ATLANTA -- The answer to the Atlanta Braves bullpen woes returned to his Atlanta home Sunday night.
But Mark Wohlers stayed only long enough to spend a few days with his wife and little girl and get a haircut, then he caught a flight back to Class AAA Richmond.
Wohlers, scheduled to rejoin the Braves tonight when they open the second half against the Florida Marlins in Miami, will instead pitch in Toledo. As part of an agreement worked out between Wohlers, his agent and the Braves, the closer will remain with Richmond for another week.
Wohlers and the club had agreed he would spend 19 days in the minors, which is the amount of time a player can stay and still receive credit for major league service and for pension time and licensing money. The 19 days was up Wednesday and by agreeing to stay a week longer, Wohlers forfeits his service time and pension and licensing perks.
"It stinks," Wohlers told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "I'm losing money on my pension, my major-league service time and my licensing money. But I can't pitch (Sunday). I'm a little tired. Then with four days off, if I get to Atlanta and don't pitch, the whole week in Richmond will be lost. Just to play it safe and be sure, it'll probably do me good to stay here and pitch four more games."
Following his appearance against Toledo, Wohlers is scheduled to pitch Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, then July 13 and 15 in Richmond against Pawtucket. The Braves return from a trip to Miami and New York July 16 to open a six-game homestand against the Brewers and Cubs and the right-hander is expected to rejoin the team then.
Wohlers has missed almost three weeks since requesting a minor league assignment to iron out his control problems. He worked with minor league instructor Guy Hansen in Orlando for nine days and has been working with Richmond pitching coach Bill Fischer for more than a week.
So far, the results have been mixed. In 3 2/3 innings, Wohlers has allowed six hits, seven walks and seven earned runs, though five hits and six earned runs came in one game against Charlotte.
Wohlers says he's ready to return to the Braves, but he didn't want to sit around during the All-Star break and not pitch, so he agreed to remain in Richmond. He recognizes the problem in Atlanta will be finding enough work for him to remain sharp.
"I think I'm ready -- if I go back to Atlanta and I know I'm going to pitch," he said. "But I don't know that, so this is the safest route. With the starters they have up there, they could roll off four complete games. That's not unusual. I'd just be crossing my fingers that I'd be able to pitch in Atlanta."
The Braves are keeping their fingers crossed that the closer who's collected 97 saves over the last three seasons and is 8-for-8 in save opportunities this year will return to form. Without him, the club will have to trade for a closer.
"When he's right, there's nobody better in baseball," Tuesday night's All-Star starter Greg Maddux said. "I haven't seen any closers dominate like him. When he's right, it's over."
Maddux can empathize with Wohlers' problems. He endured a similar stretch in 1990 during his third full season in the majors when he couldn't throw a fastball inside to left-handed hitters. Finally, with then-Expos second baseman Delino DeShields at the plate with a 1-2 count, he overcame his reluctance.
"For 10 or 12 starts I was out there thinking I wasn't capable of pitching," Maddux remembered. "I hadn't thrown a fastball in to a left-hander in two months. I was afraid to throw it. The catcher called for it and I shook (my head). Then I said, `Wait a minute, he's right. That's what I've got to throw.' I stepped off the mound and convinced myself to throw it. I threw it and buried it inside on him and he hit a three-hopper back to me. That was my switch.
"The next inning the catcher called for a fastball in and I didn't even hesitate."
Maddux draws a similar parallel with Wohlers. It's not about throwing strikes, he says, it's about him thinking too much, instead of trusting his ability.
"It's something that could turn just like that," Maddux said, snapping his fingers. "The only question is when. Obviously, the sooner the better."
Wohlers says he thinks he's conquered his problems. But the true test won't be against Toledo or Pawtucket, but back in Atlanta in another week against the Brewers.
"(Fischer) and I have made a lot of progress the last two days," Wohlers said. "We worked on the side and got some things going pretty good."
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