|The Braves are limiting Jonny Venters, who led the majors in 2011 with 85 appearances. (Getty Images)|
ATLANTA -- So far, mostly so good with the oil and lube job of the Braves bullpen. Walk out there, you don't smell anything burning.
Craig Kimbrel is running smoothly, leading the National League with 16 saves. Eric O'Flaherty isn't smoking. Jonny Venters is sputtering. But he insists it has nothing to do with last summer's treadwear. Rather, get this: He wonders if maybe his current inconsistency derives from too little work.
"We're trying to get our work in the bullpen," says Venters, and anyone who watched manager Fredi Gonzalez practically tear a rotator cuff waving relievers into games last summer knows that the Braves have done a complete 180.
"It's a new thing for me," continues Venters, who is 3-2 with a 3.54 ERA after last summer's terrific 1.84 ERA. "I've pitched a lot ever since I came up, and ... it's definitely a feeling-out process for what I need to do to get ready to pitch with two or three or four days' rest, whatever it may be."
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An All-Star in 2011, Venters led the majors by appearing in a whopping 85 games. Kimbrel, also an All-Star, tied for second in the NL with 79 appearances. O'Flaherty ranked tied for fifth with 78 appearances.
Together, they were more visible in Atlanta than the Coca-Cola logo.
But as the Braves produced a parallel September collapse to the Red Sox (motto: "All the misery of Boston's, without the collateral damage"), a bullpen wound up leading the majors with a 3.03 ERA still wilted like a Cherokee Rose left unwatered.
"I think if you really look post-All-Star Game last year, the workload was down," Braves general manager Frank Wren says. "That was intentional. Fredi and Roger [McDowell, Atlanta pitching coach] both started being very intentional about trying not to use them unless it was a save situation. Because we were all aware that their workload was heavy in the first half.
"It was no one's fault. It was predicated on the number of one-run games, extra-inning games, tied games.
"Every win was valuable. As we found out on the 162nd day of the year."
Together, Wren, Gonzalez and McDowell outlined a plan for this year: The Braves' three-armed monster, as much as possible, would only work in save situations or tied games.
What's made it easier to stick to, aside from their own convictions, has been the way games have played out this year.
"So far, our offense has been able to not [make] us use those guys", as Gonzalez puts it.
Through 54 games, the Braves have played only 11 one-run games, as opposed to 18 through the first 54 in 2011. They've played 14 games decided by five or more runs, as opposed to 11 at this time a year ago.
With a little more breathing room, the Braves have been able to give O'Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel more space.
"We were playing so many one-run games and tie games and extra-inning games," Gonzalez says of 2011. "You hate to pick up microphone in the middle of the ninth inning and say, 'I'm going to use Martin Prado to pitch because I don't want to use Kimbrel today' to your fans, because we're trying to win ballgames."
Kimbrel, coming off of his Rookie of the Year season, has worked in 20 of the Braves' first 54 games in 2012. A year ago, he made his 20th appearance in Atlanta's 42nd game on May 15.
Venters has worked in 24 of the Braves' first 54. Last summer, he racked up his 24th appearance in Atlanta's 44th game on May 17.
O'Flaherty is at 22 appearances through 54 games. Last year, he was at 22 through 40 games, on May 13.
Overall, the Braves' bullpen has yet to reach its sensational level of 2011. So far in 2012, the Braves' 3.61 bullpen ERA ranks eighth in the NL.
Though Kimbrel sits atop the save leaders, O'Flaherty checks in with a 3.66 ERA after leading all major-league relievers with an 0.98 ERA last year -- lowest ERA in major-league history for any pitcher working at least 75 games. And Venters' ERA is up nearly two runs a game.
Venters and Kimbrel both insist they were not gassed last September, despite late-season numbers that gave off that impression.
"No, it was kind of the same thing I'm doing right now," Venters says. "I didn't make many pitches in September. It just happened to be Craig and I both struggled. Everybody thought we were tired. But you know, everybody's tired, it's September, it's 162 games.
"It comes down to pitching and throwing strikes, and I didn't do that in September and I'm not doing it now."
The Braves say they currently are seeing no hangover-type effect.
"Those were outstanding numbers they put up," Wren says. "There's going to be some decline, just naturally. They're still quality pitchers and once we get everything falling into place, get everyone healthy and into a routine, it'll all work out."
He was speaking of the club's recent spate of injuries -- Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman and others -- that sent the Braves spinning toward eight consecutive losses recently. Suddenly, for a short time, the lineup wasn't giving the pitchers much breathing room.
As Wren says, wins are wins and you've got to grab them when you can. Atlanta owned that 8½-game lead in the wild-card standings last Sept. 1 ... only to watch it crumble.
While O'Flaherty now has produced 10 consecutive appearances without yielding an earned run, Venters is seeing too much side-to-side movement and not enough biting, downward sink on his sinker.
Could it be that after working in more games than any other reliever in baseball last year ... that he's too rested in 2012? Crazy, but he's even taken to extra work in the bullpen at times. Last summer, he never even had the chance to come up for air to think about something like that.
It's both the beauty and the curse of the game. Baseball is an inexact science.
Nobody has seen that more than the Braves over the past year.
"Double-edged sword," Wren says. "I think the amount they're being used is right. We're just not quite as sharp as we were last year.
"It's just hard to pitch at the level those three guys pitched at last year.
Says Gonzalez: "Maybe now we're not using them enough. Maybe they're too fresh. It's a fine line, how much is too much or how much is not enough.
"At the end of the day its wins and losses. Bottom line."