Young Pitcher Grows Up

The next stage in the gilding of Julio Teheran happens tonight, when the 22-year-old becomes the youngest Braves starter in a postseason game since Steve Avery in the early 1990s.

Teheran had been measured for this moment since he was plucked from his native Colombia at the tender age of 16 and shipped to America marked, “Phenom, Handle With Care.” He has had an appointment with such a game since the first time he was identified as one of the franchise’s top prospects by Baseball America (not yet 17). It was an appointment confirmed every time he suited up in some minor league clubhouse, always the youngest in the room.

Tonight the National League Division Series shifts to Dodger Stadium, tied at one win apiece, an oh-so-important swing game in a five-game series played out before what passes for a hostile crowd in Los Angeles.

Add another cinder block to the burden of potential Teheran has toted for the past five years.

That’s OK, he can manage, figure his fellow Braves.

“He knows what he has. He knows what he has to do, what is expected from him every time he goes out,” said shortstop Andrelton Simmons, a friend and neighbor of Teheran in the Braves’ clubhouse. Such a strong sense of self — along with the best pure stuff among the Braves starters — will go far in determining how Teheran shows tonight in Chavez Ravine.

Remember the icy stare Teheran gave Bryce Harper after he plunked Washington’s star in August? Take that same edge — minus maybe the actual burying of a baseball in another fellow’s thigh — on the road tonight. That would tickle his teammates greatly.

Those who have taken a vested interest in Teheran throughout his rapid climb up the professional staircase, as well as his small backslide last year, have always said that he is the product of his attitude. When he is confident, he is capable of performances like that in June against Pittsburgh, in which he came within four outs of a no-hitter. When he wavers, the fans in the cheap seats had best wear Kevlar (he gave up six home runs in his two-inning spring-training debut in 2012, auguring troubles to come).

The secret, said wise injured veteran Tim Hudson, is in, “trusting your stuff and having confidence and believing you’re going to be able to go out there and dominate games.

“That’s not going to happen every time out, but you’ve got to make yourself believe that it’s going to happen every time out,” he said.

This season, Teheran has touched upon the dominance predicted for him since he was barely old enough to throw a ball 60 feet, 6 inches. He was 14-8, with a 3.20 ERA, striking out 170, walking 45.

A common thought was that the Braves’ faith in Teheran’s promise was shaken by his struggles a year ago, and that he instead of Randall Delgado could well have been traded to Arizona as part of the Justin Upton-for-Martin Prado deal. It was never that close, said the general manager.

“Not in our view,” Frank Wren said. “I know there are varying opinions, but we always saw a difference in Julio and Randall. We liked Randall, that’s not to diminish him. We always thought there was a significant difference in them down the road.”

Delgado was 5-7 (4.26 ERA) for the Diamondbacks this season.

Age has always been an imperfect number with which to measure this player. The normal assumptions that might apply to someone so young in a very grown-up business just hadn’t for Teheran. Not until 2012, when suddenly he began to look a little overwhelmed.

Just the year before, his every appearance at Triple-A Gwinnett was an event. Going 15-3 in ’11, he was the International League’s Pitcher of the Year. But when he showed up for spring training 2012, Teheran buckled for the first time. Ineffective, he was sent back down to the minors. At Gwinnett, his ERA doubled, to 5.08.

The Braves fretted over how his psyche was taking the U-turn back to Triple-A. They tinkered with his delivery, but eventually decided they were confusing him more than helping. They dispatched a specialist, Dom Chiti, the Braves’ special assistant in charge of pitching development, to work with Teheran in Gwinnett. Chiti even travelled with Teheran to Winter League ball in the Dominican Republic.

“We had to try to get him corralled and back on track,” Wren said.

“I think he tried harder (when went back) and that’s not what we needed him to do. What we needed was for him to learn from it and get smarter, continue to learn his craft. As with most young kids, he thought he’d just try harder. And it snowballed on him.”

It was in the Dominican where Teheran appeared to rehab his inner self. He was again the most dynamic player on the field. On a visit to the island, Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez witnessed it firsthand and were greatly reassured.

His teammates saw a difference, too. “If you saw Julio for the first few years and you saw this Julio, it’s way different,” reliever Luis Avilan said.

“In the past years he maybe had more velocity and everything, but he was different. He looked like a rookie. This year he’s still (technically) a rookie, but he looks like a veteran pitcher.”

“I feel like he has that bar set now where he has to do good,” Simmons said. “He has to go out there and pitch seven innings instead of just trying to survive. I felt the last year when he was up and down he hadn’t gotten there. He knows now he can be this good and he goes out there trying to be that every day.”

So, will it be the self-assured Teheran who takes the high ground of the mound tonight and dares the Dodgers to knock him off it? Can he, as Mike Minor did two days before, seize control of his first postseason appearance — on the road, no less?

That always has been the intrigue with Teheran, since he was but a boy being shaped for such a game as this.