3/11/2013 4:50 P.M. ET
Braves' Simmons thriving in Classic conditions
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
VIERA, Fla. -- Before the Braves played the Yankees at Champion Stadium on March 10, 2012, Andruw Jones said he was not real familiar with fellow Curacao native Andrelton Simmons, who was making quite an impression through the early stages of his first Major League Spring Training.
One year and one day later, it seems safe to assume Jones and the rest of the baseball world are quite familiar with Simmons, who drilled a game-tying, two-out eighth-inning home run that helped the Kingdom of the Netherlands advance to the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic with a 7-6 win over Cuba at Tokyo Dome on Monday.
"There wouldn't be any moments in Spring Training like that," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "I think it speaks real highly of Andrelton and his ability to perform under pressure."
With Simmons preparing to serve as Atlanta's leadoff hitter during what will be his first full Major League season, there have been some suggestions that it would have been best for him to stay with his team during Spring Training. Simmons, who became Atlanta's starting shortstop at beginning of June last year, played in just two Grapefruit League games before traveling to Taiwan on Feb. 23 to prepare for the first round.
But Wren and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez have supported Simmons' decision to play in the Classic. Their belief was that the competitive atmosphere would prove much more beneficial to the 22-year-old shortstop than the more casual elements that surround the exhibition games he would have been playing in Florida.
"With all the risks come the rewards, and the rewards are seeing a guy come up in a big moment like that and perform," said Wren, who was in his office at Champion Stadium when Simmons delivered his home run deep into the left-field seats.
Gonzalez was watching the Netherlands-Cuba matchup while riding a bus on the way to Viera for Monday's game against the Nationals. He said some Braves players and coaches on the bus erupted when Simmons drilled Cuban left-hander Norberto Gonzalez's 2-1 pitch into the seats.
"Something special happens either defensively or offensively every time he gets near that baseball," the Braves' manager said. "It's fun and he's a great kid. He's fun to watch, and he's pretty darn good."
The Netherlands and Japan have clinched two of the four available spots in the championship round, which will begin in San Francisco on Sunday. The United States, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Italy will battle this week in Miami to determine who will earn the final two invitations to play in the semifinals.
The U.S. gained a spot in the second round with Sunday's 9-4 win over Canada in Phoenix. Braves closer Craig Kimbrel sealed the victory with a perfect ninth that included two strikeouts. While it was a non-save situation, the clinching situation provided Kimbrel an incentive that certainly would not have been present had he been completing an inning in an exhibition game.
"Those are the rewards from the [Classic], you're guys performing well and doing it under pressure," Wren said. "You know the next time they are in that situation, they know they can do it."
Simmons will not return to Braves camp before the championship game of the Classic is played on March 19. The same will be said of Kimbrel if the U.S. advances from Miami.
When Kimbrel revealed that he would participate in the Classic, some fans wondered if the experience would lead him to become fatigued down the stretch this upcoming season. So far, that has certainly not been an issue. His only appearance in the Classic came Sunday, when he took advantage of the five-run lead by completing his 16-pitch appearance with an exclusive display of fastballs.
"We're glad to get our guys back, but at the same time, they are getting some benefit from it as well," Wren said.
Shortstop Ramiro Pena and left-handed pitcher Daniel Rodriguez returned to Braves camp on Monday after competing for Mexico in the Classic. Both Wren and Gonzalez said they were closely watching Saturday's bench-clearing brawl between Mexico and Canada with the hope that their players did not get injured.
Pena will begin this upcoming season as Atlanta's backup middle infielder. After getting a chance to rest on Monday, he will likely man Simmons' shortstop position in Tuesday's game against the Cardinals.
"[Pena and Rodriguez] said they had a great experience and it was fun," Gonzalez said. "They were playing significant games in the month of March."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.