Somewhere in Atlanta, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel are smiling. The pair of Braves veterans was so impressed this spring with prospect Alex Wood, they gave him a gift: a knuckle-curve.
"Thank goodness I had that working today," said Wood. "That was probably the one pitch that I threw pretty well."
Wood, using his new breaking offering, kept the Double-A Jackson Generals off-balance in the longest outing of his career, striking out four over seven scoreless frames in Mississippi's 3-2, walk-off win on Wednesday afternoon.
Wood, Atlanta's second-round pick in 2012, held the Generals to four hits and did not walk a batter in his third start of the year. A lefty drafted out of the University of Georgia, Wood said Wednesday marked the longest outing he's had since college, thanks in-part to the knuckle-curve he learned from Venters and Kimbrel.
"I probably averaged about seven innings per outing my last year in college," said Wood, a 22-year-old from Charlotte, N.C. "It's a luxury of whether I start or relieve, ... especially the way my breaking balls been coming. It's been since I came out of college that I was able to get more than five innings. Today I was still in a pitch count at 75."
Wood, who started all 13 games he appeared in last year for Class A Rome, held the Mariners affiliate hitless into the third inning, when James Jones hit a leadoff single but was erased on Leury Bonilla's double-play grounder. Gabriel Noriega added the second hit of the inning with two outs, but Wood retired Abraham Almonte to end the frame.
The southpaw pitched around a leadoff double in the fourth and then picked off Jones in the fifth. But on a day where he admitted his fastball command wasn't perfect, his newest pitch came up big. Earlier this week, Wood called the knuckle-curve "a breakthrough."
"Alex Wood is legit," Braves starter Tim Hudson said last week. "His stuff is nasty."
"I like this kid the more and more I see him pitch," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "His delivery is funky and there is some good stuff coming out of it."
In 16 innings this season, Wood has allowed just two runs and two walks while striking out 17. Despite the good start to his second season, he is still winless.
"I thought I had really good stuff when I picked up the loss in my last outing," he said. "When I command my fastball pretty well, it helps my changeup. My fastball command wasn't that great, though, which meant I was getting a lot of contact early. They were being really aggressive."
Wood threw 51 of his 75 pitches for strikes before handing the ball over to Chasen Shreve, a lefty out of Southern Nevada who let Jackson take the lead with two runs on three hits in the eighth. Mark Lamm came on and recorded the final five outs to earn his second win thanks to Philip Gosselin's walk-off RBI single.
Wood said he watched the game-winning celebration from the clubhouse.
"I was getting my work in in the clubhouse, riding the bike and watching on the TV," he said. "That's definitely an awesome way to finish the game. We [starters] want to make sure we're keeping our team in the game."
Wood did that more often than not last season when he went 4-3 with a 2.22 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings at Rome. He entered this season ranked as the Braves' No. 6 prospect just a few years removed from undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010.
"I didn't have my best stuff today, but I thought I competed my butt off pretty good," he said.
The lefty also said it's been nice to pitch so close to home through college and now with the Braves.
"Mississippi is the furthest I've been from my parents," he said. "It was awesome when I was Rome last year. It felt like I was still playing college ball. I had so many friends and so many Georgia fans there."