KISSIMMEE, Fla.—It's his first start of the year. His first official game as a member of the Braves. He had bronchitis in spring training, so he's still a bit behind schedule. Had 20-year-old lefthander Luiz Gohara been rusty yesterday, there would have been plenty of reasonable explanations.
Instead, Gohara combined overpowering stuff with a heavy dose of first-pitch strikes and good command of his slider on Opening Day for high Class A Florida. Facing a Daytona lineup that included some of the Reds' better hitting prospects in Nick Senzel, Shed Long and Chris Okey, Gohara threw five scoreless innings with seven strikeouts, no walks and four hits allowed. His fastball sat in the mid-90s, reached 99 mph and he got consistent swing-and-miss with a plus slider against lefties and righties. He racked up groundballs and even picked off a runner.
"We were very impressed," Fire Frogs pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn said. "He threw 13 out of 17 first-pitch strikes. He attacked the strike zone, he threw a plus fastball to both sides of the plate and he threw a slider and a changeup to both sides of the plate for strikes. Very impressive."
Gohara opened the game by getting three swinging strikeouts in an electric first inning in which his fastball sat 95-97 mph. Against leadoff hitter Daniel Sweet, Gohara unleashed a 3-2 changeup at 89 mph for his first swinging strikeout. He needed just three pitches to strike out Long, finishing him with a 96 mph fastball. Then against Senzel, the No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft, Gohara got ahead when Senzel swung through a 98 mph fastball on the first pitch. Once Gohara got ahead of Senzel with a 1-2 count, he buried a slider in the dirt that Senzel swung over the top of for Gohara's third strikeout of the inning.
Gohara's fastball mostly parked at 94-95 mph the rest of the way, with late riding life up in the zone. He threw 51 of his 75 pitches (68 percent) for strikes, though he will have to tighten his fastball command. While Gohara's stuff gives him extra margin for error, what helped him overmatch Reds hitters was that he didn't make many mistakes, especially with his slider. Gohara was able to manipulate speeds on his sharp, late-breaking slider and he consistently drove it down in the strike zone or buried it further beneath it for a chase pitch to finish hitters. He struck out the last batter he faced, lefthanded-hitting Reydel Medina, on four straight 84 mph sliders, with Medina swinging through the first, third and fourth pitches of the at-bat. By the Braves' count, Gohara threw 21 of his 29 offspeed pitches for strikes.
"He commanded the ball well for the most part," Lewallyn said. "A few pitches got away from him, but you watch a big league game and they don't throw every pitch right where they want to either. It was solid. When he would get ahead in the count, he would bury the breaking ball—he didn't hang it. Everything was really good. It was fun to watch."
It was Gohara's first start as a member of the Braves, who acquired him and lefthander Thomas Burrows in the January trade that sent outfielder Mallex Smith and righthander Shae Simmons to the Mariners (with Seattle then flipping Smith to the Rays in the Drew Smyly trade). Gohara is wishfully listed at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, but he's built more along the lines of former major league lefthander David Wells. Gohara's 69.2 innings last year (not counting another 11.2 innings in the Arizona Fall League) were a career high, so he still has to prove his durability.
Based on the stuff he showed on Opening Day, Gohara has the repertoire to pitch at the front end of a rotation if he can handle a starter's full season workload.