ATLANTA -- As Julio Teheran struggled to put together scoreless innings over the first month of the season, he was widely recognized as a promising prospect experiencing a seemingly inevitable adjustment period at the Major League level.
Long considered the top pitching prospect in the Braves' organization, Teheran finished April with a 5.08 ERA. The early struggles made his subsequent surge in effectiveness during May and June feel like a rediscovery of the boundless potential he showed in 2011, when he posted a 15-3 record with a 2.55 ERA in his first season with Triple-A Gwinnett and was honored as MLB.com's Triple-A Starting Pitcher of the Year, among numerous other accolades.
Last year, Teheran's numbers tumbled in his second season in Gwinnett, dropping him from MLB.com's fourth-best prospect in all of baseball to No. 31 at the beginning of 2013. But as this summer wore on and Teheran has gone pitch-for-pitch with counterparts such as Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Tim Lincecum, Cole Hamels and most recently Jose Fernandez, the discussion has shifted from where the 22-year-old right-hander sits in the Braves' organizational rankings to where he slots into their potential playoff rotation. Since the beginning of May, Teheran has produced well beyond the means of the fifth-starter role in which he began the season, posting a 2.57 ERA to lead all Atlanta starters.
"He's been a prospect for his whole career in the Minor Leagues," reliever Luis Avilan said. "He looks different this year. He finally looks like he understands he's pitching in the big leagues, and he knows what you have to do in each game."
Avilan has known Teheran since 2007, when the pitchers grew close as teenagers playing for the Braves' Dominican Summer League team. From there, they rose through the organization on nearly parallel paths -- Teheran would advance a level, then Avilan would rejoin him a few weeks or months afterward, or vice versa.
"He looks so mature now," Avilan said. "He was kind of shy in the beginning of the season, and then after the first couple of months, he's acting like a veteran now. He's been pitching really well. He looks like he trusts in his pitches, and he's making really good pitches."
The refrain of Teheran's first full season has been his growing self-confidence as he has stumped some of the best hitters in the game with a range of pitches that, in an unnerving proposition for the rest of the league, can still be refined. Only this year has Teheran used his two-seam fastball and slider with regularity, helped along by veteran catcher Gerald Laird, who caught Teheran nearly exclusively during Spring Training and the first two months of the season. In that time, both pitches have developed into impressive offerings.
"I think when young guys tend to get in trouble, they try to overthrow fastballs, and in this league, you can't throw things by guys, you've got a lot of good hitters," Laird said. "I think now he's become more of a pitcher, and [he's] relying on his secondary stuff to get out of jams, and the main thing is just staying calm out there. You'd see some times when he got in trouble earlier in the year, you could see him rushing and trying to do too much. Now he just kind of takes that deep breath and lets the game come to him and just tries to make a pitch."
Teheran has referenced the effects of that newfound confidence in nearly every postgame interview, whether the topic has been honing his slider, sharpening his command or navigating a treacherous lineup.
"He's a confident guy out there, and I think that's the way you have to be," outfielder Joey Terdoslavich said. "You can just tell when he's going out there to pitch that he's going to be successful. He's just a confident guy, and obviously he has a reason to be. He's pretty good."
|"He's been a prospect for his whole career in the Minor Leagues. He looks different this year. He finally looks like he understands he's pitching in the big leagues, and he knows what you have to do in each game."|
|-- Braves reliever Luis Avilan, on Teheran|
As an infielder with Gwinnett at the time, Terdoslavich had a front-row seat to 2012's struggles as Teheran worked with the Braves to eliminate some bad habits and posted a 5.08 ERA with a 1.44 WHIP, the highest those numbers had been since he was 17.
"They knew that he can dominate the league -- he showed that [in 2011], his stuff was the same," Terdoslavich said. "But there were certain situations that they wanted him to work on certain pitches or certain locations or this or that, and I think that they didn't really care so much about the numbers as they did about him progressing as a pitcher."
"You look at two years ago, he was a 20-year-old kid literally dominating in Triple-A," general manager Frank Wren said. "He would come up here and it was a different story. Last year, he took a step backwards, and in the end, I think it was really good for him."
In his first full season, Teheran has rarely gone more than four starts without turning in a dominant performance. He threw 123 pitches and came up just short of a shutout against the Twins on May 20. On June 5, Teheran took a no-hitter into the eighth against the Pirates. He struck out 10 on June 28 to defeat friend and former rotation mate Randall Delgado and the D-backs.
Teheran's duel with Fernandez on Friday may have topped every outing before it. The National League Rookie of the Year Award candidates posted nearly identical lines, but Teheran allowed just one run on four hits and struck out eight to prevail in a 2-1 win over Fernandez and the Marlins. In the first, Teheran struck out three consecutive hitters on fastballs of 93, 94 and finally 95 mph. He ended the second with another 95-mph fastball, a reading he has only rarely approached this year, for a swinging third strike.
"Always I try to show them what I have and try to establish hard," Teheran said after the game.
That victory marked the fifth time since the All-Star break that Atlanta had won a Teheran start in which the club scored two or fewer runs, a testament to Teheran's growing eagerness to battle within each game.
Despite a season-ending injury to Opening Day starter Tim Hudson and temporary dips in effectiveness endured by each member of the rotation, the Braves entered Thursday's action with a staff ERA of 3.19, the lowest in the Majors. On multiple occasions, it has been Teheran who has stepped up to preserve the momentum of Atlanta's drive to the cusp of a division title with a pivotal shutdown outing.
"He's been a guy where we've had some long games the day before and we need him to go out there and do seven, and that's where you know he's matured," Laird said. "He's been able to go out there for those seven innings and been able to give the bullpen a day off. We rely heavy on him now. He's one of the guys that when he goes out there and pitches, and it's not like, 'Oh, he's our No. 5, he's going to give us innings.' No, we expect to win the ballgame."
In light of the sparkling debuts of Fernandez, Yasiel Puig, and several other young talents around the NL, it doesn't appear likely that Teheran will be able to show voters enough in the season's final month to earn the NL Rookie of the Year Award. After a Minor League career filled with postseason honors, Teheran and the Braves will be more than satisfied with postseason results at the Major League level.
Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.