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They were strange, the things that happened after Jonny Venters threw that pitch on the afternoon of June 29 in Seattle. The delivery itself, to Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley, was not so different from the 709 pitches Venters threw before it in 2011, or from the 429 he had thrown after it through Sunday. It was a sinker, like more than three quarters of the pitches the 26-year-old lefthander has thrown in his second major league season, and it was hard, 92 miles per hour. Even that, though, is three miles per hour slower than Venters's average sinker, and perhaps that explained the pitch's odd outcome. The first strange thing was that Ackley made solid contact. Ackley bats lefthanded, and lefthanded hitters have mustered just nine hits, seven of them singles, against Venters this season, for an average of .127.
The second strange thing was that Ackley hit the ball in the air. Venters's sinker is singular in its production of ground balls. At week's end 75.3% of the balls hit fair against Venters this season were grounders, the highest rate for any pitcher since FanGraphs.com began tracking such a thing 10 years ago. "Can't remember any pitcher ever throwing 96-, 97-mile-an-hour sinkers that fall off the table like his," says Brian McCann, the Braves' catcher. (Asked to explain the source of his miraculous sinker, Venters pleads ignorance. "I got little girly hands," he says. "I don't know if that does anything.")
The strangest thing, though, was where the ball went: just over the short metal fence that tops the wall in rightfield at Safeco Field. As Ackley began to trot, Venters turned and smiled a little, as if bemused. His teammates were stunned. "Completely shocked," says David Ross, McCann's veteran backup. "I was so shocked that I was almost mad at Jonny—like, how'd you let that guy take you deep?"
It is, of course, not rare for a major leaguer to hit a home run. But although Venters had made 74 appearances at week's end, more than any other pitcher in baseball, Ackley's poke was the only one of those homers hit against him. More remarkable still is that Venters is not uniquely skilled in the Braves bullpen. Flamethrowing closer Craig Kimbrel, the 23-year-old probable National League Rookie of the Year, is fourth in the majors in appearances and on Aug. 31 set the alltime rookie record with his 41st save. He too had allowed but a single home run.
Among the 3,174 pitchers in big league history who have made at least 80 career appearances, Kimbrel—who pitched in 21 games as a call-up late last season—is tied with two others for the fewest home runs allowed: one. Venters, who allowed a single homer in 79 games as a rookie in 2010, is tied for fourth, with two. Their value to the Braves, however, is far greater than their ability to keep the ball in the yard. Only 68 men have had seasons in which they have pitched in 60 or more games with an ERA of 1.70 or less. One is Venters, whose ERA as of Sunday stood at 1.39. Another is Kimbrel. His ERA was 1.57.
The eighth-and-ninth-inning combination of Venters and Kimbrel would be intimidating enough to any team preparing to face Atlanta in a playoff series. (The Braves were 82--57 at week's end, with an 8½-game lead in the NL wild-card race.) Scarier still is that the Atlanta bullpen also features a third member of that rarefied list of 68 pitchers: 26-year-old lefty Eric O'Flaherty, who is usually called upon to pitch the seventh inning and had an ERA of 1.15. "O'Flaherty," says Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, "is kind of the unsung hero."
Before this season, O'Flaherty was known as a lefty specialist—a LOOGY, for Lefthanded One Out Guy. "Oh, man, that's a tag I've wanted to shake for so long," he says. He has shaken it. While O'Flaherty has stifled lefthanded batters, holding them to an average of .195 and an OPS of .517, he had faced twice as many righties. They were hitting .230 against him, with an OPS of .615. He had turned them, as a group, into the equivalent of light-hitting Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan. In one way O'Flaherty is inferior to Kimbrel and Venters. He had allowed two home runs in 2011. "I can't keep up with these guys," he says.
O'Flaherty, Kimbrel and Venters have, seemingly out of the ether, become one of the most dominant game-shortening trios ever. They also work in perfect symbiosis. Gonzalez initially intended for Venters to share ninth-inning duties with Kimbrel this season, but the lefty quickly became the regular setup man. ("There was no rhyme or reason to that, other than it's working," says Gonzalez.) That's exactly how the mild-mannered Venters prefers it. "That's his style: Come in, have a five-pitch eighth, then have Welcome to the Jungle come on and have everyone go nuts for Craig," says O'Flaherty, who relishes his own duties. "In the seventh I feel like if I can put up a zero, the game's over, because these guys are so filthy."
The triumvirate is more than filthy. They are nasty, in a manner similar to that of the famous Nasty Boys—the Reds' relief trio of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers, who in 1990 posted a combined ERA of 2.28 and carried Cincinnati to a world championship. O'Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel are in most ways outpacing that group—their combined ERA this year is 1.63—but they fall short in one: branding. While Venters is ironically known in his clubhouse as Jonny Badass (thanks to a July 2010 ejection for beaning the Brewers' Prince Fielder), O'Flaherty's nickname is the much blander "O." Kimbrel's is still less creative: "Everyone calls me Craig," he says. "That, or Dips---."
No one has come up with anything more evocative for them as a trio. "The Nasty Boys is pretty cool sounding," says O'Flaherty, the most extroverted of the three. "We need something like that." A Braves radio announcer proposed Sit Down, Shut Up and Go Home, but that's a lot of words to print on a T-shirt. For now they are known, simply, as O'Ventbrel. "We need something tougher than that going forward," says O'Flaherty.