TORONTO — Before every game, Toronto Blue Jays bullpen coach Dane Johnson posts a list of the team’s relievers on the bullpen wall. The names are colour coded. Green means you have the go-ahead to pitch in the game. Red means you’re resting for the night. And yellow means you could be called upon in dire circumstances, but the team will do everything it can to not use you.
On Monday night, before the opener of this week’s crucial series between the Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles, Brett Cecil looked up at the list and saw the box around his name was coloured yellow. So, he went off in search of a blue marker.
“Blue plus yellow makes green, right?” Cecil said. “So, I found one and coloured my name in green.”
Cecil figures that in each of the last 10 games he’s either pitched in the contest or been warming up in the bullpen, ready to enter if need be. That’s a lot of work, so it’s no wonder the Blue Jays coaching staff had him listed yellow for the first two games of this series. But Cecil is telling anyone who will listen that he’s ready to pitch every single night.
“I keep telling [the coaching staff,] I don’t know how, but my arm feels great. I’m ready to go,” Cecil said. “The only thing I can think of is the other guys in the pen have 40 or 50-plus innings this year, and I’m still sitting in the 30’s. So, I’m fresh and ready to go every day.”
Cecil’s only pitched 35.2 innings so far this season because he missed a month and a half with a torn lat muscle. That extended absence came after the 30-year-old started the season with a string of subpar outings as he struggled to find the feel for his curveball. When Cecil hit the disabled list, he had a 5.23 ERA in 16 appearances, a far cry from the 2.67 ERA he posted across 189 outings in the three seasons prior when he was one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball.
“The curveball, it’s just such a feel pitch. You hope to come out of spring training and have everything ironed out. But I didn’t,” Cecil said. “The ones I threw were either spinning up and out of the zone or I was just burying them. And if you can’t throw it for a strike, then you’re going to be in trouble. Hitters are saying, ‘I’m not even going to worry about that pitch—I’m just going to sit on the heater.’ And I think that was a big part of my problems early in the season.”
With the help of pitching coach Pete Walker, Cecil made some minor mechanical tweaks when he returned from the disabled list and also recalibrated his approach on the mound. The Blue Jays asked him to no longer shake off his catchers, and simply follow whatever pitch Russell Martin, Dioner Navarro or Josh Thole called. The idea was that when Cecil would shake off curveballs to get to his fastball, or vice versa, observant hitters could predict what pitch was coming.
So far it’s worked out, as Cecil has regained the sharpness and, perhaps more importantly, the command of his breaking ball. He’s pitched to a 3.20 ERA over 36 appearances since coming off the DL, and he hasn’t allowed a run in 15 outings since Aug. 24.
“I’m in a much better spot with how my stuff feels,” Cecil said. “I’m just trying to go along with Russ or Navvy or Thole and execute the pitch that they call to the best of my ability. It’s a little bit different for me, but it’s working.”
Cecil’s appearance in Wednesday night’s loss to the Orioles provides a perfect example of the new approach and how much Cecil’s improved curveball has helped him.
He entered in the seventh inning facing a tough spot, with two runners on, one out, and a two-run cushion to protect. Following Martin’s lead, Cecil struck out Nolan Reimold on four pitches, getting the Orioles outfielder to swing late at a 93-mph sinker in a curveball count. Cecil then finished the inning by inducing a first-pitch groundout from Adam Jones with another fastball.
Cecil remained in the game for the top of the eighth, with Baltimore slugger Chris Davis coming to the plate. Davis exhibited an uncharacteristically patient approach, laying off three consecutive tough pitches after swinging through a first-pitch fastball to work the count to 3-1. Cecil was thinking he should throw Davis a curveball, but Martin called for a fastball away. The old Cecil would have shook his catcher off. But he doesn’t do that anymore.
“I was definitely thinking of throwing something different. But I’m just trying to execute pitches to the best of my ability and follow my catchers,” Cecil said. “With [Davis] in particular, you really don’t want to leave a cookie over the plate. So, I threw a sinker instead of the four-seamer. Because the last four-seamer I threw I kind of pulled a little bit. I was trying to get the sinker to start a little bit off the plate and then move back on to it. I was thinking if he hit it I’d probably get a groundball.”
Although Cecil was trying to throw the pitch away, it actually snuck up and in on Davis, who fouled it off. From there, the conventional baseball thinking is to go right back to the same pitch. It worked once, why wouldn’t it work again?
“It’s that old saying: if you throw it 3-1, you’ve got to throw it 3-2,” Cecil said. “But I think that’s absolutely stupid. I don’t agree with that at all. And I guess neither does Russ.”
Martin gave Cecil the sign for a curveball at the bottom of the zone, setting up down and away from Davis. Cecil reached back and snapped off a big, sharp, biting 85-mph curve that Davis swung right through. While the swing and miss was crucial, what’s arguably more important is that the pitch ended up in the strike zone. Even if Davis had taken it, he still would have struck out.
“That was a good one,” Cecil said. “The curve is such a big feel pitch, especially for me. It’s taken a little bit to get it where I want it. But I’m throwing it for strikes and it’s right where I want it now.”
With one set-up man (Joaquin Benoit) sidelined for an indefinite amount of time with a torn left calf, and another (Jason Grilli) scuffling in recent outings, Cecil’s late-season renaissance couldn’t come at a better time for the Blue Jays. He has his curveball back, he’s following his catchers, and he’s getting both left-handers and right-handers out.
The Blue Jays have four games left in their season, which means Johnson will be posting four more colour-coded cards up in the bullpen. As far as Cecil is concerned, his coaches shouldn’t even bother colouring his name in anything but green.
“I think I’m in a really good spot right now,” Cecil said. “I want to pitch as much as possible.”