An easy-drawling, softly speaking individual in the clubhouse, on the mound he takes on a fierce persona, his front arm elevated as though to elbow a left winger into the boards, his eyes glaring toward the plate, his front leg planted ferociously in a stomp.
He comes from Huntington Beach, Calif., 90 minutes from San Diego where the Toronto Blue Jays play the Padres this weekend, a place where the Beach Boys tell the teacher we’re surfin’, surfin’ USA. Casey Janssen personifies the classic Southern Californian with his blond-streaked hair, sun-licked West Coast looks and laid-back personality – a stereotype that scares away some pro scouts away in the belief that athletes from Santa Barbara south to Tijuana have it too easy, with the warm weather and la-di-da lifestyle.
“Are they tough enough?” Janssen’s high-school coach and friend, Ron LaRuffa, asks rhetorically. “That’s one of the questions a lot of people have about Southern California kids.”
Despite the advantage of developing their talents 12 months a year if they choose, Southern Californians can be challenged to prove themselves on the pro level, to prove they have the right stuff to handle the atmosphere in areas of the country absent palm trees.
Janssen, 31, played mainly third base until his senior year at Fountain Valley High, a school that has inducted him into its hall of fame along with C.J. Wilson of the Los Angeles Angels and Chris Tillman of the Baltimore Orioles. At UCLA, coach Gary Adams used him as pitcher and position player; in his second year Janssen started at first base and also worked as a weekend starter against Pac-10 opponents. A knee injury at the end of that 2002 season led to focus on pitching, and ultimately the Blue Jays selected him in fourth round of the 2004 draft as a starting pitcher.
It can be an insular life, in Southern California. Many never leave, even for vacation. They have the mountains, the ocean and, as young athletes imagine it at the time, the highest possible competition in baseball, basketball and football.
“I love living in California, love the weather, love the beach,” says Janssen, 11-for-11 converting save opportunities with 16 strikeouts in 16 innings as the Jays’ closer this season, in spite of recurring post-surgical shoulder soreness. “But I always say there are two types of people, the laid-back, beach-going type and especially in L.A., the high-strung people. But both seem to do okay there.”
Underneath the cosmetic layer, the culture is highly driven, with 38 million people crowding the state, the majority in SoCal. The state has spawned the world-leading entertainment industry, the high-tech revolution, a massive agricultural economy, and unending small-business success stories such as the Trader Joe’s grocery chain and the iconic In-N-Out Burger empire.
Intrinsically, they know how to compete; next step is to learn what’s out there.
“At first, it’s a shock to the body, suddenly [as a first-year pro] you’re with guys from Indiana, from Florida, Texas, the Dominican,” Janssen said, reflecting back on 2004 when suddenly, he’d been transported to Albany of the New York-Penn League as a first-year pro. “You might think you’re good in the city, in the state, but now you’re doing it at the national level.”
Converted to relief in 2007, one season after making the Blue Jays roster, he won the closer’s job early last season when Sergio Santos went down with a shoulder injury, though he lacks classic closer stuff. His fastball nudges the 90-mile-an-hour barrier at times, and the repertoire excludes a truly nasty pitch such as the cutter from New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. “His intellect makes him what he is,” LaRuffa said. “That and his work habits – he was one of the first to arrive [at the practice diamond] and last to leave. He doesn’t throw 99 mph but he throws strikes, studies the scouting reports, knows the hitters, and he’s consistent.”
Janssen appeared in 70 games in his first season of relief then missed the entire 2008 season with a torn labrum in his shoulder, requiring surgery. He was out 25 days at the beginning of 2008 season missed nearly two months in the middle of 2009, again with shoulder strain. Last winter, he underwent what was described as maintenance surgery on the shoulder and continues to deal with the aftermath, though in May he's had spans of six and eight days between outings.
As his personality suits SoCal typecast, so his approach to work reflects the true personality under the veneer of the state’s business. At Apple, they wear jeans and T-shirts to the office and bulldoze the competition. Janssen, self-taught as a pitcher – explaining the unusual style on the mound – has adopted a high-intensity approach as a closer in order to succeed.
“I just found something that kind of works,” he said. “I’ve had other people tell me, ‘slow down and be under control.’ But I feel like I still am. They just see the pitching, they don’t know what’s going on inside.”
Jays (23-31) at Padres (24-29)Friday, 10:10 p.m.: RH Chad Jenkins (1-0, 3.60 ERA) vs. RH Jason Marquis (6-2, 3.70)
Saturday, 10:10 p.m.: LH Mark Buehrle (2-3, 5.51) vs. LH Clayton Richard (0-5, 8.35)
Sunday, 10:10 p.m.: RH Brandon Morrow (2-3, 5.63) vs. RH Edinson Volquez (4-5, 5.20)
(All times Eastern)
Notes: The Padres have cooled off, after a hot streak. Still, with a loss to Seattle in a day game Thursday, they’ve won 19 of the past 33, and 14 of 27 in May. ... The Blue Jays have been victimized frequently by allowing the opponent to score first, and the Padres are 17-8 when scoring first. ... Petco Park is tough on the long ball: the Padres rank 24th in homers and 18th in runs. ... 3B Chase Headley, who has turned back club overtures on a rich multiyear deal, is hitting .259 with only five homers on the season, and a batting average under .220 in the past 15 games. ... Marquis is 4-0 in May, having allowed 10 runs in five starts. In his past time out, he lasted 31/3 innings as Arizona scored four runs, in a no-decision. ... San Diego’s pitching staff ranks 22nd in runs allowed, the Jays rank 29th.