VIERA, Fla. -- Jonny Venters expressed relief after tossing a pain-free perfect eighth inning in Thursday afternoon's 6-3 loss to the Nationals at Space Coast Stadium. The Braves' left-handed reliever had been forced to rest over the past two weeks to relieve some stiffness around his left shoulder.
"My arm could not have felt any better," Venters said after making his first appearance since March 18. "It felt great."
The Braves were not overly concerned as with what the club described as "normal Spring Training soreness" with Venters. But there was certainly some reason for relief as he threw his patented hard sinker without any hesitation or sign of discomfort.
"That's the best it's felt in a while," Venters said. "I couldn't ask for anything better. Now I've just got to worry about getting everything else locked in."
Venters was not happy about falling behind with a 3-0 count against the final two batters he faced. But he knew there would be some rust as he pitched in a game for the first time in 11 days.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Venters will make at least a couple more appearances during the exhibition season to prepare for his role as closer Craig Kimbrel's primary setup man. The 27-year-old reliever made a Major League-high 85 appearances, despite battling similar left-arm discomfort during the middle of last season.
Heyward has impressive day with bat and glove
VIERA, Fla. -- A new day brought a few more reasons for the Braves to be optimistic about what Jason Heyward can do this year. One day after robbing a home run and hitting a game-tying one in the ninth inning, Jason Heyward hit one of the most impressive home runs in the history of Space Coast Stadium.
Heyward caused a number of jaws to drop when he drilled a solo home run off Edwin Jackson in the fifth inning of Thursday's 6-3 loss to the Nationals. With no apparent help from the wind, Heyward powered a 2-2 fastball over the 30-foot batter's eye that stands in dead center field.
"That felt great off the bat," Heyward said. "It was loud. That's how you want them to feel."
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez spent many years at this location while serving as a Marlins coach more than 10 years ago. He believes Cliff Floyd might be the only other player he has seen hit the ball over the batter's eye.
"I've been here 10 years and I have not seen too many guys over the black hole there," Gonzalez said.
Heyward started in center field and gave the Braves further confidence in his ability to play the position whenever Michael Bourn needs to rest. He ranged to right-center and dove to rob Wilson Ramos of a base hit in the fourth inning.
"He's getting good at-bats," Gonzalez said. "He made a nice play on that sinking line drive in center field that was going away from him. There are a lot of positives coming out of his camp right now."
Minor to start during season-opening series
VIERA, Fla. -- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has not yet announced his Opening Day starting pitcher. But he did reveal that he plans to start southpaw Mike Minor during the regular season's opening series against the left-handed-heavy Mets.
Minor will pitch in the exhibition game against the Braves' Future Stars on Tuesday night, which would line him up to pitch the Sunday afternoon finale against the Mets on April 8.
The Braves have had plenty of reason to be pleased with Minor, who completed the Florida portion of his exhibition schedule by allowing four runs and four hits in 5 1/3 innings against the Nationals on Thursday. He kept the Nationals scoreless until they made him pay for the two walks he issued in the sixth inning.
"They sat back and looked at a lot of quality pitches," Minor said. "I felt like the pitches were around the zone. But I guess they've had a lot of [at-bats] and you could just tell they were really seeing it well today."
The only runs scored while Minor was pitching came courtesy of Ryan Zimmerman's two-run home run in the sixth inning. Minor had allowed just two runs in 19 innings in his previous five exhibition starts.
Bullpen picture clears with Asencio trade
VIERA, Fla -- The Braves' bullpen picture gained some clarity on Thursday morning, when right-handed reliever Jairo Asencio was traded to the Indians for cash considerations.
Asencio's departure makes right-hander Cory Gearrin and left-hander Yohan Flande the favorites to fill the final two spots in Atlanta's bullpen.
Asencio posted a 2.64 ERA and combined for 53 saves while serving as Triple-A Gwinnett's closer during the 2009 and 2011 seasons. The 27-year-old right-handed reliever, formerly known as Luis Valdez, missed the 2010 season because visa issues prevented him from leaving his native Dominican Republic.
If the Braves do not trade for a reliever before the start of the regular season, Gearrin and Flande will be part of next week's Opening Day roster. Injuries have removed Anthony Varvaro (strained right pectoral muscle) and Robert Fish (inflamed left elbow) from the equation.
Gearrin had allowed just one unearned run in 9 1/3 innings before struggling with his command in each of his past two outings. After surrendering two runs and uncorking two wild pitches, while recording just two outs against the Mets on Tuesday, the right-handed sidearm reliever allowed two hits and issued two walks before getting his first out in Thursday's 6-3 loss to the Nationals.
Gearrin entered in the sixth inning with one out and men on first and second base. He prompltly loaded the bases with a walk. Brett Carroll followed with a bases-clearing triple. The young reliever did complete the inning by retiring Danny Espinosa and Ryan Zimmerman with two men on base.
"That's a situation where he's going to have to help us, come in and get a ground-ball double play," Gonzalez said. "The last two times, that hasn't happened. But we'll keep running him out there."
Flande has made five multi-inning appearances while not allowing an earned run in 10 2/3 innings in Grapefruit League action this year. A starter throughout most of his Minor League career, the 26-year-old southpaw could be used as both a long reliever and left-handed specialist.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.