Pittsburgh Pirates

Relievers use spring for trying new pitches

PORT CHARLOTTE — The bases were loaded with Philadelphia Phillies because Grant Balfour walked them loaded, and the Tampa Bay Rays reliever was not too happy.

“You don’t ever want to walk a batter,” Balfour said. “Even now.”

“Now,” of course, is spring training, the time of year when position players and those pitchers in the starting rotation slowly work their way into the game-shape needed for the long-haul that is a 162-game season.

Spring training is different for relief pitchers.

This is the time of the season — the only time of the season — when a reliever can actually work on a new pitch or a different approach to the way they pitch.

Once the regular season begins, guys like Balfour are on call for 162 games. That means they can’t spend time in the bullpen before a game working on a cutter, because they need to save their arm for the game.

“And you don’t have time during games to work on something, so spring is the only time you can actually mess around with grips or work on changing up your pitch sequences,” Rays reliever Joe Nelson said.

It basically now or wait until next March.

“It’s pretty tough when you get in a situation where you know the cutter in on a lefty is the pitch to throw, and I if didn’t throw it once in the spring, I’m probably not going to throw it,” Rays closer Troy Percival said. “I’d have to wait for that three-run lead to work on it, and there’s not a lot of those out there.”

Balfour walked the bases loaded in a game against the Phillies because he was working on his curveball. He didn’t miss the strike zone by much. In fact, home plate umpire Sam Hollbrook told Rays manager Joe Maddon that Balfour wasn’t missing the strike zone by much.

That was of little consequence to Balfour, who thought he was squeezed by Hollbrook on some of those pitches.

Still, he was told by Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey to throw more curves, and that’s what Balfour did.

“Grant was mad when he came out of the game,” Nelson said. “But he steps back from it and says, ‘I threw some pretty good curveballs to a left-handed hitter, which wasn’t in my repertoire last year.’ Normal circumstances, if that’s April 6 (Opening Day), he’s throwing fastballs and blowing guys away.”

The competitor in Balfour was upset with the walks. The pitcher in Balfour knows a good change-up with his fastball could some day lead to him being a closer.

“I’m all for experimenting during the camp. I want guys to do that kind of stuff. That’s how they’re going to gain a feel for that,” Maddon said. “I would like to believe if they start doing it now they’re going to keep people out, and it will become part of their routine.”

Nelson has allowed at least one home run in each of his three outings. He allowed two long home runs in the ninth inning Sunday against the Pittsburgh Pirates that erased a four-run lead and cost the Rays a win, and Nelson was not too happy.

“You never want to give up anything even when you’re working on stuff,” Nelson said. “You come in and give up a homer, you’re not happy about it.”

But Nelson is trying to regain command of his fastball, so he can hit the outside corners. Once he establishes that, he’ll turn to getting his change-up ready for Opening Day.

“Ultimately you’re trying to get things squared up for April 6,” Nelson said. “Sometimes you may not be happy with the results, but it is a process. In years past, I might have freaked out if I gave up a run or two during spring training and said, ‘Oh God, they’re going to send me down.’ But I realize know there is a process that goes into getting ready for a sixth month season. I’d rather give up runs now and make the adjustments I need to make then start on April 6.”

In addition to trying to pitch himself back into shape after offseason surgery on his lower back, Percival is working on throwing cutters to left-handed batters and change-ups to right-handers.

“Last spring I gave up seven runs in one inning, but I was not deviating from my plan. I was going to throw the ball in and that’s what I was going to work on that day,” he said.

“It kept getting hit around, because I kept missing over the plate. If I don’t try it then, when I go into the season that pitch won’t be there. So you might get hit around a little bit more, but this is the only time we have to do it.”

For relief pitchers, spring is really for training.