Unassuming Venters set to assume big role
Atlanta closer candidate quietly coming off magical rookie year
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When Jonny Venters recently looked at his good friend Michael Broadway sitting in the corner of the Braves' clubhouse, he reminisced about how he was in the same position as a relatively unknown prospect just one year ago.
"I was thinking about sitting over in that corner and being scared to death in this clubhouse," Venters said. "Chipper Jones would walk by, and I'd be like, 'Hey, that's Chipper Jones.' It was the coolest thing ever. I'm still like that a little bit."
As he says this and then quickly bows his head and chuckles, Venters displays some of those same shy qualities that he displayed when he arrived in his first Major League camp last year. But those who simply know him as the guy who posted a 1.95 ERA in 79 appearances realize that he does everything but cower while standing on the mound.
2010 Spring Training - Atlanta Braves
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Sights & Sounds
Spring Training Info
"He's just an awesome young quiet kid who knows he's good," Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said. "But he's not one of those young kids who acts cocky or anything like that. He's humble."
Actually, Venters seems to take humility to another level. While fans debate whether he or Craig Kimbrel should serve as Atlanta's closer this year, the 25-year-old left-hander is still trying to figure out how he experienced so much immediate success last year.
"It was the coolest year of my life," Venters said. "If somebody would have told me it would have gone like that, I'd have said they were absolutely crazy."
As memorable as last year's rookie season might have been, this year could prove to be even more special to Venters, who has picked up where he left off in October. Through his first three appearances of the exhibition season, he has worked three scoreless innings and allowed just one hit.
Meanwhile, the last week has been a struggle for Kimbrel, who seemingly entered camp as the favorite to open the season as the closer. The 22-year-old right-hander allowed two earned runs and three hits Friday afternoon against the Nationals.
While everyone is entitled to a bad outing in the midst of the exhibition season, Kimbrel has struggled in two of his first three appearances. He has allowed six hits and four earned runs while working just 2 1/3 innings.
"Craig has been groomed as a closer his whole time throughout the Minor Leagues," Venters said. "He's definitely got the stuff to do it. Throwing the eighth or getting a lefty out in the ninth, whatever, it doesn't matter to me."
There's humility in Venters' response and the reality that he's gone through his athletic career not fully realizing how good he is.
Asked what kind of offers he received after a successful career as an option quarterback at suburban Orlando's Lake Brantley High School, he said, "just a couple of small schools."
When pressed to name the schools, he replied Navy and Georgia Southern, which just happen to have two of the nation's top option attacks. The Naval Academy's head coach at the time was current Georgia Tech head football coach Paul Johnson.
"I couldn't throw a football to save my life," said Venters, whose option skills rested in the speed he showed the day he ran the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds.
It was this speed that led Indian River Community College to give him a chance to play center field and pitch. Well, they thought enough of his pitching skills that they managed to give him about 20 innings during his short stint at the school.
Fortunately, this proved to be good enough for the Braves, who drafted him in the 30th round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft and then signed him nearly a full year later. The minimal risk they took didn't seem like a big deal when the left-hander underwent Tommy John surgery in October 2005 and then proved healthy enough to pitch just 79 2/3 innings (17 appearances, 12 starts) when he returned in 2007.
Venters would miss an additional three months in 2008 and then post a 4.42 ERA while combining for 29 starts with Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett in 2009. With this serving as his resume, there wasn't much reason for him to come to last year's big league camp with great expectations.
But Venters' life began to take a different path early in Spring Training, when former Braves manager Bobby Cox watched one of his bullpen sessions and saw the heavy sinker that limited opponents to a .204 batting average last year.
"I didn't know he had that kind of movement on his fastball until I faced him," said Uggla, a former Marlin who went 1-for-3 against Venters last year.
Before facing Venters for the first time, Uggla watched and got the sense that he could gear up against this young left-hander who was seemingly just feeding fastballs to whoever stepped to the plate.
"I was thinking, 'Cool, all he's doing is popping heaters in there. I'm going to cheat,'" Uggla said. "I cheated and the thing went from my belt down to about my ankles and I still ended up swinging. But it was really kind of a slow swing and confused."
Venters induced a number of awkward-looking swings, and he did so in a non-discriminatory manner. Left-handers batted .198 with a .310 on-base percentage against him, and right-handers hit .207 with a .312 on-base percentage against him.
As hard as it was to hit Venters last year, it proved just as difficult to predict how he would react to certain situations. While he might have appeared shy in the clubhouse, he seemingly had nerves of steel whenever he stepped on the mound.
A little more than a week after he made his April 17 Major League debut, Venters entered a game in St. Louis and walked each of the first three batters he faced in the sixth inning without knowing this was simply bringing Albert Pujols to the plate with the bases loaded.
After Pujols lined into a double play, Venters escaped the inning unscathed and then continued to carry this kind of magic throughout a dream rookie season that was capped by a chance to experience the thrill of the postseason.
"Some guys don't ever get to experience that," Venters said. "I got to experience it my rookie year and play for Bobby Cox. I don't think I'll ever forget it."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.