ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Joey Devine said Thursday that seldom does a day pass that his mind doesn't drift to the way the Braves' 2005 season ended.
Careful, though. Don't misinterpret that.
The 22-year-old reliever doesn't dwell on the fact that his final pitch of the year - a Chris Burke home run in the 18th inning - sent Houston to the NLCS and Atlanta home.
He instead talks about the game as if he were sitting with Nolan Ryan behind the backstop, munching on a hot dog and having a cold one on that October afternoon.
"What a great baseball game. I still, to this day, think about that game," Devine said. "That's the best game I've ever been a part of - 18 innings in the playoffs. At 22 years old, you can't ask for anything more than that."
Certainly not the kind of association most would have with the epic game, which has his name attached as the losing pitcher. Then again, seems like Devine isn't exactly mentally conventional.
His Kansas-born brand of brain toughness - Devine says he got it from his parents - has all his teammates' respect.
That's mostly related to the way he muscled through more on-field adversity in two months than most players in the game have seen.
"I don't know anyone in the history of the game who went through more to start out," veteran John Smoltz said.
In addition to the season finale in Houston, the 2005 first-round pick is thought to be the first player in baseball history to allow grand slams in his initial two outings, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. San Diego's Xavier Nady spoiled his debut with a 13th-inning slam Aug. 20. Chicago's Jeromy Burnitz added the second two days later.
And then there was Burke's shot, which reduced Devine to a teary mess in the Minute Maid Park tunnel after the game.
"To be out on the mound to end a season that those guys had worked so hard for," Devine said, "that was tough."
Veterans, front-office types and coaches all told Devine that the loss wasn't his fault and that he shouldn't pin it on himself. Starter Tim Hudson, as much of a bulldog competitor as anyone in the team's clubhouse, was one of the Braves who offered words of consolation.
"I know where I was right out of college, and I wasn't where he's at," Hudson said. "As a young guy, you hope it doesn't affect him mentally or affect his confidence. I don't think it will."
The outpouring - one that continues from fans each day at spring training, Devine said - was all it took for emotional clearance.
"That made the process a lot easier to let go," Devine said.
Devine has looked solid overall in spring's early going.
Working with new pitching coach Roger McDowell on using his sinking fastball and hard-breaking curve has paid off thus far.
Everything has Devine looking and feeling, he said, more like the pitcher he was a year ago, when he was closing games at North Carolina State. In his senior year, Devine struck out 72 and walked just 10.
"He's locating his fastball, his sinker, much better," manager Bobby Cox said. "He's done well this spring. He's really made some strides."
Reach R. Travis Haney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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