Braves' Chris Sale solidifies All-Star resume, praises 'sparkplug' teammate Jarred Kelenic

ATLANTA — After Jarred Kelenic got his swing fixed six weeks ago during a road series against the Chicago Cubs, the Braves outfielder made immediate, significant improvement. And when he moved from a left-field platoon to an everyday role that same week after Ronald Acuña Jr.’s knee injury, Kelenic added something to his pregame regimen.

The left-handed hitter did his usual routine of hitting balls off a tee, then hit some soft-tossed. The twist was that Kelenic would then crank up the machine to simulate sliders from lefty pitchers, since he’d be facing them now and knew that was a pitch he needed to work on.

“So that’s what he’s been doing every day, and then we were facing somebody who throws gas,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said, pausing for a moment to recall which pitcher that was who threw gas, meaning he threw very hard. He quickly remembered. “It was (Paul) Skenes, the day we were facing Skenes. And (Kelenic) goes, ‘I think I’m gonna hit fastballs today.’ And I go, ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea.’”

That was Saturday when the Braves faced the Pittsburgh Pirates’ towering right-hander, a rookie flamethrower. Seitzer told Kelenic he didn’t think it’d be a good idea to disrupt the routine he’d had during his surge; Kelenic was batting .311 with 12 extra-base hits including five homers in his last 29 games before Saturday.

“And he goes, ‘Well, I want to be on time for this heater,’” Seitzer said. “And I said, ‘Dude you can hit a fastball. Stay with your routine, stay with what you’ve been doing, hit your left-handed sliders and go get ‘em.’”

Kelenic saw Seitzer’s logic and followed his suggestion. He stuck with the left-on-left sliders off the machine before Saturday’s game, and …

“Homered the first at-bat,” Seitzer said, smiling.

Kelenic deposited Skenes’ third pitch of the game, a 98.4 mph fastball up in the strike zone, into the right-field seats.

Notwithstanding his 0-for-4 in Wednesday night’s 3-1 win against the San Francisco Giants — just his fourth hitless game since June 14 — Kelenic has been stellar in leadoff and center-field duties, flying around and catching everything from gap to gap on defense while providing a spark atop the order with power, speed and relentless energy.

“He’s been really good both offensively and defensively,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said before Wednesday’s game.

The Braves took a 3-0 lead behind Adam Duvall’s second-inning RBI double — one of three hits for the long-slumping Duvall — and Austin Riley’s fifth-inning two-run double. Chris Sale struck out nine over six innings of three-hit ball for his National League-leading 11th win, in 14 decisions.

Sale further solidified his resume for what seems a certain All-Star selection when pitchers and reserves for NL and AL teams are announced Sunday. It would be the eighth All-Star berth for the 35-year-old left-hander and his first since 2018, the last of seven consecutive AL All-Star seasons with the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox before injuries sidetracked his career.

Asked how gratifying it was to have 11 wins before the break given his recent injury-plagued seasons, Sale smiled and said, “Yeah, is that more wins than I’ve got in like the last five years combined?”

For the record, Sale has as many wins this season as the past four years combined, after missing 2020 coming off Tommy John surgery and going 11-7 with a 3.93 ERA during 31 total starts from 2021-2023 with 151 total innings pitched in that three-season span.

“No, it’s good. It’s great,” he said. “I definitely appreciate it. I do want to point out that to get there you obviously have to have guys scoring runs. Our defense has been damn near perfect. And you look at tonight, the bullpen came in and the game was over in the seventh inning. So, all those things help a lot and I definitely appreciate that.”

Now Sale is tied for the major-league lead in WHIP (0.91) and ranks fourth in strikeouts (127 in 99 2/3 innings, with just 19 walks). Fellow Braves starters Reynaldo López and Max Fried are also strong All-Star candidates along with Atlanta designated hitter Marcell Ozuna.

“That would be a lot of fun,” said Sale, who should have two more starts before the All-Star break. “I’m not exactly sure how it’s all going to shake out, but the more teammates we can get there the more fun it would be.”

