M's closer J.J. Putz has "That it factor"
Seattle Times staff reporter
Strikeouts, in 67 innings
Rangers @ Mariners, 7:05 p.m., FSN
Eighth inning, bases loaded, one-run game. And still, J.J. Putz looked comfortable, even calm. Bryan Price, then the Mariners' pitching coach, marveled at the moxie of his reliever and the sagacity of his own advice.
Satisfied, Price turned back to the dugout.
"One more thing," Putz yelled at Price last season. "Brilliant!!!"
Pressure? The kid had laughed at pressure, mimicking the catch phrase of a popular beer commercial ... with the bases loaded ... in front of a packed house. And that's when Price knew Putz possessed the mental makeup of a closer, the first time he noticed it — that unexplainable aura of confidence gifted to the great ones.
Fast forward to this season, Putz's first in the closer role he assumed in early May. And that's how they explain the dominance in a single word. It.
"So much of it with J.J. is the fact that he looks so comfortable on the mound in that role," said Price, now with Arizona. "He looks like a guy who can't be beaten."
Folks in Trenton, Mich., said the same thing during his junior year of high school. Putz won so often and so easily that his statistics are etched in his coach's memory a decade later. A 15-0 record. An earned-run average of 0.50. And 142 strikeouts, compared with 20 hits allowed, in 80 innings pitched — for a team that won the state championship.
They even had the Putz Rule. As in, "When everybody asked, 'What time does the bus leave?' The answer was, 'When J.J. gets here,' " said Vic Bechard, the coach.
"It just felt like nobody was going to score against him," Bechard said. "It felt like, 'If we can at least get one run today, the worst we're going to do is tie.' That's just how confident we felt."
The funny part was that Putz stumbled into pitching. He started as a freshman on the varsity, throwing bullets in the opposite direction — from the backstop to second base.
Bechard still regards Putz as the best defensive catcher he ever coached, and his athletic gifts were not limited to baseball — Bechard remembers an uncanny outside stroke on the basketball court and an arm that wowed more than a few major-college football coaches.
There was but one problem on the baseball field.
"I couldn't hit," Putz said. "I mean, I was a catcher who got DH'd for."
He pitched in one game near the end of this sophomore season — Putz tossed a seven-hit shutout with 14 strikeouts — and Bechard saw "the light go on — like, 'I can do this.' "
Putz has been a pitcher ever since. Starting for his traveling team in Trenton. Starting for the Michigan Wolverines in college. And starting, mostly, in the minor leagues for the Mariners.
Until he stumbled into another role that fit like a tailored suit.
When Putz signed with the Mariners in 1999, Price salivated over the big, thick Roger Clemens body type. He saw the kind of pitcher who, if harnessed, could fill any role — 20-game winning starter, reliever, even closer.
Putz began his Mariners career mainly as a starter. He threw between 90 mph and 94 mph, threw a fastball and a slider and a split-finger fastball he had trouble locating. His arm motion put extra stress on his shoulder and elbow.
Concerns with durability are long gone now — the Mariners tweaked the motion to relieve stress — but there were enough then to switch Putz from future starter to present bullpen. He made his major-league debut that 2003 season in Seattle's bullpen.
"We all knew what kind of stuff he had," Mariners pitching coach Rafael Chaves said. "It was just a matter of him being able to put all that together."
Chaves also coached Putz in Class A ball in Appleton, Wis. He saw the talent and the trouble in one game — a seven-inning no-hitter in which Putz walked four batters in the last inning and still didn't allow a hit.
Experience helped Putz's control significantly — both his own and that of Eddie Guardado, his mentor and former teammate. Guardado had it in spades, and Putz watched him, the way confidence oozed out and intimidated hitters. "He's probably the best thing that ever happened to me — baseball-wise," Putz said.
They were close like brothers, and still are. Guardado pulled Putz aside this spring training. By then, Putz was hitting 97 mph regularly on the radar gun, but he still did not have control of his split-finger. Guardado suggested a slight grip adjustment. It worked.
"It certainly looks like he's taken his game to a higher level," Price said of Putz. "He's a guy that has made such advancements all the way from the moment he came into the Mariners system to the present, that you have to wonder where he's going to be next year or the following year. My guess is in the All-Star Game."
Guardado had so much influence on Putz, and then the worst — and best — thing happened all at once. Guardado started floundering in the role Putz always wanted, the role he dreamt about, even picking out music for his inevitable entrance. The Mariners ended up trading Guardado to the Reds.
Putz finally was the closer, but only at the expense of his mentor. Both handled it with class throughout.
"It probably wasn't until Eddie got traded that I knew it was my season," Putz said. "Even though I was throwing well, I had always thought you wanted to get Eddie back into that role."
It is Putz's role now and possibly for a long time in Seattle. He lacks the usual closer intimidation gimmicks — "If you're expecting someone who stares guys down and beats his chest and flares his nostrils, this isn't him," Price said — but makes up for it with intimidating stuff.
Putz throws a fastball that reaches 97 mph, can locate it despite that speed, and now has added a split-finger as an out pitch. On Tuesday, he saved his 30th game, then saved another Wednesday. In 67 innings, Putz has allowed 49 hits, walked 11 and struck out 84.
Asked which pitches are working best right now, Chaves said, "All of them."
Putz reminds Raul Ibanez of the most dominant Mariners closer in recent memory — Kazuhiro Sasaki.
"His confidence is way better," Ibanez said of Putz. "And confidence is everything in any role, but especially in that one. He's got that X-factor thing, that it factor, where he gets on the mound and looks like he's going to come right after you."
Putz does have a cool entrance song — Godsmack's "Battle of the Drums" mixed into Metallica — and an entertaining and crucial Barry Bonds strikeout on his growing closer résumé.
The Bonds strikeout came when Putz found himself in another jam on the pitching mound. Another one-run game. And one of the greatest power hitters of all-time ready to tie it with one swing.
Putz started Bonds with a fastball away, a split-finger, a fastball up, a fastball away and another split-finger. With a 3-2 count, Putz went back to his improved split-finger. Another strike.
He went into his trademark fist pump — borrowing equally from Tiger Woods and Guardado — allowing himself to scream.
Somewhere later that evening in Arizona, Price was smiling, picturing the rest of the Mariners and Safeco Field that sunny afternoon when J.J. Putz arrived for his coronation as the closer of the present and the future.
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or email@example.com
|J.J. Putz is the fifth Mariner to save 30 games in a season.|
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