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Katherine Wright: Braves banking on Foltynewicz's healthy return to stabilize shaky pitching rotation
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Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Foltynewicz delivers a pitch for the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers against the Norfolk Tides on Thursday, April 4, 2019 at Coolray Field. - photo by For The Times

Atlanta has caught a case of the dreaded deja vu. Might it be contagious year-to-year?

Pitching is the culprit, and much of the blame can be placed on general manager Alex Anthopoulos and the former administration headed by John Coppolella. Fans are frustrated over the lack of offseason pitching transactions, though the farm system is flooded with quality arms. 

The Braves have been searching for answers. They’ve looked to the farm system for pitching help. In March, the Braves farm system was ranked third by MLB.com with pitchers Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson, Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson making appearance in the top 100.

Being swept by the Philadelphia Phillies in the season-opening series was a condescending blow by the baseball gods. The team that blew through millions of dollars on Bryce Harper, JT Realmuto, and Andrew McCutchen spanked the Braves all the way back to Atlanta — outscoring the reigning NL East champion, 23-11.

All eyes drew to Mike Foltynewicz’s rehab assignment with the Gwinnett Stripers on Thursday night. The newly anointed (as of 2018) ace has been on the 10-day injury list since March 25 with a right elbow bone spur.

He made 56 pitches (34 strikes) in five innings of no-hit ball, two walks and two strikeouts. The right-hander said the strikeouts weren’t really there, but the average speed of his fastball (93) and the control of his off-speed pitches proved his return to the big leagues is imminent. 

“My bullpen (on Monday) was the best I’ve felt all spring and leading into this day it felt as good as my bullpen, so just knock on wood,” Foltynewicz said. “Everything feels great. (I’ll) just tell the guys (in Atlanta) tomorrow and we’ll go from there.”

An outing without pain or discomfort is a huge relief, but historically speaking, the bone spurs are bound to come back.

Ah, the dreaded deja vu.

The right-hander’s history with the tiny bone growths dates back to June 5, 2016. The same injury haunts him as he enters the peak of his career, but he has shown the resolve to fight back.

As the Braves flipped their 2017 season of 72-90 to 90-72 in 2018, Mike Foltynewicz followed suit, going 10-13 in 2017 to 13-10 in 2018 — a total career reinvention. 

He proved critics wary of his proverbial mental mound blunders wrong, posting a 2.85 ERA with 202 strikeouts (9.9 strikeouts per nine innings). And in a era of baseball where complete games are near extinct, Foltynewicz tied for first with two complete games in 2018. He was finally composed and focused on excelling.

Players, coaches and managers across Major League Baseball selected Foltynewicz to his first All-Star game in 2018. The baseball world knew then that Foltynewicz was Atlanta’s new ace, a title they’d been searching for years after Julio Teheran’s nosedive in reliance. 

Yes, Foltynewicz is needed. He’s needed more than ever. 

Prior to Thursday night, Atlanta ranked 27th in ERA behind all NL East teams (including the dreadful Marlins) except Washington — the favorite, to many analysts, to win the division. 

As ironic as it is, Teheran has offered the only stabilizing factor in the rotation. He’s started two games (10 innings), allowing four runs on 10 hits, five walks and 14 strikeouts. That leaves three rotation spots in question (as long as Foltynewicz stays on pace).  

Kevin Gausman is set to make his season debut on Friday after a bout of right shoulder inflammation. Max Fried allowed one hit in his six innings of work on Thursday, but the one start is too small of a sample size to provide security.

Bryse Wilson pitched 3.1 innings against the Phillies, giving up four runs on fives hits and four walks. He was optioned to Triple-A on Thursday morning to make room for A.J. Minter in the bullpen. 

Options remain in the Braves’ minor league system, but not necessarily the answers. 

As Foltynewicz plans on making one more rehab assignment in Gwinnett, the pressure to get back to Atlanta prevails. But the speed at which he takes his return remains to be seen. 

“They were all giving me great support,” Foltynewicz said. “Just take it easy. We’d rather have you August, September, October than right now, so just get the kinks out so that you feel 100%.”

Hopefully for him, the “kinks” (bone spurs) won’t return.

Katherine Wright is a sports writer for The Times. She can be reached at kwright@gainesvilletimes.com or @katwrighty on Twitter.

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