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Braves' unlikely star

Unheralded Sosa proves valuable to Atlanta staff

Atlanta pitcher Jorge Sosa, whose trade to the Braves didn't draw much attention, has 13 wins this year.
Atlanta pitcher Jorge Sosa, whose trade to the Braves didn't draw much attention, has 13 wins this year.
Tom Uhlman, Associated Press

ATLANTA — The transaction drew little notice in the waning days of spring training — a few words on television and radio, a line or two in the newspaper, a mere blip on the Internet.

Fine-tuning their roster, the Atlanta Braves traded a utility infielder to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for an outfielder-turned-pitcher whose career numbers — 11 wins, 26 losses, a 5.17 ERA — provided scant hope of him being anything more than the 10th or 11th guy on the staff.

Well, just imagine where the Braves would be without Jorge Sosa.

The 27-year-old right-hander, who had all the credentials for the dreaded journeyman tag, instead has been a godsend for Atlanta's injury plagued rotation. He's got as many wins as Tim Hudson and went into the next-to-last weekend of the regular season just one behind All-Star John Smoltz.

With Mike Hampton out until 2007, John Thomson still struggling to come back from a damaged finger and Horacio Ramirez enduring an up-and-down season, Sosa has emerged as one of the Braves' most dependable starters.

"He's got 13 wins," Chipper Jones said. "That's a difference maker with the amount of injuries we've had to our pitching staff this year. We were able to dip down in the bullpen and have him start — good start after good start, five, six, seven innings every time out, giving us a chance to win."

The lanky Sosa took a long, winding path to the big leagues.

A native of the Dominican Republic, he began as an outfielder in the Colorado organization at age 17. Five years later, Sosa was drafted away by Seattle, which noticed his strong arm and converted him to a pitcher. A year later, with that process off to a promising start, he was picked again in the minor league draft by Milwaukee.

But the Brewers put Sosa on waivers the following spring, and he was claimed by the lowly Devil Rays.

For the next three seasons, Sosa bounced between Tampa Bay and the minors, showing glimpses of his potential but never much consistency.

He went 2-7 with a 5.53 ERA in 2002, making 14 starts and 17 relief appearances. A year later, Sosa was 5-12 with a 4.62 ERA, again splitting his time between starting and relieving. Last season, working mostly as a reliever, he was 4-7 with a 5.53 ERA.

This past spring, the Braves approached the start of the season worrying about the depth in their bullpen. General manager John Schuerholz had gotten good reports on Sosa from one of his scouts, former major league manager Jim Fregosi, and called up the Devil Rays offering utility infielder Nick Green.

"Nobody had any expectations except that he could be on our pitching staff and help us win," Schuerholz said. "And that's what I go on."

Actually, the deal wasn't all that popular in Atlanta. Green grew up in the suburbs, played at Georgia Perimeter College and did a surprisingly good job holding down second base last season when Marcus Giles missed two months with a broken collarbone.

"Everybody wanted to run me out of town," Schuerholz said, overstating the reaction just a bit. "But Nick was going to be a utility infielder, and we needed pitching arms. We got a good one."

Did they ever. After infrequent relief appearances in April and May — he worked a mere 22 innings — Sosa got his first start for the Braves on June 14 at Texas, pressed into service because of injuries to Hampton and Thomson.

Sosa responded with five solid innings against the power-hitting Rangers, allowing just two runs on five hits, striking out seven with no walks, and getting credit for a 7-2 win.

Building up his stamina and earning the confidence of manager Bobby Cox, Sosa clung to his spot in the rotation with one solid outing after another. In 18 starts, he's allowed more than three runs only once — and had three appearances in which he didn't give up any runs.

The latest such outing came this past Tuesday, when Sosa went 6 2/3 scoreless innings against the Phillies, improving to 13-3 with a 4-1 victory. It was his second win over second-place Philadelphia in less than a week — the only two wins the Braves managed in seven recent games against their closest pursuer. Thanks largely to Sosa, Atlanta went into a weekend series against Florida still holding a four-game lead in the NL East with nine to play, closing in on its 14th straight division title despite winning just 11 of its first 20 games in September.

Four of those wins belonged to Sosa. Without them, the Braves might be eyeing the end of their dynasty.

"He's got 13 wins and pretty much carried us through a stretch there," catcher Johnny Estrada said. "He'd take the hill and we knew we were getting seven shutout innings. He's been a big pickup for us."

Sosa's ERA as a starter, 2.48, is by far the lowest in the Atlanta rotation. He's about a half-run lower than Smoltz, a former Cy Young Award winner, and a full run lower than Hudson, a one-time 20-game winner and the team's most prominent acquisition of the last offseason.

Sosa credits his amazing turnaround to joining the Braves, who have a long tradition of turning nondescript pitchers into winners.

"It's definitely the team," he said. "I never had trouble pitching, but now here, I can look at John Smoltz, John Thomson, the other pitchers."

Pitching coach Leo Mazzone has worked with Sosa, preaching the message that has worked on so many others: commanding down and away, simplifying the game, executing on a more consistent basis.

Sosa has a mid-90s fastball, a decent slider and a deceptive motion that keeps hitters from picking up the ball as quickly as they would like. He also has a knack for getting into trouble — only two hits but a career-high six walks in his last start — and then bailing himself out.

"He just makes pitches when he has to," Estrada said. "He's got that slider that sometimes looks invisible to hitters, but they'll swing at it. We've been calling him Houdini all season long."