DENVER (AP) — To summon a recent reliever, Cubs manager Joe Maddon didn’t even need to signal his bullpen. He just pointed toward his first baseman.
Now pitching: Anthony Rizzo .
That’s no sort of curveball, either.
In an increasing trend this season, position players are making more appearances on the mound to save wear and tear on the bullpen in games that have spiraled out of hand or as a last resort.
Through Thursday, there have been 49 appearances by 39 non-pitchers (not counting two-way player Shohei Ohtani ). Both figures are major-league highs for the expansion era starting in 1961, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“It’s just cool to be up there and get to do something that you don’t get to do,” said Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer, who was a closer and infielder at Oklahoma State but has never pitched in the majors despite his best lobbying efforts. “You have the ball in your hands nonstop.”
Rizzo pleaded for a while to get into a game. His chance arrived on July 23 with the Cubs trailing 7-1 to Arizona and two outs in the ninth. Maddon sauntered out and tossed Rizzo a different glove — a non-first baseman’s mitt — before inserting him. The fans at Wrigley Field cheered as Rizzo’s walk-up music — normally reserved for when he steps into the batter’s box — blared during his warmup pitches.
One batter, two “sliders” — that’s how they were listed — and a fly out later, Rizzo now boasts a career ERA of 0.00.
“He got his shot. I don’t want to hear it again,” Maddon cracked.
Rizzo’s far from alone in getting his break on the mound. A quick sample:
— San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval threw 11 pitches for a clean inning on April 28 against the Dodgers.
— The Diamondbacks used two position players in one game with infielder Daniel Descalso and catcher Alex Avila throwing on July 11 in a 19-2 loss at Colorado.
— The Cubs have utilized five position players on the mound this season. In addition to Rizzo, they’ve inserted Victor Caratini, Chris Gimenez, Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella . They’ve used multiple position players to throw in the same game twice.
— Using a short-armed delivery, New York Mets infielder Jose Reyes made his major league mound debut in a 25-4 loss to Washington on Tuesday. He threw 48 pitches in one inning and allowed six runs.
— Now this was a high stress situation: Dodgers utility player Enrique Hernandez was called upon to pitch the 16th inning in Philadelphia on July 24 and surrendered a walk-off homer to Trevor Plouffe on an 84 mph pitch.
Anything to pitch in.
“It’s like riding a bike,” Avila said after tossing two scoreless innings. “I wasn’t trying to do anything special, just made sure I tried to throw strikes and that’s really it.”
One thing’s for sure: No batter wants to get an out because of a position player turned momentary reliever. But it’s challenging to go up there and face someone who throws at unorthodox speeds, such as a 62 mph slider (Rizzo) or a 69 mph curveball (Tampa Bay infielder Daniel Robertson on April 7 at Boston) or an 85 mph four-seam fastball (Minnesota infielder Willians Astudillo on July 14 against Tampa Bay).
“You’re a hitter: You’re supposed to get a hit against him,” Hernandez said. “It’s a little hard when the pitcher’s throwing under the hitting zone. It’s never fun.
“Unless you hit a homer.”
Bullpen sessions for position players are usually just playing catch before batting practice — showing off that wicked curve to a teammate or a dancing knuckleball.
A windup? That’s usually on the fly — maybe a carry-over from high school days.
“Some of them can throw from the stretch,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “A couple of them have slide steps.”
And some position players are off limits to send to the mound, given the potential risk of an arm injury.
Jose Canseco remains a cautionary tale. The Texas Rangers outfielder pitched at Boston on May 29, 1993, only to complain of arm soreness. He later underwent surgery on his right elbow.
“I think a particular 39-year-old infielder (Chase Utley) is probably off limits,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts joked. “Everyone is different. You kind of want to protect guys.”
The funny thing is many players lobby to pitch — until the opportunity actually arises.
“Everybody chirps about the ability and then I’ve actually gone to a couple of them like, ‘OK.’ And all of a sudden their mouth gets dry and they can’t spit,” Hurdle said. “They’re like, ‘Well, I need to work on it.’ Well, a week ago you didn’t.”
Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell has his No. 1 position-player reliever all lined up — infielder Hernan Perez . Next up: Erik Kratz. They both got into the game Thursday night in a 21-5 loss to the Dodgers. Perez surrendered five runs in an inning of work, while Kratz tossed a clean frame.
Counsell has a simple reason for the upswing in non-pitchers taking the mound with such frequency — bullpen preservation.
“You have to live to fight the next day. You really do,” Counsell said. “When we’re making the decision, that’s what it’s about.”
For Mercer, the next time the Pirates need an emergency reliever, no need to call the bullpen.
Just point to him at shortstop.
“I remind people that I used to pitch in college,” Mercer said. “I remind them all the time.”