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Pinch pitchers

When a regular gas can won’t do

Oakland Athletics v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

With 2021 starting to look like another year of the pitcher with six no-hitters and counting as of this writing, there is something refreshing about seeing a team bring a position player in to pitch. One of the few times the major league game starts to resemble something we played as kids is when a team is getting blown out and they bring in a player, usually a utility infielder, to mop up. The Twins are notorious for bringing in Willians Astudillo, their portly third baseman to mop up games. He’s really a joy to watch.

When the Royals played the Twins on June 4th and scored nine in the bottom of the first, I was a happy camper. For one, I was fairly certain that the boys in blue would win. It also meant that should KC score a few more runs, the Twins might call on Astudillo to mop up. When the bottom of the eighth rolled around, my wish was answered.

The game was already a gong show, with the Royals up by the score of 14-5. Astudillo’s first pitch to Kelvin Gutierrez was 42 MPH. The announcers called it a curve, but it looked more like a pitch that just ran out of gas before it got to the plate. He later threw a similar pitch that clocked at 41 MPH and a couple that rang the bell at 83. He got Gutierrez on a pop up before walking Jorge Soler. Michael Taylor reached base when Miguel Sano meat hooked an easy ground ball. Astudillo ended the glorious outing by getting Nicky Lopez to hit into a 4-6-3 double play. Wonderful! Astudillo ended the game with an ERA of 3.00. Wade Davis, his eighth inning counterpart, gave up back-to-back dongs and ended the game with an ERA of 7.36.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoy seeing this guy pitch. Batters look genuinely uncomfortable facing Astudillo. And he gets most guys out. Back on May 17th, with Astudillo on the mound, the White Sox Yermin Mercedes, another good story this season, took a hack at a 3-and-0 pitch and sent it over the wall. His own manager, Tony LaRussa, called Mercedes out in the press for breaking one of those unwritten baseball rules. LaRussa needs to take a chill pill with his Geritol and let the kids have some fun.

When I see Astudillo pitch, I always think, “I could hit him. Maybe.” That’s a rarity of course. With most pitchers today routinely touching 90 MPH+, us mortals would have no chance. Whenever I watch a guy like Aroldis Chapman or Josh Staumont…well, forget it. It would take a lot of cash and/or drink just to convince me to stand in the box and even at that, I might take a pass. I think television makes it look deceiving. If you’ve played ball, you understand how terrifying it can be to dig in against some guy with a rocket launcher attached to his shoulder. Watching Astudillo throw his meatballs to the plate got me thinking: how often do the Royals use mop up guys?

The Royals will occasionally call on a position player to absorb an inning or two and save the bullpen arms. The first instance for Kansas City occurred on August 20, 1979 when the hated Yankees were putting a 17-to-4 beating on the Royals. Whitey Herzog called on utility infielder Jerry Terrell to mop up the ninth inning. Terrell did well: one inning pitched, no hits, no runs, no errors. He got Fred Stanly on a popup to short, retired Bobby Brown on a foul popup to third and closed out the inning by getting Lenny Randle on a fly to center.

1980 was Terrell’s last year in the bigs, but he got one more shot on the mound. This came in a May 14 game at Yankee Stadium. The Yanks won big, 16 to 3, and Terrell was called on to pitch the eighth. He walked Bobby Mercer before getting Bob Watson and Jim Spencer on outfield flys. Fred Stanley saved some dignity by poking a single into left. Bobby Brown grounded out to Terrell to end the inning. Poor Brown. Oh for two against a soft-tossing utility infielder.

The Royals didn’t need another blowout arm until 1983, when in a period of five days, they called on outfielder Joe Simpson in blowout losses to the White Sox (12-0) and Mariners (13-6). Simpson got roughed up a bit against the Pale Hose. After retiring the first two batters he faced, he gave up a walk, then a run-scoring double to Jerry Hairston. He gave up another walk before getting out of the inning. He fared much better against the Mariners, facing nine batters over two innings. He gave up three singles but held Seattle scoreless.

One of the rougher pinch-pitcher outings came in 1984 in a game at Cleveland. Outfielder Leon Roberts, a key cog in the Pine Tar game, came on to pitch the bottom of the eighth with the Royals already trailing 12-to-3. Roberts got Mel Hall on strikes to begin the inning before giving up a double followed by a home run from Chris Bando. He got Brooks Jacoby on a flyball to center for out number two before allowing a single, a walk and another run-scoring single. He finally got Mike Hargrove on a popup to second to end the damage. Crazy thing was Mel Hall, Jacoby and Hargrove were all solid hitters.

