "I think it's pretty much no secret that there's only one spot left in the bullpen. … I just kind rose to the occasion and was able to stay focused."

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In addition to a better feel with his slider this outing, Straily said practice with his rhythm and timing during his delivery paid off, with only one batter faced from the stretch all game.

After a long flyout by Michael Bourn to right field, Straily ended the first inning with strikeouts of Erick Aybar and Nick Markakis. Straily made it three in a row by catching Nick Swisher looking before sandwiching the walk with Tyler Flowers' popup to shallow left and Jeff Francoeur's grounder to shortstop for a fielder's choice out.

In the third inning, Gordon Beckham flew softly to left field, Julio Teheran popped out to first baseman Jon Singleton and then Bourn became Straily's fourth strikeout victim. Jose Altuve's diving effort resulted in an Aybar groundout to start the bottom of the fourth before Markakis flied to left and Swisher flied out to center.

In 2015, Straily's four appearances for the Astros included three starts, and just six appearances among his 48 big league games before that were in relief. His career batting average against as a starter in 250 2/3 innings is .234, versus .354 in 9 2/3 relief innings. Straily believes the difference is not so much when he pitches but the ability to see hitters multiple times.

Hinch, Straily on outing

"Once you get the ball and you get to the mound -- whether it's the first inning or extra innings -- it really doesn't matter … for me," Straily said. "My whole career has been as a starter, pretty much. … I feel like I benefit from facing hitters more than once. … I'd faced almost all the guys in that lineup in the past at some point. That helps me feel more comfortable, knowing what they're all about as a hitter. … I just feel like that gives me the upper hand."

Straily credited catcher Jason Castro with an impeccable game plan that resulted in just one pitch shaken off, and it left an impression on his manager.

"I thought he threw the best he's thrown this camp," manager A.J. Hinch said. "He's doing it at the right time. It was nice to see him start the game, get into a rhythm, take some of the things he's working on behind the scenes into a game. We know what we have with him; he's very much in the competition for the last spot in the bullpen."

Whether that will be Straily or another pitcher -- such as lefty Wandy Rodriguez -- remains to be determined and could take the rest of camp, Hinch said.

"Wandy is still competing for our team, and he's in this mix to be in our bullpen, or at least in the rotation if we had an injury," Hinch said.

Straily said he will be ready to pitch at least once more this spring, but he does not know when that would be. Not knowing too far in advance when he will pitch has helped to get him in the mentality of a swingman, though, which could be his role, he said.

"It's felt like a long journey," Straily said of his last few seasons and finding comfort in coming close to his spots instead of stressing about perfection. "The confidence build -- that's all it takes for me. It always happens sometimes. … Even years when it's taken until the first start of the year. For some reason, I'm just able to turn it on, and I don't understand why I can't turn it on at the beginning. It just takes me a little bit to get going, and that's the way it's always been. Today just happened to be the day where everything's finally in line, and hopefully it can stay right there for the rest of the year."

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