Cito Gaston faced some pretty good pitchers during his 11-year playing career, including Fergie Jenkins and Tom Seaver, and the Toronto Blue Jays manager recalls what both had in common - a nasty changeup.
"Jenkins had one of the best," Gaston said yesterday, settling into full nostalgia mode at the Blue Jays spring training camp. "Fergie's back foot would not leave that mound. He was just all arm and he'd give you the same motion and everything.
"Great changeup - although he had some kind of a slider, too."
Prompting Gaston's trip down memory lane was a discussion about Jason Frasor, one of three pitchers the Blue Jays are auditioning for the role of closer this season.
Frasor's sixth major-league season (2009) was his best, at times filling in as the team's stopper when injuries dictated, and he never really looked out of place. The 32-year-old credits a changeup pitch that he added to his repertoire as the secret to his success.
"Going through the [American League]East, facing the same hitters - Boston, New York - and coming up with something different, that helped," Frasor said. "I got a lot of outs with it because, with those lineups, they're looking for a lot of heaters."
He picked up a career-high seven wins (against three losses), all in relief, tying him for fourth in the AL among relievers. He also was credited with 11 saves and posted a 2.50 earned-run average in 61 games. Another crucial stat: Frasor cut down his walks by 50 per cent (to 16) from the season before.
Frasor said he had toyed with throwing a changeup since he was a rookie, but never took it to heart until 2009.
"Last year, I figured it out, simplified it, and really have a good feel for it," he said.
The constant refrain from pitching coaches to their charges is to alter the speed of the pitches to keep the hitters off-balance. Many don't listen, believing power is the key to success.
"The changeup is the toughest pitch to recognize what it is, the speed of it," Gaston said. "And that's why they keep saying it. But pitchers don't realize it sometimes. They think because they take a little off they're going to get killed.
"It's the best pitch in baseball because you can't distinguish what it is."
In addition to Frasor, the Blue Jays are also eyeing left-hander Scott Downs and righty Kevin Gregg for the closer's job.
The work gets more serious starting today, when the Blue Jays will play their first Grapefruit League game against the Detroit Tigers.
While Frasor and Downs could both pass for choirboys, Gregg - 6 foot 6 and 245 pounds - has the robust look of the classic stopper.
"He has the stature," Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton said. "He's big, he don't look real nice, and I don't think he is nice when he gets out on the mound. He has that appearance that he's going out there and he doesn't even want to see you foul a ball off. That's pretty special."
If anyone has the inside track, it is probably Gregg, won signed a one-year, $2.45-million (U.S.) contract in the off-season.
After totalling 61 saves in two seasons with the Florida Marlins, Gregg was traded to the Chicago Cubs, but 2009 was a struggle as he went 5-6 with 23 saves and a 4.72 ERA. He also surrendered 13 home runs, tying him for the major-league lead among relief pitchers, and eventually lost his closer's job last August.
Gregg said he was wearing down as the 2009 season went on, the result of having knee surgery before he was traded to the Cubs. He says he feels fine now, and likes what he has seen so far of his new Toronto teammates.
"It's a building process," the 31-year-old said. "We're not a $200-million payroll team. We got good money in the team, but we've got a lot of young guys with a lot of potential and upside that can make a good combination."
The Toronto Blue Jays will play their first game of the Grapefruit League season this afternoon, against the Detroit Tigers at Dunedin Stadium.
Ricky Romero, a 13-game winner in his rookie campaign last season, will get the start for Toronto and is expected to pitch two innings.
The Blue Jays' starting lineup today:
1. Jose Bautista, 3B
2. Aaron Hill, 2B
3. Adam Lind, DH
4. Vernon Wells, CF
5. Lyle Overbay, 1B
6. John Buck, C
7. Jeremy Reed, RF
8. Alex Gonzalez, SS
9. Travis Snider, LF