ATLANTA — One day after watching his Detroit Tigers lose to Atlanta, manager Jim Leyland couldn’t stop talking about the Braves’ pitcher who beat his team.
Leyland marveled at player he described as “an artist” who understands “the secret of pitching.”
The artist wasn’t Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens or Tommy Hanson.
It was Kris Medlen, the newest member of the Braves’ pitching rotation.
Medlen ranks last on the staff in name recognition, but he could prove to be an important player in the team’s hopes to hold its lead in the NL East.
When Jurrjens returned this week after missing two months with a hamstring injury, manager Bobby Cox kept Medlen in the rotation and sent Kenshin Kawakami to the bullpen.
Cox’s decision couldn’t have surprised Leyland, who praised the 24-year-old Medlen after the right-hander gave up six hits and one run in 6 2-3 innings in a 4-3 win over the Tigers on Friday night.
“I was really impressed with their guy,” Leyland said Saturday. “Sometimes guys don’t give those guys enough credit. That guy pitched. He pitched outstanding.
“That was a pitching performance you saw last night.”
Medlen, only 5-foot-10, doesn’t look like an overpowering pitcher.
He pitched so well for Triple-A Gwinnett last year that he was promoted to Atlanta on May 21, 2009, beating Hanson, the Braves’ top prospect, in the race to the major leagues.
Medlen was viewed as a temporary fill-in this year when, but after 13 relief appearances he took over for the injured Jurrjens.
Medlen has more than just fill in. He has a 3.15 ERA after his win over the Tigers. He is 4-0 as a starter, and the Braves are 8-1 in his nine starts.
“I didn’t like it because he beat us, but that was kind of treat, to see somebody that doesn’t throw 96, 95 miles an hour go out and dissect the plate and pitch the kind of game the kid pitched,” Leyland said.
“That’s the secret of pitching, being able to put the ball where he wanted to. The kid, he was an artist.”
Medlen who was floored by Leyland’s comments.
“Coming from him, it was unbelievable to hear he appreciates my style and all that,” Medlen said.
Leyland wasn’t the only Tiger impressed with Medlen; add Detroit veteran Johnny Damon to the list.
“I knew after my first at-bat he had a really good changeup,” Damon said. “The kid knows how to pitch. That’s why they’ve been winning almost every time he pitches.”
Medlen’s best fastball reaches only the low 90s, but he has a strong curveball and a slider. He has walked only 13 batters in 74 1/3 innings.
Cox has also been impressed with Medlen’s defense and his poise.
“He doesn’t rattle much,” Cox said. “He’s an athlete.”
Braves catcher Brian McCann said Medlen has won over his teammates.
“I think the thing he does the best is he goes out there and competes every fifth day,” McCann said. “He’s earned the respect of everybody on this team as a starter. He’s just been pitching great.”
After previously being known as Hanson’s minor-league roommate and Jurrjens’ replacement, Medlen now has a chance to escape those shadows.
“I don’t care about the publicity or getting my name out there,” Medlen said. “I just want to win. Last year when we were two games out of the wild-card toward the end of the year, that was the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball. I just want to do whatever I can to help my team win.”
Medlen was 3-5 with a 4.26 ERA in 2009, when only four of his 37 appearances came as a starter. He gained momentum through the season and had a 2.80 ERA after the All-Star break.
Medlen said he was fighting self-doubts early in his rookie season. He said a turning point came when catcher David Ross “got in my face” during one of his four starts.
“I was kind of picking and not being aggressive and Ross got in my face a little bit and told me to quit being such a baby,” Medlen said. “I kind of stepped it up from there. It was kind of enlightening. I thought ‘He’s right. I belong here and I can get outs’ and ever since then I’ve been more aggressive and it has carried over to this year, too.