Sale didn’t want to talk at length about what it would mean for him to return to the All-Star Game because, he said, the Braves still have a lot of baseball left before the break and he wants to focus on that. But he was eager to discuss Braves teammates including Duvall, a Red Sox teammate last year —  “Across the board, you’re not going to find a more respected guy,” Sale said —  and Kelenic.

“That guy’s been a sparkplug,” Sale said of Kelenic. “There’s no other way to say it. What he’s been able to do, basically as soon as he started to play every day and getting his reps, he took off. You put him in that leadoff spot and I don’t know the numbers, but I can’t imagine there’s too many guys in the leadoff spot since he started that have done better than him.”

Since moving into the leadoff spot June 15, Kelenic had a .323 average with three doubles, five homers and a .966 OPS in 16 games before Wednesday.

Also, from someone known for his hyper-intensity, Sale appreciates that aspect of Kelenic’s game: “He gets fired up, and it’s very contagious throughout the lineup and even in the dugout. He gets the game going right out of the gate. It’s a lot of fun to be around.”

Beginning with the May 21-23 series at Chicago, Kelenic, after tinkering with his swing since spring training with Seitzer and assistant hitting coach Bobby Magallanes, found his groove with hands lowered and shoulders and upper body more relaxed.

The results: .304 average with seven homers, 19 RBIs and a .902 OPS in his past 35 games before Wednesday. That was after hitting .245 with two homers, seven RBIs and a .630 OPS in his first 35 games with Atlanta.

“He’s just getting more comfortable and more confident. He’s in a real good place mentally,” Seitzer said of Kelenic, who’ll turn 25 on July 16. “The big thing, he’s really focused on his plan of where he’s hunting (pitches) and keeping his approach, staying middle of the field, left-center, and letting everything else take care of itself.”

As Sale noted, Kelenic’s emotions run strong, evident by the broken foot he sustained last summer with Seattle when he kicked a dugout cooler out of frustration.

“He sometimes goes a little crazy,” Ozuna said, then laughed before adding, “but he figures it out.”

“Yeah, he’s fiery,” Seitzer said. “He gets himself in a fastball count and then all of a sudden he’s coming out of his shoes, and we have to have a talk. It’s like, he goes too hard in 2-0 (counts) and still goes too hard on 3-1, and then he gets two strikes and all of a sudden it’s controlled and it’s a bullet somewhere. So, I’m proud of him.”

The Braves took on bad contracts and spent about $17 million to gain five years of contractual control of Kelenic via a trade with Seattle, so strongly did they believe his talent surpassed his career stats in his first three MLB seasons.

“He was wanting to get off to a good start, and he was fighting and grinding, making swing adjustments and all that,” Seitzer said. “Now it’s just night and day from where he started. I’m really proud of the adjustments he’s made. Being able to control himself emotionally, he’s just so much better.”

The Braves won that Saturday game against the Pirates 2-1 in 10 innings, and Kelenic had a homer, single and walk in three plate appearances against Skenes, who retired everyone else in the lineup at least once.

Kelenic had another double Tuesday against the Giants but impacted that game more with defense. He made two sensational running catches in the left-center and right-center gaps to rob Matt Chapman of extra-base hits in the second and third innings, the latter catch an inning-ending highlight play that prevented two runs.

“He’s a really talented kid,” Snitker, who was asked if Kelenic’s defense had surpassed his expectations and initially replied that he didn’t know what to expect. “The skills are really good. His arm’s strong and accurate, he’s got good speed, good outfielder. I don’t think it bothers him (moving from one outfield position to another), because we played him a little bit in right, too. It doesn’t matter to him, he’s an outfielder, he’ll play any of them.”

When a reporter said something to Seitzer about Kelenic’s talent level, Seitzer replied: “Off the charts. How ‘bout the defense, too? Unbelievable.”

Earlier in the day Wednesday, Snitker came back around to the original question about Kelenic’s defense.

“Yeah, it’s better than I thought, honestly,” he said. “You never know what to think — you can watch video and all that, but until you see them live … ”

Snitker didn’t finish the sentence, but instead put it simply: “He’s been really good.”

(Photo of Chris Sale: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)

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