Exempting the friendly onlookers at his past five minor league rehab starts and the spring training visitors who perhaps caught a glimpse of the right-hander down at Walt Disney's Orlando resort, the last time Atlanta Braves fans watched Brandon Beachy throw a baseball was 362 days ago.
In an eventual 5-0 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, Beachy made it through 12 batters without allowing a run before visibly wincing and succumbing to the nagging pain in his right elbow, a feeling verified by an MRI that ended his stellar 2012 campaign partially torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), Tommy John surgery, rehab, rehab, decelerated rehab, frustration and more rehab.
In the oft-utilized photos from that hurried fourth inning mound visit, one in which manager Fredi Gonzalez took the ball from the 26-year-old for the final time in 2012, there's a distant look in the ace's eyes. He looks down, then out across the diamond, then into the crowd. After mentioning elbow soreness in prior starts, he knew the diagnosis from the beginning.
The aforementioned and grueling rehab went as planned, though, and Thursday night Beachy took a minor league mound for what is scheduled to be his final time. If the current plan holds, he will take the mound in Game 2 of the Mets doubleheader on June 18.
For what it's worth (at least in terms of reporting off a radio broadcast and scouring the Triple-A Gwinnett-Rochester stat sheet), the final start did not necessarily fit the blueprint.
On a cool, damp night in New York an evening that did not appear conducive to baseball until the last minute according to local weather reports and the Gwinnett Braves' most public of public relations assets (Twitter), which could have thrown a wrench into Beachy's comeback plan indeed Beachy pitched just three innings, allowing three runs on three hits while walking (a somewhat eyebrow-raising) four Red Wing batters. He fell behind in every count.
Gwinnett manager Randy Ready stated before the game Beachy was scheduled to pitch four to five innings, but his pitch count (69, 38 strikes) likely played a factor in his early trip to the clubhouse. Play-by-play broadcaster Tony Schiavone said the right-hander consistently hit 90- to 91-mpb on his fastball Thursday, which hovers just under his career average (91.6).
In five minor league starts for affiliates Rome, Mississippi and Gwinnett, Beachy pitched 22 innings with a 3.27 ERA, striking out 22 batters and walking 12. His walk rate spiked in three outings for Gwinnett, but with the Braves entering an eight-games-in-seven-days stretch after coming off a difficult three-game series in San Diego Julio Teheran, Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm allowed 12 earned runs in three defeats the timing seems right.
The only issue now: logistics.
On June 13, 2013, if one were to corner every member of the Atlanta Braves' front office and demand an answer to the following question: "Barring injury or developmental hurdles, who is the eventual ace of your current pitching staff?" chances are Beachy's name comes up more times than not. Sure, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and even Teheran will be among the names mentioned, but there's a certain steadiness to the idea of last season's pre-DL ERA leader.
He's the quintessential No. 1 starter: 6-foot-3, solid strikeout-to-walk rates, easy delivery, four "plus" pitches that have shown gradual improvement in his three seasons in the big leagues. He's expected to be the guy; he expects that of himself.
Which brings us back around to the Braves rotation, which, despite the absence of one of the NL's top starters, has held down the fort admirably this season: tied for first in team ERA, fifth in FIP, 13th in fWAR. Minor is on an All-Star pace, Medlen is regaining his form, Teheran (up until his last outing against the Padres) shows improvement with each start, and Maholm and Hudson have proven to be steady and sometimes dominant veteran arms.
So where to plug in the guy?
Should the Braves bring him up through the bullpen a la post-Tommy John Kris Medlen? Should the team go with a six-man rotation? Could another starter say, Maholm, Teheran or Medlen be assigned to relief duties?
Medlen, who went on a well-publicized tour de force after being plugged into the starter's role last season, made his aversion to returning to the 'pen known this week, but did concede that it makes little sense to send Beachy there as well: "Build him up (as a starter during rehab assignments) just to put him in the pen?" No questions there. The Braves have rehabbed Beachy as a starter, nothing less or, granted, a long, long reliever.
From an outsider's perspective, if the Braves are not going to go with a six-man rotation, Maholm seems like a possible choice for long relieflefty specialist duty out of the bullpen. After a lights-out start, he's now allowed three or more runs in five of his last seven starts, and of all the team's starters seems like the most likely option. Of course, Teheran still has minor league options available do not count on the team altering his development with a stay in the bullpen should the Braves elect to keep Maholm, a veteran, on the staff, and trading a veteran for bullpen help is not outside the realm of possibility.
Not that those are definitive plans just rough possibilities. There might be three or four correct answers to the same question here.
For now, though, after a shaky start in Rochester to presumably end his rehab, Brandon Beachy is well on his way back to the Turner Field mound. For the first time in 362 days and counting, it's time to see firsthand if he's back to being the pitcher the organization has placed so much of its belief in.