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How a veteran reliever transformed the Blue Jays bullpen

The arrival of a 42-year-old right-hander has instilled a ‘singular heartbeat’ to the Jays’ relief corps, which has become one of baseball’s best


 
Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins follows through on a pitch to the Baltimore Orioles in the ninth inning in the first baseball game of a doubleheader, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins follows through on a pitch to the Baltimore Orioles in the ninth inning in the first baseball game of a doubleheader, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

This story first appeared in Sportsnet magazine.

LaTroy Hawkins has pitched in a lot of MLB bullpens—11, to be precise. And every single one went out for bullpen dinners regularly throughout the season. So it was much to his dismay when, upon joining the Toronto Blue Jays at the 2015 trade deadline as part of the Troy Tulowitzki deal, he discovered the tradition had not yet reached his new clubhouse. “It wasn’t a thing here, I guess. That’s weird,” Hawkins says, literally scratching his head. “I was like, ‘We’re a bullpen; this is what we do. We’re going for dinner.’”

And so, as the Blue Jays flew in to Philadelphia a day early for their two-game set against the Phillies in August, Hawkins made his way around the plane and told his fellow relief pitchers to keep their night open. They went to a nice steakhouse near the hotel and had a good, long meal, trying to keep the conversation focused on anything but baseball. “You need to hang out, and not just at the ballpark. You’ve gotta get away from all this and get to know each other on a personal level,” Hawkins says, standing at his stall in the Blue Jays clubhouse. “Sit down, have dinner. If guys want drinks, you get some drinks. And then you just let it flow. It’s fun. It’s a great time. And it’s good for me, being the old guy, because I get to tell all the stories.”

They’re an interesting group, this Blue Jays bullpen. There’s Hawkins, the elder statesman, a 42-year-old veteran of 21 major-league seasons. There’s Mark Lowe, the ultra-laid-back Texan who rides around the clubhouse on a Hovertrax, and Brett Cecil, the quiet lefty who’s been with the Blue Jays his entire career. There’s the fire-armed duo of Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna, both in their early 20s, throwing fastballs in the high 90s and facing some of the highest-leverage situations come game time. There’s Bo Schultz, the former Men’s Journal magazine intern who was playing independent ball four years ago. And there’s Liam Hendriks, the wise-cracking Aussie who never shuts up.

Suddenly, with arms like Schultz and Hendriks bumped down into more suitable middle-inning roles, the Blue Jays boast a bullpen that could compare to even Kansas City’s, the league’s current unofficial measuring stick. “They’re the best bullpen in baseball; they’ve got that great core group,” says Hendriks, who pitched for the Royals last season. “But if you give this group another year, I think we’ll rival that. We can be right there with them.”

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons agrees. “Well, you go to the World Series and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, this is how they did it,'” Gibbons says of the Royals pen. “And when something works like that, man—everybody jumps on it.”

What Kansas City has done to such great effect is stockpile hard-throwing arms with at least one decent off-speed pitch and give them an inning each, telling them to pitch with maximum effort and basically blow the ball past hitters. The Royals have also identified several former starters who couldn’t quite hack it when turning over a batting order but had the right two-pitch makeup to be successful relievers, such as Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar.

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You can draw a straight line from that approach to what the Blue Jays have built. Hendriks and Cecil are both former starters who have had much more success out of the bullpen, while Sanchez and Osuna are extremely hard throwers who know they are responsible for the eighth and ninth innings, respectively. In fact, almost all of the Blue Jays relievers bring a substantial amount of gas, as even long men Hendriks and Schultz have hit the high 90s this year, while Hawkins, at 42, has touched 95, making Cecil the only guy in the bullpen without an overpowering fastball. Of course, he has the best curveball on the team, a knee-buckling 86-mph beast that Sanchez calls “unhittable.”

If the Royals and Blue Jays meet in this year’s ALCS—a distinct possibility as they are the best two teams in the American League—fans could witness a war of attrition between two very good, very hard-throwing relief corps. “I was actually talking to LaTroy about this, and we were saying how we have a very, very undervalued bullpen,” Hendriks says. “There aren’t, like, a couple of guys in here who are just there to be long guys and innings-eaters. We’ve got a pretty deep group.”

Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna.

Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna.

This wasn’t always the case. Only three members of the Blue Jays’ opening-day bullpen remain—Cecil, Osuna and Hendriks. Marco Estrada was once a long man but he joined the rotation in early May, and his performance as a starter, with a 3.35 ERA in 22 starts through the start of September, has made it a wonder he was ever not in that role.

Todd Redmond gave up four earned runs in each of his first two long-relief appearances this season and has been designated for assignment by the Blue Jays three times since, spending the majority of his year with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons. Miguel Castro made the team as a promising 20-year-old fireballer but quickly flamed out, allowing six runs in his final seven appearances as a Blue Jay before being sent to Buffalo and eventually to Colorado in the Tulowitzki deal. Left-hander Colt Hynes stuck around long enough to get into five games before being sent down to Buffalo two weeks into the season, while Aaron Loup, another lefty who was one of Gibbons’s most reliable arms over the previous two seasons, saw his effectiveness vanish, pitching to a 5.20 ERA in 2015 and becoming so unreliable that Gibbons called on him to throw exactly one pitch in a 17-day span across the end of July and early August before he was eventually sent off for a stint in triple-A as well.

