The Braves have lost the services of two rare invaluable commodities: hard-throwing, highly successful left-handed setup men.
Jonny Venters underwent his second Tommy John surgery on Thursday. On Saturday, the Braves received news that was both bad an unexpected, when an MRI showed a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of Eric O'Flaherty's left elbow. O'Flaherty will see Dr. James Andrews, a noted orthopedic surgeon, for a consultation. Whether this injury will also require reconstructive elbow surgery is yet to be determined, but the tear indicates a serious injury.
"Obviously, you're hoping it's just a sprain and it's a short DL stint and you get him back fairly quickly," Braves general manager Frank Wren said Saturday. "It doesn't look like that's going to be the case."
The bullpen has been a source of stability for the Braves this season. Through the first 41 games of the season, the Atlanta bullpen ranked third in the National League with a 2.77 earned run average.
Venters was one of the top relievers in baseball from 2010-11. He has not been able to pitch this year. O'Flaherty has been a remarkably consistent performer over the past four seasons and pitched very well this season as the Braves' eighth-inning man. He entered the weekend ranked second in the Majors with 12 holds. O'Flaherty had not complained of any significant elbow discomfort until Friday night, after pitching one inning against the Dodgers.
Now, faced with the loss of two highly talented relievers, the Braves draw the task of compensating for their lost talent on the fly. This is not an elective course. It is a must.
"We have to," Wren said. "We don't have a choice. We've seen teams lose their closer, we've seen teams lose setup guys in the past, and be able to regroup and make it work. So we're going to have to do that."
There are reinforcements on the way. The first one, in fact, joined the club Saturday, as the Braves summoned reliever Cory Rasmus from Triple-A Gwinnett. Not that it aids the current predicament, but Rasmus's older brother, Colby, is an outfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays.
"We brought up Rasmus today," Wren said. "And we'll hopefully get some guys back healthy over the next week. [Jordan] Walden should be back in a week. [Luis] Ayala should be back in a week or two. We'll start getting back some of the veteran bullpen arms that can take some of the pressure off. But it's hard losing two guys like we've lost. We'll wait and see exactly how long Eric's going to be out. But we know it's not going to be a week or two."
Starting pitcher Brandon Beachy, himself returning from Tommy John surgery, is about to begin a Minor League rehab assignment.
"That's going to create another move that we have to make, moving someone who is in our rotation now into the bullpen," Wren said. "So as we get healthy and get some of our pitchers back, there will be other options for us. Still, we've got to figure it out exactly as we move forward."
For the moment, at least, the Braves will not try to turn quantity into quality. They will maintain a six-man bullpen.
"It's easy for us, because we have a Triple-A team 30 miles away," Wren said. "And historically, teams went with 11 pitchers. That was the norm. It's just, in recent years, we've seen 12-man staffs be the norm. And so until you have that real extended [game], whether it's an extra-inning game or your long man has to a four- or five- or six-inning stint, you really don't need that 12th guy. That guy is always a safety valve. He'll go two or three weeks without pitching, if you're doing well. Now when you're using that 12th man, you're not doing too well."
In their first game after the bad news on O'Flaherty, the Braves did not exactly sink into a swamp of self-pity. Starter Kris Medlen gave them seven splendid innings in which the only run he gave up was unearned. Pinch-hitter Evan Gattis hit the game-winning two-run homer in the eighth. On the next pitch, Andrelton Simmons homered, too, to make the final 3-1.
And the bullpen? No problem. Cory Gearrin pitched a clean eighth, and then closer Craig Kimbrel had a 1-2-3 ninth for his 13th save of the season.
The eighth inning will now be handled, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, "case-by-case, I think -- a matchup situation with [left-hander Luis] Avilan and Gearrin.
"We let Gearrin face the pitcher, or a right-handed-hitter, because they only had right-handers coming up for the ninth hole if they chose to [pinch-hit]. And we were going to let him go all the way through [Matt] Kemp and then bring Avilan in to face the left-handers. So it will go with a matchup or case-to-case situations."
As we speak, Gearrin has an ERA of 0.92 in 23 appearances. Avilan is at 2.25 in 18 appearances. Torn elbow ligaments have taken a serious toll in the Braves bullpen, but with this sort of pitching depth, even this situation does not have to turn into a crisis.