Player Profile: Matt Belisle

Matt Belisle wants one thing and one thing only: to be an Atlanta Brave. Bill Shanks fills us in on the young flamethrowing righthander pitching for the Braves in Greenville in our first player profile. (This is a preview of premium content avaliable on BravesCenter)

Matt Belisle is not your typical Braves wanna-be pitching prospect. He wants one thing and one thing only: to be an Atlanta Brave.

"I want to wear this hat and I want to stay in this hat (pointing to his red and blue Braves cap)," Belisle says. "There's no other place I'd rather be. I want to wear this uniform for my whole career if I can and hopefully make that an easy choice for them."

The way Matt Belisle is pitching this season in Greenville, the Braves choice might be easy. He entered Friday's scheduled start against Huntsville with a 4-6 record and an ERA of 3.63. In his last 8 starts, Belisle is 3-2 with an ERA of 2.13. He's walked only twelve batters while striking out 32 in that stretch.

"I have more conviction on the mound right now than I have ever had," Belisle says.

The climb up the minor league ladder has not been easy for the 6 foot 3 righthander from Austin, Texas. Two springs ago, he was easily the Braves best pitching prospect. Then he felt some discomfort in his back. The pain was so horrible he had to tell the Braves. Tests showed a ruptured disc in his back that required surgery forcing him to miss all of 2001.

It was not the first time an injury set Belisle back a bit.

In his senior season in high school, Belisle tore his Anterior Cruciate Ligament. The injury dropped Belisle from a Top 15 pick in the 1998 draft to the second round. There was nothing wrong with his arm, but teams were concerned if he would recover from the knee injury. The Braves were convinced Belisle would make it back, and signed him to a $1,750,000 contract. Before Jeff Francoeur came along, the bonus Belisle received was the largest in team history.

Belisle recovered from his knee injury, and in 2000 put together numbers the Braves envisioned when they drafted him. He was a combined 12-9 in 27 starts with Macon and Myrtle Beach. He struck out 162 batters and walked only 29 in 180 innings pitched.

He was being compared to Kevin Brown in the spring of 2001, and then came the back injury.

Matt worked hard in his rehabilitaion back home in Texas. He was frustrated as he heard about his teammates doing well, wishing he could be there with them. In the fall of 2001, after an entire summer of rehab, the Braves sent him to the Arizona Fall League so he could get some work. The results were mixed. The most important thing was to simply get work.

Then last season, getting consistent innings once again was the key. The Braves wanted him to stay healthy, and he did by making all 26 of his starts for Greenville. He was 5-9 with an ERA of 4.35.

Belisle, an intense competitor, was not happy with his numbers. "But I was happy with the innings I got. I learned more from an up and down, roller-coaster year than I have any other year," he says.

This spring, he went to Orlando with a different attitude. He didn't play winter ball for the first time in his career and thought long and hard about his future.

"I reconsidered, reassessed what I'm doing and what I want to do and how to get there," Belisle said in Spring Training. "I'm still going to continue to develop, but I've got more of that mindset. I'm going to do everything I can to make Bobby want me up there. It's time to take a step - to get over the hump and be prepared as soon as possible to make that big league club."

Belisle knew he was going back down to the minor leagues. He believed he might go to Richmond. But the Braves decided to give him a little more in AA to allow him to taste a little success. They believed, with his AA experience from last season, Matt might do well in his second season there.

Matt has a fastball that is clocked in the low-mid 90's, a curve, and a changeup. He did not believe he needed to spend this season working on a particular pitch. Instead, Matt wanted to work on understanding his strengths and weaknesses. He also wanted to work on mixing up his pitches a little better.

With his first half performance this season, he could spend the second half of the year in AAA Richmond. A September promotion to Atlanta is not out of the question.

"I don't think people understand how badly I want to fill that role, to learn from those guys (Maddux, et al) up there, and then continue the tradition that the Braves have had."

That's the thing that jumps out at you about Matt Belisle. He's simply a great kid. He's the kind of kid you root for to get whatever he wants. The Braves love players who want to be Braves, and they know they've got one in Matt Belisle.

He use to joke with his good friend Jung Bong about being the righty-lefty combo for Atlanta in the future. Horacio Ramirez is also one of his close friends. Bong and Ramirez are already in Atlanta, and their good buddy might not be too far behind.

This kid has the body of a pitcher. There is perhaps no Braves pitching prospect who has the pitcher's frame as Matt Belisle. He spent a lot of time during his rehab in 2001 working on his upper body strength. So he does resemble Kevin Brown, and the Braves hope the results will also be similar. He's an athlete who also played basketball in high school.

The Braves love pitchers who fit their mold. There is a "Braves Way," and Matt Belisle knows better than anyone what is expected to remain a Brave. His hard work in his rehab has paid off, as it looks like he is back to where he was before his serious injury in 2001.

Control is his specialty. He has walked only 117 batters in 491 career minor league innings. Those are the kinds of numbers that can get you into a big league rotation. But his mound presence is also impressive. Now that he is regaining the confidence he had in 2000, Matt could be on his way.

The Braves have a lot of decisions to make over this offseason. It's likely that another spot in the Atlanta rotation will open up if Greg Maddux leaves as a free agent. Matt Belisle should be one of the many who will be vying for a chance to take the future Hall of Famer's place on the Atlanta staff. It's the chance he's waited for a long time.

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