Gibbons spent much of the season searching for answers from his relievers, mixing and matching combinations and giving nearly anyone with a fresh arm a shot in high-leverage situations. With such a lack of options, he nearly pitched the barely out-of-his-teens Osuna into the ground, sending him out for 25.2 innings in the season’s first two months—almost half a season’s workload for a typical relief pitcher. Seeing how Osuna has settled into the closer’s role, with a 1.40 ERA in 25 appearances since becoming the Jays’ full-time stopper in late June, it’s mind-boggling to think that he was used for 2.1 frames of middle-inning relief during an early-season game against the New York Yankees.

With Hawkins, Lowe and Sanchez now in the mix, a lot has changed for the man in charge. “My job’s a lot easier,” Gibbons says. “Earlier in the season, we had some guys pitching well, but there wasn’t a whole lot of consistency. I think the middle innings cost us a number of times. There was a lot of juggling, a lot of coin-flipping. And now, with the options we have, it’s huge.”

It’s a tight-knit group. The relievers all genuinely enjoy each other’s company and play their own games within the game during the early innings when the starter is on the mound. “For the first six or seven innings, we kind of play around out there,” Osuna says. “It’s something new every day.”

One of the mainstay games of the bullpen, instituted by Hawkins shortly after he was acquired, is the daily “pick to click” contest, in which every reliever chooses one Blue Jay in the batting order who they think will have a big game. Hawkins says there isn’t anything wagered on the game, not even bragging rights. Rather, the game is the bullpen’s way of transferring positive mojo to the team’s hitters. Sanchez often picked Edwin Encarnacion during his epic August hitting streak, while Schultz was credited with breaking Martin out of a prolonged slump when he picked him in a game on Aug. 29. Martin hit his first home run in 29 days and added another the next day, too.

“I just looked at Russ in the clubhouse, and it seemed like it was his day. Then he goes out, has a big walk, probably nine or 10 pitches, and then in his next at-bat he’s out there with no batting gloves hitting a home run,” Schultz says. “I can’t take any credit for anything. But it definitely makes our celebrations and high-fives in the bullpen that much more entertaining.”

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At the conclusion of every game, no matter if it’s a win or loss, the pitcher who finished the game will wait in the Blue Jays dugout for the rest of the relievers to make their way in from the bullpen before they all return to the clubhouse as a unit. It’s a subtle act of togetherness and solidarity, but it goes a long way. “It’s a team of 25, but us relievers, we’re 375 or 400 feet away in the bullpen, so our group of seven guys is kind of its own entity, and we want it to be as tight as possible. So stuff like waiting in the dugout seems to have really helped,” Schultz says. “It’s something that has been a bit more of a focus since LaTroy’s been here.”

Hawkins is somewhat of an oracle in the Blue Jays bullpen, arriving in Toronto with a well-earned reputation as both a strong contributor on the mound and one of the best clubhouse presences in the majors. He immediately took on a father-figure role, while allowing just one run in his first 11 appearances with his new club. Hawkins talks constantly to the younger members of the Blue Jays pen about the importance of supporting each other.

“I think you have to be as one. As a bullpen, you have to have one heartbeat,” Hawkins says. “When Liam’s out there pitching, or Osuna’s out there pitching—emotionally, I’m pitching. I’m mentally drained after watching them pitch because I have a connection with them. I want them to do their best and be the best and do their job each and every time. I think that’s the connection. You have to be locked in and emotionally invested with every pitch. We have to all have that one-heartbeat feeling with each other. That’s key.”

The dinners, the pick to click, the dugout routine, the one-heartbeat mentality—these are all tools to keep relievers focused, pulling for each other and pitching their best. Staying sharp and engaged is one of the most underrated challenges of pitching out of a bullpen, as some relievers won’t see action for days at a time before being called on to perform with the game on the line. If you’re not careful, the doldrums can take over. Sanchez, just 23 and with a bright future in front of him as a starter, says that’s been the biggest lesson from his apprenticeship as a reliever.

“Last year, I probably didn’t stay on top of it like I should have. That was my first time ever coming out of the pen; I didn’t really know the routine yet,” Sanchez says. “But you talk to these guys like Hawk and Lowe, who have been around the game for a long time, and they really show you how to stay sharp and on top of things. Like, one road trip, I pitched two and a third innings in 10 days. That’s nothing. But I think I refined my stuff a lot over that time.”

It’s taken the better part of a season, but the Blue Jays seem to have finally arrived at a blissful harmony with their bullpen, striking the right balance between experience and youth, camaraderie and performance. Of course, there are still differences. When players arrive at the ballpark on game day, usually around 1 or 2 p.m., they all find their own ways to pass the time. The younger arms in the pen–primarily Sanchez and Osuna—compete in intense, heated video-game showdowns in the clubhouse. The veterans like Hawkins, Lowe and Schultz make smoothies. “We’re really big juice guys. We’ve been experimenting with all kinds of different vegetable and fruit combinations,” Schultz says. “We make a lot of green ones; we tried a red one the other day with beets. It was pretty good. I guess you could say it’s a work in progress.”

The juice is. But not the bullpen.


 

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