The Royals must have been getting better because they didn’t use another position pitcher until 1991 when on a June 24 game against California, they called on Bill Pecota to close things out. Dave Winfield (he played for the Angels?) ripped the third pitch he saw for a triple. Dave Parker promptly singled him home. Pecota pitched two innings in what became a 9-to-4 loss, giving up four hits, but only the single run.

Bill Pecota stands ready
Bill Pecota
Photo by: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

David Howard got the call in 1994 during an April 12 blowout loss to Boston. He pitched two innings, only giving up two hits, but he did walk five. He held the Sox to one run in a 22-11 thrashing.

In 1998, the Royals brought in Shane Halter to stop the bleeding in an 18-to-5 loss to the Mariners. He made it through one inning unscathed. Three up three down. This got me wondering, do teams ever call on position pitchers when they are winning big?

During most of the 2000s, when the Royals were truly putrid and were losing a lot of games by a lot of runs, they rarely used pinch pitchers. The next came on July 21, 2008, while they were getting thrashed by the Detroit Tigers, they brought in shortstop Tony Pena, Jr.

Pena possessed a strong arm and after washing out as a shortstop, he briefly tried to resurrect his career as a pitcher. In this game at Kauffman Stadium, he even got Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez looking for the first strikeout by a pinch pitcher in Royal’s history.

Scrolling through the pitching records of the 2000s, I was amazed at how many obscure pitchers the Royals used for just one inning of one game. Bottom line: they’ve had a lot of Moonlight Graham’s toe the rubber.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers
Mitch getting the call
Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

During a July 26, 2011 beatdown by the Boston Red Sox, the Royals called on Mitch Maier. What a thrill for the Mitch, getting to pitch in Fenway. And he did well, retiring Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford and Jason Varitek, with the only blemish being a one-out double to Big Papi David Ortiz.

Maier got another chance on April 15, 2012 against Cleveland. Mitch worked a scoreless ninth, giving up only a single to Michael Brantley, before erasing him on a double play ball. The Royals should have pitched Mitch more!

Catcher Drew Butera, no stranger to the mound, got two cracks to show his stuff in 2016. The first go-around was on a June 25 game in which the Astros were thrashing the Royals 13-to-5. Much to the delight of the Kauffman crowd, Butera gave up a double to the first batter he faced, Jason Castro, then proceeded to run through the next three hitters, even getting Marwin Gonzalez swinging.

On July 26, Butera faced just one batter, former Royal Johnny Giovotella and retired him on a ground out. Butera relieved Chien-Ming Wang in both games. Not a good look for Mr. Wang.

Boston Red Sox v Kansas City Royals Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images

Butera became the Royals pinch pitching career leader with his July 7, 2018 mop-up against the Red Sox. Brandon Maurer, who was paid to be a pitcher, got lacerated by the Sox for four runs, turning the game into a lost cause. Ned wisely called on Butera to put out the fire. Sort of. Butera, paid to be a catcher, gave up three walks and two singles, and three more runs before retiring Jackie Bradley Jr. to end the bleeding.

The Royals went crazy in 2019 with Chris Owings, Humberto Arteaga, and future Royal Hall of Famer Alex Gordon getting shots on the mound. Gordon in fact, got two appearances. On August 26, he pitched he pitched 1 13 innings against Oakland, giving up five hits and

three runs, including a solo shot to Matt Chapman. Gordon pitched the seventh and part of the eighth before tiring and giving way to Arteaga. Not to be outdone by his teammate, Arteaga gave up a solo shot to Khris Davis in the ninth. In case you’re wondering, Oakland won that game 19-toi-4. Arteaga also hit a single in his only at bat to become the first Royals pitcher(?) to collect a hit in a league game since Steve Busby went 3-for-4 in a game against the Angels way back on September 20, 1972.

Jim Pittsley, (remember him?), was the first Royal pitcher to collect a hit in an interleague game. Pittsley collected a double in the Royals first interleague game ever, against Pittsburgh on June 13, 1997. It was Pittsley’s only career hit.

Just four days later, the Royals needed Gordon’s arm again during a blowout loss to the Orioles. Gordon gave up three singles and a walk in his last inning of work.

Owings stint on the mound was ugly, as was much of his Kansas City career. On May 16, Texas lanced him for six hits and four runs, including two dongs.

New Royal Hanser Alberto has been the last position player to take the mound. When Greg Holland got roughed up by the Rays back on April 20, Mr. Alberto said no problem, I got this. He came on and got the only batter he faced, Brandon Lowe, on a flyball to end the inning.