DUNEDIN, Fla. – Last spring Ryan Tepera broke camp with the Toronto Blue Jays, travelled with them for the final pre-season games in Montreal and then boarded the charter back to Tampa Bay in preparation for the first big-league opening day of his career, a major moment for any player.
Then, a sleep away from the milestone, the milestone was gone.
Late on the Saturday night before Game 1 versus the Rays, the Blue Jays signed left-hander Franklin Morales and Tepera was optioned to triple-A Buffalo to make room.
"That was a shocker," says Tepera. "I was 10 hours away.”
The demotion was the first of six the 29-year-old, power-armed right-hander endured during the 2016 season, as he bounced back and forth between Toronto and Buffalo on the pitcher-with-options shuttle. This year, his last with options, he’s trying to avoid a similar fate with what to this point has been a very solid spring.
Since the unexpected demotion sent him into a mental tailspin, Tepera has made a point of believing in himself, and pitching with confidence on the mound. That’s persisted into this spring, which in combination with some extra bite on his cutter has helped him impress.
"Especially at the end of last year, I thought we saw a change in his mound presence, how he carried himself on the field – he certainly looked like a big-leaguer in every aspect and it’s carried over into the spring," says pitching coach Pete Walker. "He’s certainly a guy that is deserving of pitching in the big-leagues. His stuff is as good as it’s been, his fastball command is better, his cutter is nasty at times, with a little bit of depth to it, it’s almost like a small slider. He’s done everything he needs to do."
Given that he still has options, that may not be enough.
Roberto Osuna, Joe Biagini, Jason Grilli, Joe Smith and J.P. Howell are locks for the bullpen, with Aaron Loup likely to make the team as the second lefty. That leaves Tepera, who threw another scoreless inning Saturday against the Yankees, in the mix for the final spot with Mat Latos and Mike Bolsinger, who both offer length in the bullpen and the potential to serve as swingmen, and Dominic Leone, who could potentially be a sixth or seventh inning type of reliever.
The Blue Jays want to find a way to keep Latos – who allowed three runs, two earned, on five hits in three innings versus the Yankees – and the ideal situation for them may be if he keeps starting in Buffalo and is the first call-up if a starter is needed, rather than languishing in the bullpen doing mop-up work.
It’s unclear what lies ahead for him.
Bolsinger is out of options and the Blue Jays feel they might lose him if he’s exposed to waivers, while Leone has options left and is in a similar spot to Tepera, who’s trying to keep his mind off the uncertainty.
"You’ve just got to control what you can control," he says. "Obviously it’s in their hands and it is stressful not knowing where you’re going. It would be nice to grab a place and say, ‘Hey, I can get an apartment in Toronto.’ So it is hectic and stressful but that’s part of the game and part of the lifestyle."
Tepera learned plenty on how to cope with the lifestyle from last spring, when the Morales signing led to his unexpected demotion. Afterwards, he found himself in a bad place mentally, even after he was recalled April 27, with matters coming to a head during a May 5 game at San Francisco.
Pitching the 13th inning, he hit leadoff batter Brandon Belt before Denard Span reached when the Blue Jays failed to record an out on his sacrifice bunt. A wild pitch advanced runners, leading to an intentional walk for Joe Panik and after a Matt Duffy lineout, Buster Posey walked on four pitches for a 5-4 loss.
"I’ll never forget that game in San Francisco," he says. "I got sent down after that and it was all leading up to that. For about two or three weeks it was a lot of, ‘What do I need to do to stay up there. I’ve got to try harder, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to make stuff nastier.’
"I actually went home (to Lake Jackson, Texas) for one day, just chilled out, hung out with my friends and family and reset everything. I looked myself in the mirror and said no matter where you’re at, you’ve got to get guys out. That changed everything."
Once he returned to Buffalo, Tepera reeled off nine straight scoreless innings around a brief recall to cover Brett Cecil’s paternity leave, allowing only four hits and a walk while striking out 10.
That helped set him straight for the rest of the season, but the back-and-forth didn’t stop. He was recalled again May 30, optioned down June 5, back June 27, demoted June 30, up July 24, down Aug. 23 and up for good when rosters expanded Sept. 2. In all he pitched 18.1 innings over 20 games, posting a 2.95 ERA with 18 strikeouts.
"It’s definitely tough, being on that roller-coaster is a mental grind," says Tepera. "Sometimes I’d go up for three or four days, wouldn’t pitch, get sent down, so you do have to be mentally strong.
Tepera feels better about things in that regard but it’s possible he gets tested in that way again, even as he offers the kind of mid-90s fastball and swing and miss secondary stuff that teams so covet in their relievers.
This spring he’s worked a bit on a changeup to complement his cutter and slider, and with gains in his fastball command, he’s been very effective. If he can maintain consistency with that fastball command and pitch effectively, he could make the fact he has options irrelevant, and perhaps more pivotally, he believes he will do just that.
"I’ve talked to Pete and Gibby about it, too, and they’ve even mentioned that they see a difference between 2015 when I made by debut to last year to this year in confidence, going out on the mound knowing you’re going to get guys out rather than hoping," says Tepera. "It definitely is a key."