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Parade of G-Braves 'saved' big club

ATLANTA — Dave Brundage peered over the dugout railing at Turner Field like a proud father and watched the Atlanta Braves work out Tuesday for their National League Division Series against San Francisco.

The job of a Class AAA manager is to have his players ready if needed by the major league team. Atlanta certainly had the need this season and those who moved up from Gwinnett definitely responded.

“It saved us,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said of the parade of players called up from the G-Braves.

As many as eight rookies could be on Atlanta’s postseason roster. All passed through Gwinnett the last two seasons, some with much more fanfare than others.

The success of Tommy Hanson last year and Jason Heyward this season was certainly no surprise. Both were top prospects.

Many of the players moved up during the year this season, however, came with much lower profiles. That is quickly changing.

If it wasn’t such a bumper-crop season for first-year players in the National League, left-handed reliever Jonny Venters would be drawing rookie of the year votes along with Heyward and he began the season in the G-Braves rotation.

Hard-throwing right-hander Craig Kimbrel, who was still with Gwinnett less than a month ago, is also now a key piece of the bullpen. So is lefty Mike Dunn, as he and Kimbrel fill in for Eric O’Flaherty and Takashi Saito.

Venters appeared in 79 games and had a 1.95 ERA with 93 strikeouts in 83 innings. Kimbrel was 4-0 with a 0.44 ERA in 21 games and had 40 strikeouts in 202⁄3 innings.

“They come in and did everything and more than we could have expected,” catcher Brian McCann said. “It makes for a bright future, but they’re helping us right now. They’re coming in from the bullpen in big roles.”

Of course, it is not just in the bullpen where Atlanta has benefited from players promoted from Gwinnett. Injuries to the rotation forced the Braves to start Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy. Both had positive outings and Beachy is the likely starter in Game 4 of the NLDS if Cox doesn’t decide to bring back Game 1 starter Derek Lowe on short rest.

As a first-round draft pick just a year ago, Minor was well known. That certainly wasn’t the case with Beachy. Cox knew of him only through scouting reports. Most of the Braves had never even heard of the right-hander before he was forced into emergency duty because of Jair Jurrjens’ bad knee.

Of course, in talking about unlikely Braves heroes who played at Gwinnett, infielder Brooks Conrad has to top the list. Conrad, who spent most of 2009 with the G-Braves, belted two pinch-hit grand slams this year and finished up the season as a regular after injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado decimated the infield.

Conrad, so old-school that he doesn’t where batting gloves, goes into the playoffs with errors in four straight games — including costly miscues in losses to the Phillies on Friday and Saturday. But he also had some big hits the final week and is now back at his natural position of second base, with Omar Infante moving to third.

“I guess we’re just drama kings,” Conrad said of the Braves’ posting so many late-game victories and going to the final day before securing a wild-card playoff spot.

The Braves finished the season with 11 rookies and all except Minor and first base prospect Freddie Freeman made the trip to San Francisco after Tuesday’s workout. The NLDS starts Thursday night.

Other than Heyward, Conrad and possibly utility infielder Diory Hernandez, all the rookies expected to make the 25-man roster for the Giants series are pitchers. Cristhian Martinez could join Venters, Kimbrel, Dunn and Beachy.

Venters and Kimbrel pitched in the postseason last year, but that was with the G-Braves in the first round of the International League Governors’ Cup against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Both were still in Gwinnett to start this season.

“I never expected anything like this,” said Venters, who has been transformed after moving from a starter to a reliever.

“I see the pitch speeds on TV and I can hardly believe it,” Brundage said. “He might touch 93-94 miles per hour last year, but he couldn’t sustain it. Now you see 97 or 98. It’s amazing.”

The velocity hasn’t just increased on the 25-year-old’s four-seam fastball, either.

“He’s got one of the hardest sinkers I’ve ever seen here,” Cox said.

Kimbrel always could throw 97-98 mph. His issue was command. But the 22-year-old has been one of the Braves’ top set-up men for veteran closer Billy Wagner the past three weeks.

Kimbrel hasn’t allowed a run over 161⁄3 innings and he has 17 strikeouts to five walks in his past nine appearances.

“I’m getting to pitch in some big situations and that’s what you want,” Kimbrel said. “It’s exciting to be a part of all this. Now we have to get the job done in the playoffs. This is what you dream about.”