NEW YORK — Allan Winans walked twice around the warning track two hours before the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, admiring Citi Field, the ballpark that the Braves rookie once aspired to call home. Then he went out and earned his first major-league win by sticking it to the Mets, the team that left him unprotected in the 2021 Rule 5 draft.
“Getting to come here and do it against those guys makes it a little more special,” said Winans, a slender right-hander who limited the Mets to four hits and two walks, one intentional, while striking out nine in seven scoreless innings of a 21-3 Braves rout in the first game of a doubleheader and the second game of his major-league career.
Atlanta’s Spencer Strider had a modest (for him) six strikeouts in seven innings in the nightcap, a 6-0 win that gave the Braves a doubleheader sweep, an 8-1 record against the Mets this season, and 14 wins in the past 16 games between the teams. The Braves, who will go for a four-game sweep Sunday, have outscored New York 34-3 in the series, the Mets’ worst run differential over a three-game stretch in franchise history.
Atlanta has baseball’s best record and wants to win every game, second baseman Ozzie Albies said, but the Braves take particular enjoyment from beating the Mets. “Lot more pleasure, of course,” he said. “Because they always say they’re going to beat us. That’s all I can say; I won’t say much.”
The Braves paid a standard $24,500 fee to the Mets when they selected Winans in the minor-league phase of the Rule 5 draft just 20 months ago. On Saturday, he reminded the Mets that triple-digit fastballs, not to mention record-setting payrolls, aren’t requirements (or guarantees) of success.
Winans, who threw 111 pitches including a whopping 80 strikes, had only three batters reach second base against him.
“He was great,” Strider said. “He commands the ball really well. His fastball moves a ton, his changeup is really good. It’s great to watch him pitch. Hopefully we get to see him throw some more. But it was big for us to go seven, and that (first game) game, I’m sure it was tough, he had some long innings he had to sit through. Shows a lot that he could go out and be that effective.”
Winans was the designated extra (27th) man brought up for the doubleheader, though it’s safe to assume we’ve not seen the last of him this season.
“My job today was to help the Braves win, and that’s what we did today,” he said. “So I was pretty happy with it.”
Allan Winans, Wicked 80mph Back Foot Slider…and Sword. ⚔️
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 12, 2023
The Braves’ 22 hits in the first game included six homers, two off the scorching bat of Matt Olson, who raised his majors-leading totals to 42 home runs and 105 RBIs with his seventh multi-homer game of the season.
Newcomer Nicky Lopez, a utility infielder acquired in a trade-deadline deal from Kansas City, made his first start for Atlanta and went 4-for-6 with a double, a homer and five RBIs in the Game 1 onslaught. He also pitched a scoreless ninth inning in the game in his second career relief appearance.
Lopez and Austin Riley homered in an eight-run ninth inning in Game 1 against Danny Mendick, a second baseman pitching in a game that had long since gotten away from the Mets. The Braves have hit six or more homers in a game three times this season and are on pace for 314, which would break the MLB single-season record of 307 by the 2019 Minnesota Twins.
But on this afternoon, the Braves’ prodigious sluggers and Olson’s stunning surge — 10 homers and 25 RBIs in his past 16 games, 25 homers and 62 RBIs in his past 52 games — shared the stage with a 27-year-old rookie pitcher who topped out at 90.9 mph, which is normal for Winans but atypical in this age of velocity, velocity and more velocity.
“That was about as big as it gets here, just for where the bullpen was,” said manager Brian Snitker, whose Braves are in a stretch of 14 games in 13 days, and had not had a starter pitch more than five innings in seven games before getting two seven-inning scoreless starts Saturday beginning with Winans. “That was huge, what he accomplished out there and what he did, and gets his first major-league win — it was awesome.”
After the nightcap, Snitker reiterated said, “The biggest thing today was the starts. We went through a whole week where (every starter exited early). And we knew at some point in time we were going to turn that around, too. Something like this is a really good stepping stone.”
Olson said of Winans, “I thought he looked great first start, and I thought he looked great today too. Looked like it took him a couple of innings to fully settle in, but once he settled in, he was putting stuff where he wanted, he was mixing up stuff really well, changeup was keeping guys off balance all day. He’s had two great starts with us.”
Three weeks after making his debut with a spot start against the Brewers at Milwaukee, Winans returned from Triple A and served notice that he could be a back-of-the-rotation factor during the Braves’ stretch drive. He also reminded the disappointing Mets and their frustrated fans what they gave up for practically nothing — and to the rival Braves, to boot.
“I’m gonna keep saying it, but being in the big leagues is motivation enough,” said Winans, a Bakersfield, Calif. native who played at Campbell University in North Carolina. “Trying to help a team win a championship is motivation enough. But it makes it a little more special when it’s against a former team and some people that you’re familiar with.
