TORONTO — It’s been a busy stretch for young Aaron Loup.
First there was his unexpected call-up last July, a move that thrust a mostly-unknown Louisianan left-hander with a funky sidearm delivery from double-A to the majors before he had even attended a big league training camp.
Then there was the Blue Jays Rookie of the Year award, presented to Loup by the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America in recognition of his outstanding work—a 2.64 ERA, 21 strikeouts and just two walks in 30.2 innings of relief—following the promotion.
There was the day this winter when Loup and his wife, high school sweetheart Leigh Ann, found out they were expecting their first child together—a daughter due August 29. Shortly thereafter came the morning when Loup found out he had won a bullpen spot on the Blue Jays roster out of spring training, news that his manager—the ever-carefree John Gibbons—delivered in passing when he walked by Loup’s locker one morning and said: “Oh, hey Loup—you made the team.”
And then there was the moment Loup had dreamed of since he was a kid—his first major league opening day, which came and went Tuesday night. It’s been a lot to process; but he’s mostly trying not to over-think it. “The ball’s definitely rolling pretty quick—I’m just kind of going with the flow,” Loup said, standing in front of his hard-earned locker in the Blue Jays clubhouse. “It’s a lot to take in. But I’ve got a lot going for me right now—it’s real exciting.”
Of course, exciting is hardly a word one would use to describe the 25-year-old reliever who pitched so well through spring training that he practically forced the organization to keep him on the major league roster. Extremely determined and deliberate on the mound, Loup is the picture of tranquility off of it, constantly relaxed and never seeming to have a worrying or anxious thought cross between his temples.
OPENING DAY was likely one of the few events in life that could spur some butterflies within Loup, who spends his off-seasons at home in the Louisiana brush, hunting deer the old fashioned way by firing arrows from his trusty compound bow.
He admits that while he stood along the third base line at Rogers Centre, as his name came over the loudspeaker and the 48,000-strong in attendance let out a low, drowning chorus of “Looouuuppp,” he struggled to contain the excitement building up in his stomach. “That was pretty cool,” he said, adding it caught him a bit off guard. “It was exhilarating.”
The nerves only increased in the sixth inning when the call came to the bullpen for Loup to start warming up and peaked in the seventh as he ran to the mound. He felt so anxious performing in front of the biggest Toronto crowd he’s ever pitched before that his first pitch slipped out of his hand and sailed high above the strike zone.
That’s when the steeliness that got Loup to the majors in the first place set in and he got to work, tuning out the crowd and efficiently pitching his way through five hitters. He left in the eighth when his manager, John Gibbons, came to the mound and told him he had done a nice job. He walked back to the dugout, glove in hand, as the whole place cheered his name. Later he’d call it one of the most special moments of his career.
AND WHAT A STRANGE CAREER IT’S BEEN. Loup was an unheralded ninth round draft pick who struggled to perform through his first two and a half minor league seasons until Blue Jays roving minor league pitching instructor Dane Johnson asked him if he’d ever tried throwing from a lower arm slot.
He had—while messing around with other pitchers in the outfield during batting practice—but never with any purposefulness. So he tried it out in the bullpen one day and for whatever reason the arm slot felt strangely natural, as if his arm was asking him why he hadn’t thrown like this all his life.
He continued to work on the new approach with Dunedin pitching coach Darold Knowles, a 71-year-old baseball lifer who pitched 16 seasons in the majors as a left-handed, side armed reliever himself. It took him just five outings to master it. His ERA suddenly dropped by almost a full two points in 2012 as he struck out nearly a batter an inning and even found he had a couple extra miles per hour on his fastball.
“I just ran with it after that,” Loup said. “The life I have on the ball is so much better now and everything is just that much more sharp.” The major league call-up soon followed and once Loup arrived in Toronto he never left.
Sitting at his locker sipping a can of ginger ale, Loup laughs to himself as he thinks about how nervous he was when he entered the game Tuesday night. “Man, that was something,” he said, the words hanging in the air with that distinct Louisianan inflection. “I won’t lie—I was real anxious.”
He’s noticeably more placid now, the nerves and anticipation that built up during the final hours before game time giving way to his more natural, relaxed temperament. Loup’s quick development into one of Toronto’s most reliable relievers—he has allowed just nine earned runs over his 32 career innings and is riding a streak of 12 consecutive outings without allowing a run, a stretch dating back to last season—and a relaxed, genial attitude in the clubhouse are reasons why he has managed to stick with the major league club. But uncertainty still lies ahead.
THE BULLPEN COMPETITION that Loup emerged from during spring training is not really over. Soon, resident third baseman Brett Lawrie will return from the disabled list and someone—very likely one of the team’s eight relievers—will be given a one-way ticket to Buffalo.
That means Loup has about two weeks to convince Gibbons and his staff that he adds more value at the major league level than, say, fellow relievers Brett Cecil or Jeremy Jeffress, who are both out of options and would have to be exposed to waivers before being sent down. The uncomfortable truth is the Blue Jays risk nothing by sending out Loup; they risk losing a player if they demote someone else.
“I try not to worry about it—everything will fall where it may,” Loup said, admitting the situation is less than ideal. “As soon as you start thinking about it you lose track of going out there and pitching and doing what you do.”
Whatever happens, if Loup’s immediate future is anything like his last nine months, you can bet it will be eventful. And young Aaron Loup will simply try not to over-think it.