Julio Teheran spent years as a highly regarded pitching prospect in the Atlanta Braves organization. His masterful performance on May 20 against the Minnesota Twins may have served notice that the future is now.
The 22-year-old righty carried a shutout into the ninth inning on Monday before Josh Willingham's solo-homer finally put the Twins on the board.
Teheran finished his night allowing just that lone run on five hits in 8.1 IP. Not only was it the deepest into a game he has pitched in his brief time in the major leagues, but he also fired a career-high 123 pitches in the process.
Spinning a three-hit shutout through eight innings, manager Fredi Gonzalez had no reservations about sending his young righty back out for a chance to finish the gem.
"I think it was good for him to experience that in the ninth inning," said Gonzalez. "He had an extra day [of rest] coming into the start and he'll get an extra day going out of the start. We took that into consideration, and it was good for him to dig deep down in the gas tank and see if he could do it. By God, he gave it a good shot."
Though he was unable to close it out, Teheran has been steadily finding his comfort zone after some rocky results in the early going. His ERA stood at 7.31 after his first three starting assignments, but Teheran has turned a corner since.
Over his last five starts, Teheran is 3-1 with a 2.41 ERA in 33.2 IP. His seasonal ERA now stands at 3.99, while his only loss came in a game in which the Braves were shut out by the Arizona Diamondbacks on May 14.
Perhaps more encouraging, the young righty has shown a penchant for attacking the strike zone. Teheran has issued just two walks in his last five outings while fanning 18 batters.
In this recent stretch he has looked much more like the pitcher who blazed his way through spring training with a National League-best 1.09 ERA.
Gonzalez saw an opportunity to continue Teheran’s development by pairing him with veteran catcher Gerald Laird, who was signed by Atlanta in the offseason.
The battery worked together throughout Grapefruit League play as Teheran began to incorporate a brand new two-seam fastball into his repertoire. Scaling back on velocity in order to add some sinking action, the pitch has truly become a difference maker for Teheran.
"He's getting more and more confidence in that sinker, and that's the pitch that's taken him to the next level," said Laird. "He's just hitting his location and trusting his pitches and that's all that matters. He's throwing strikes and doing a good job."
Not only has that sinker been instrumental to his success, but his ability to consistently attack hitters and execute his game plan has drawn the attention of his teammates.
"He's really done a great job of working both sides of the plate I think," said second baseman Dan Uggla. "He's mixing in his off-speed pitches when necessary, [but] when you're working both sides of the plate like that, you're going to be effective."
Because his name has appeared on countless top prospect sheets for the better part of three years, it would be easy for one to assume that Teheran had grown a little long in the tooth after two full seasons in Triple-A Gwinnett.
That is simply not the case.
"He's a mature 22, and you forget that he's only 22. I'm impressed with him," said Uggla. "He's got a good head on his shoulders and he knows that he's got to keep learning and keep improving."
The spring was a fine indicator that Teheran's 2012 struggles in the International League may have simply been an aberration.
"Last year I was trying to compete physically, not mentally like I [am] this year." Teheran said after his fifth spring training start. "[I'm] trying to compete with my mind, trying to pitch more than throw."
With his potential now translating into success at the big league level, Teheran appears poised to be a big part of Atlanta's future plans.
Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Atlanta Sports Radio 92.9 The Game. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow Grant on Twitter.