“There’s some familiar faces on the other side, so it was good to see those guys and compete against them.”
Among current Mets he knows well are infielders Mark Vientos and Brett Baty, catcher Francisco Alvarez, and pitchers Josh Walker and Tyler Megill. Between games of the doubleheader, Winans and Megill stood near the Braves dugout for a long time, talking.
The Mets left Winans off their 38-man Triple-A roster after the 2021 season and unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, despite his 1.72 ERA in 26 relief appearances that season in High A and Double A. He didn’t throw hard enough for them to protect.
“It was a little surprising,” Winans said. “I felt like I had a pretty good year. And obviously I have all the utmost confidence in myself. But they chose to go in a different direction, and the Braves chose to go my direction. So, I’m pretty thankful.”
The Braves took him in the Rule 5, then used him primarily as a starter in 2022 — his first time in that role since 2018 — and saw Winans post a 3.08 ERA in 14 games at three levels. He began 2023 at Triple-A Gwinnett, where he has a 2.79 ERA in 20 games (15 starts) with 101 strikeouts and 29 walks in 113 innings.
It was an underwhelming Mets lineup he faced, but Winans still was impressive. After two MLB starts, he’s 1-0 with a 1.59 ERA and has 14 strikeouts and three walks in 11 1/3 innings. He’s shown it’s possible to compete at the big-league level without throwing mid- to upper-90s gas if you locate and change speeds.
Relying mostly on a highly effective changeup and 88-91 mph sinkers against the Mets, he also mixed in quality sliders and 89-90 mph four-seam fastballs. Seven of his 15 swings-and-misses came on the changeup.
The Mets loaded the bases in the first inning on two walks and a hit batter before Winans struck out Abraham Almonte. He had perfect innings in the second, third and fifth.
In his MLB debut on July 22 at Milwaukee, he gave up five hits and two runs with one walk in 4 1/3 innings. Three hits and both runs came in his fifth and final inning, the hits on ground balls. Saturday, only two balls put in play against Winans had exit velocities of 98 mph or higher.
“I feel like I’m a competitor at heart,” he said. “I showed I can compete at this level. I’m scratching the surface. I have a lot more things to work on, a lot more things I can get better at. But I’m definitely happy with today and enjoying it.”
After intentionally walking Pete Alonso with two outs and a runner on in the first inning, Winans struck out the slugger each of the next two times he faced him, including a four-pitch sixth-inning K after Jeff McNeil’s leadoff single.
Winans was at 96 pitches when Snitker sent him back out to pitch the seventh. After giving up a leadoff double to Omar Narváez, the only extra-base hit against Winans, he retired the next three batters on a popup and two groundouts.
“In Milwaukee I got my ground balls,” Winans said. “I’ve got to be happy with that, that’s kind of my (modus operandi) is try to keep the ball on the ground. (The Brewers) found some holes, which is gonna happen. But today, they weren’t finding a lot of holes, changeup was a lot better, the slider was pretty good. As the game went on I did feel like I got stronger because of (improved) fastball command. And Sean (Murphy) called a hell of a game.”
Winans smiled and added, “It’s pretty easy to go do your job when the team puts up 21 for you.”
Lopez was still with the Royals when Winans made his debut at Milwaukee, so this was his first time seeing him pitch.
“It was awesome,” Lopez said. “Halfway through the game I heard that (Winans) came from the Mets, which was awesome. Just to be able to do that against his old team. You never look at it as, like, a revenge game, but there’s a little chip on your shoulder to do that, and he pitched unbelievable.”
Lopez did his part to help. Known more for strong and versatile defense, he showed he also can still hit. Batting ninth, Lopez had a two-out RBI double in the second inning in his first Braves plate appearance. He added a run-scoring single in the three-run fourth inning, a single in the fifth, and his two-out, three-run homer in the ninth to the right-field upper deck.
“It was kind of cool, I got the anxiety and the butterflies like when I made my debut with the Royals,” he said. “It was kind of neat to feel that again.”
Though Lopez knows he’s not likely to play much at all barring an injury to an Atlanta infielder, he’s relished his first two weeks with the Braves.
“I’ve learned so much just being here, working every day with the hitting coaches and every day with (infielder coach Ron Washington),” he said. “And just staying ready. When I got traded I knew why I was coming here. Now I’m a defensive guy who also can hit. I knew why I was coming here, to help this team any way I can, and just always be ready.”
On Saturday, he and Winans were ready.
(Top photo of Allan Winans and Brian Snitker: Rich Schultz Getty Images)