KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Jair Jurrjens went into his first year with the Atlanta Braves just hoping to make the team.
He wound up being about the last pitcher standing.
As starter after starter went down around him, the young right-hander from Curacao emerged as one of the few bright spots in a lost season for the Braves.
Jurrjens went to the mound every fifth day as a rookie, making more starts (31) than any of the established pitchers Atlanta was counting on. John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Tim Hudson all went down with season-ending injuries, while Mike Hampton was on the shelf most of the year with a series of lingering ailments.
Except for one missed start in Chicago, where he slipped down stairs leading from the clubhouse, Jurrjens was there every time the Braves needed him.
“He has poise upon poise,” third baseman Chipper Jones said. “He battled some blister problems, but he battled through them. He went out there without his best stuff and still kept you in the game. Believe me, things like that do not go unnoticed by your teammates and the coaching staff.”
For Jurrjens, who turned 23 just last month, it all seemed a bit surreal. Acquired from Detroit the previous winter, he was supposed to spend the season getting his feet wet in the National League. The top four projected starters were all former 20 game-winners. Glavine has two Cy Young awards, Smoltz one.
But the kid had to carry the load.
“When Hudson went down, I was the only one in the starting five left,” Jurrjens recalled. “It was a little bit difficult, especially with all the rest of us being young kids. We had nobody to look up to.”
Despite fading a bit in the second half of the season, Jurrjens finished third in the NL rookie of the year balloting with a 13-10 record and 3.68 ERA in 31 starts. He pitched far more innings than he ever had in his life (188 À), but still showed remarkable poise all the way through. Most encouraging to the Braves, he drew a lot of ground balls out of opposing hitters and gave up just 11 long balls, ranking fifth in the majors in the fewest homers allowed per nine innings.
“He had a spectacular year,” manager Bobby Cox said. “He could have made the All-Star team.”
While certainly encouraged by his performance, Jurrjens knew he needed some help. During an offseason spent catching up with family and friends in his island homeland, he watched the Braves strike out in their attempts to trade for Jake Peavy and sign A.J. Burnett. When Smoltz left for the Red Sox, spurning the team where he’d spent his entire big league career, Jurrjens wondered if he’d be a one-man show again.
“I was a little bit worried,” he admitted. “There was nothing going on.”
But Atlanta, pulling the winter version of a ninth-inning rally, bolstered its rotation in the space of a few days by signing Derek Lowe, expected to be the team’s new ace, and Japanese all-star Kenshin Kawakami. Shortly after the start of spring training, they re-signed Glavine, too. Throw in Javier Vazquez, acquired in a trade with the Chicago White Sox, and Jurrjens would appear to have plenty of help.
“I like all those pitchers,” he said. “They eat innings. That’s the thing we need. Last year, we abused the bullpen. It was more and more the starters’ fault for the way the season went last year. We didn’t help the bullpen at all. They guys they brought in, they’re good. They’ll all throw 200 innings plus, for sure. They are going to give us a chance to win every time out.”
Which is what Jurrjens did a year ago, though there are things he can improve on. He’s working on his slider this spring, looking to throw it a little harder while getting a tighter break and more consistency. He wants to be stronger down the stretch, keenly aware of his numbers before (9-4, 3.00) and after (4-6, 4.66) the All-Star break.
“That was the most innings I’ve thrown before,” said Jurrjens, whose previous high for a season was 143 1/3. “I didn’t know how to do it. It was my first time pitching in September. I didn’t know how to prepare myself to pitch in September. I think I was working too hard instead of laying back.”
But he picked up a few tips from Smoltz on conserving strength and energy for the long season. In his final start, Jurrjens went seven strong innings against the eventual World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, giving up five hits and two runs.
“I figured out something that worked for me,” he said. “After that, my arm was feeling great. It was like I was in spring training again. I’m happy that I was able to a pitch a lot in September. That was a big key for me.”
Jurrjens started Atlanta’s spring opener at Lakeland on Wednesday, allowing two runs in two innings to his former team, the Tigers. Back in Kissimmee, he’s moved to a locker on the established side of the clubhouse, along the same wall as Jones and Glavine and Vazquez.
But the youngster still finds himself drifting back to the other side of the room, where he dressed out a year ago. He enjoys hanging out with the guys who are trying to be the next Jair Jurrjens.
“I like to stay humble and be one of the guys,” Jurrjens said. “It’s cool to be over here, but the other side is still what I came from.
“You cannot forget where you came from.”