ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - While most of the attention this spring has been centered on Horacio Ramirez, there's another young lefty who's front and center for a spot in the bullpen.
Andy Pratt is making an impression on the Atlanta Braves, who are restocking a bullpen hit hard by winter defections. The 23-year-old rookie, who has been touted by Greg Maddux as having "live stuff," relied primarily on his fastball in subduing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in a relief stint in Tuesday's 4-3 win.
"He's got solid major league stuff," manager Bobby Cox said. "He's real quick with his heater, it's on you real fast, and he's got a pretty good change."
Pratt, the son of a minor-league pitching coach, isn't sleeping well at night. Opening Day is only 12 days away and he has no clue whether he should look for an apartment in Richmond, Va., where he pitched last year with the Braves' Class AAA affiliate or check the Atlanta classifieds for housing.
"Sleeping? I'm not really sleeping at all," he said. "I try to get to bed early so I can get some rest."
Pratt arrived in the Braves organization via the Texas Rangers, who inexplicably designated him for assignment last April, then swapped him to Atlanta for minor-league pitcher Ben Kozlowski.
Pratt, 6-foot and 185 pounds, shakes his head at his departure from a team that took him in the ninth round of the 1998 draft.
"That made me realize it's more of a business than anything," he said.
The deal looked lopsided in the Rangers' favor when Pratt struggled in the first half (1-7, 6.32) at Class AA Greenville, but he earned a promotion to Richmond by winning three of five decisions with a 2.15 ERA after the All-Star break.
"He doesn't have pinpoint control, but he's just wild enough so nobody can dig in on him," then-Greenville first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Throwing hard on top of that, it's a pretty deadly combination. While he was there, I never really saw him get hit hard."
Pratt, who grew up in Arizona and Nebraska, where his father, Tom, was a pitching coach at Arizona State University and the University of Nebraska, said pitching in the big leagues has been a dream of his since he was five.
His love of the game developed without any prodding from his dad, who has been the pitching coach at Daytona, the Chicago Cubs' Single A affiliate, for the past five years.
"My dad never pressured me into it," he said. "I'd drag him out of bed at six in the morning to play catch. It's something I've always wanted to do."
There's nothing fancy about Pratt. His best pitch is a hard fastball, and he also features a curve, slider, and change-up. The only mystery is how he's added almost 10 miles per hour to his fastball. He attributes the increase, from the high 80s to the 95 to 96 mph range, to growing a bit and adding some weight. Pitching coach Leo Mazzone said the additional velocity has come because Pratt is trusting his stuff.
Now it's a matter of commanding it consistently.
In his last appearance, against the Detroit Tigers last Saturday in Lakeland, Fla., Pratt made a mistake while pitching todesignated hitter Dmitri Young, who whistled a fastball over the left-field wall.
"Should of come in on him," Pratt said, smiling ruefully. "He stands right on top of the plate."
In Tuesday's game, Pratt walked two and unleashed three pitches to the backstop during a scoreless eighth inning.
Mazzone describes Pratt's pitches as "above-average major league stuff." The pitching coach isn't ready to assign the him a locker in Turner Field's clubhouse yet.
"We're pitching him as often as we can to see how consistent he can be," Mazzone said.
Pratt's spring numbers suggest he is, as LaRoche attests, conveniently wild. He has struck out six and walked five in eight innings. and has limited opposing batters to a .160 average. The only other Braves pitcher with a better opposing average is Derrick Lewis' .043.
For now, any comparisons to veteran setup man Mike Remlinger, who signed with the Chicago Cubs this winter, are the product of overheated imaginations.
"I think I'm ready to pitch in the big leagues," Pratt said. "I still get nervous, but it's not a scared nervous, like I don't know what to expect. I know I can do it."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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