LAWRENCEVILLE — The International League is more than a week removed from its All-Star break, and with the return of Triple-A baseball action, the Gwinnett Braves find themselves in the midst of playing 20 consecutive games without a day off.
Now, that might sound insane to anyone following the G-Braves’ big league affiliate in Atlanta — major league teams usually get at least one day off every week — but playing for weeks at a time is actually the norm for a minor leaguer. In fact, the G-Braves opened the season with 27 consecutive games, followed by 20, 19 and another 27 before heading into the break.
Barbaro Canizares and Wes Timmons made the IL’s All-Star team roster, so their break was spent with more baseball activities.
Well, sort of.
“This year, the All-Star weekend was actually awesome for a couple of reasons,” said Timmons, a 31-year-old third baseman. “I have two small girls, ages 4 and 1, and my father came up and took them for the weekend, so my wife and I got to enjoy the All-Star weekend as a three-day paid vacation, which was nice because when you have two small ones it’s tough to get away with just your wife.
“And then it rained the whole time, which was kind of cool because we didn’t have any sort of workouts on the field and we pretty much hung out (in Allentown, Pa., the site of the IL All-Star game) for a couple of days. I played in the game and then met the team in Buffalo.”
Once in Buffalo, where the G-Braves opened an eight-game road trip with four games against the Bisons, it was back to the grind for the players. Timmons said the most difficult aspect of playing long stretches is having no time to heal minor injuries, like the bruised shin he’s currently playing with after fouling off a ball against the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees on Wednesday.
The grueling schedule can be especially tough on younger prospects, like 20-year-old slugging first baseman Freddie Freeman, who is experiencing Triple-A ball for the first time after spending last season between Mississippi (AA) and Myrtle Beach (A).
“It’s part of the learning process,” said G-Braves manager Dave Brundage, who played 10 seasons in the minors with Philadelphia and Seattle affiliates. “The mental edge, sometimes you’ll lose, playing day in and day out. The motivation can go in young players, and that’s when we as a coaching staff have to challenge them. You find out who plays well when they’re out of their element on long road trips and how players respond to adversity. This is how you prepare for the big leagues.”
The grind becomes more of a manageable routine to veteran players like Timmons, 35-year-old reliever Vladimir Nunez and 32-year-old outfielder Mitch Jones.
“Eventually you get used to it,” Jones said. “The guys that find ways to get their body and mind ready on a day-to-day basis are the ones who have the most success. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t necessarily look forward to days off because they come and go so fast.”
Playing as many as 27 games in a row adds a degree of difficulty to Brundage’s job, because he has to manage his bullpen more carefully. In the big leagues, a reliever could appear in as many as five games in a row.
Brundage doesn’t have the luxury of using his relievers that way at the Triple-A level.
“There’s a lot more rules at the minor league level,” Brundage said. “You err more on the side of caution here. It’s not win at all costs, it’s make sure you’re developing your players, keeping them well rested and their arms in good shape. You can’t just burn through your bullpen. You have to pick and choose, and there are nights when your setup/closer guys aren’t ready."
It’s not uncommon for a minor league pitcher to give up seven runs in the first two innings and stay in the game for the sake of preserving the bullpen.
In the majors, when the goal for a contending team would be to compete for a division title, that pitcher would probably have been pulled by the first inning. That’s why minor league pitchers are regularly promoted despite what would appear to be a sub-par ERA — those pitchers weren’t relieved as they would have been at the big league level.
Nunez, who has bounced between the majors and minors the past 15 seasons, said his arm has been better preserved in the minors. While pitching in the majors, he said he pitched in five straight games once.
But while his arm may be better rested, his body isn’t. He said traveling is the toughest aspect of the schedule, because often the team will wake up early in the morning to fly to the next city and play a game late into the night on little to no rest.
“For me today, I woke up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight,” Nunez said. “Some players sleep maybe half an hour, but I came to the park without sleeping. I won’t go to bed until after the game. It’s tough, but we choose to be baseball players, so that’s what we do.”
With the average minor league salary at $2,100 per month for Triple-A players, it’s the love of the game and pursuit of a dream that keeps them grinding through the seasons.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Jones said. “It’s about getting yourself to where you want to be.”
Adam Krohn is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him on Twitter @gtimesakrohn.