ARLINGTON, Texas – A late job offer from the Toronto Blue Jays over the winter prevented Dustin Antolin from leaving baseball after eight years in the minors, and Sunday the right-hander found himself in the majors after Brett Cecil suffered more tightness in his triceps.
Still stunned and bleary-eyed, Antolin reported to Globe Life Park after a midnight call from triple-A Buffalo manager Gary Allenson informed him of an unexpected call-up, and a 7 a.m. flight from Norfolk, Va., took him across the United States.
The 26-year-old who throws 92-96 mph with a power slider and splitter slept about an hour, excitedly phoning his girlfriend, Chanel, and his parents to share the news, an opportunity that left him "shocked."
"It’s surprising to just be a big-leaguer right now, know what I’m saying?" the Hawaiian said.
Antolin’s solid start at Buffalo – a 2.70 ERA in 20 innings over 12 games with 25 strikeouts against 18 hits and 11 walks – made him the best option to cover for Cecil, who landed on the disabled list after pitching in discomfort for two-thirds of an inning Saturday night.
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The left-hander will have an MRI on Monday in Florida "just for peace of mind and precautionary reasons," he said, adding the expectation is that nothing more than inflammation will be found.
Cecil first felt "a tug" in his arm while throwing warmup pitches on the mound May 3 in Toronto – he surrendered two hits without giving up an out – and then didn’t pitch again until Saturday, his first action since returning from a paternity leave.
The tightness helps explain why manager John Gibbons didn’t use him last Sunday against the Dodgers in Toronto, the Blue Jays clearly hoping extra rest would make the issue go away. It did until Cecil warmed up on the mound at Globe Life Park, when he felt the tug again and pitched through it as best as he could.
"I felt it every pitch, just tried to pretty much use my lower half to get something on the ball and just put the arm through the motion and not really get after it too much," he explained. "It’s something where I can’t keep pitching at 80 per cent. It’s early and I still have a long career ahead of me and I want to get it taken care of, and not permanently do something. …
"If I got after it and tried to throw 100 per cent," he added later, "it would hurt, instead of being a little uncomfortable."
Antolin, an 11th round pick by the Blue Jays in 2008, was a minor-league free agent this winter and believed other teams were uncomfortable with his medical records, leading to a lack of job offers. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010 and had some shoulder troubles last year but felt physically able to compete.
The problem was there were no offers out there for his services.
"I was thinking about hanging it up, I talked to my girl and said, ‘I think I’m done.’ I didn’t have a job this whole off-season ‘til two weeks before spring training," said Antolin. "My girl is my backbone and she said, ‘Give it one more shot.’ So I said whatever happens, happens. I’m going to work my tail off. Before you know it, I’m getting a call-up."
Clearly, some sound advice.
"She’s always right," said Antolin. "Every time I don’t listen to her is when I get in trouble."
Antolin handn’t pitched above double-A before this season, spending 2½ seasons at New Hampshire before getting bumped up this spring. He pitched in a multitude of roles for the Bisons, most recently as their closer, collecting three saves.
"He’s not just a one-inning guy, he’s gone three innings, he’s started a game, so it’s a good thing for him to go up there and they can use him any way they want," Buffalo pitching coach Bob Stanley told Bisons broadcaster Ben Wagner. "He’s worked his butt off, I give him a lot of credit, he was about ready to quit, he came back this year and really worked hard."
The long journey made for some emotional conversations after Antolin got the news.
"There were some tears," he said. "My dad grinded with me every step of the way, him transferring money sometimes to keep me going and he doesn’t make that much himself. He stuck by me the whole time. When I get into a game, it’s going to be for me and him. It’s a relief to know I can now say I’m playing baseball with the best players on the face of the earth."