Gregg pledges to close games, make bullpen closer

Veteran reliever has taken a leadership role in his first weeks with the Orioles

February 24, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — — The pleas started very early that spring and continued well into the Florida Marlins' 2007 regular season. Kevin Gregg had one save on his resume, but when he presented his case to manager Fredi Gonzalez and pitching coach Rick Kranitz, that hardly mattered.

Gregg wanted the ball in the ninth inning. He wanted the burden of being the guy on the mound when the final pitch was thrown, good or bad. In his mind, he wasn't just the right choice to serve as the Marlins' closer, he was the only choice.

"Every conversation we had, it was, 'I'm your guy. I can do this job,' " said Rick Kranitz, the Marlins' pitching coach for two years before performing that same role with the Orioles for the previous three years. He's now the Milwaukee Brewers' pitching coach. "Right away, his toughness came out. He was driven to be more than that middle guy. A couple of other guys failed at closer. He was excellent."

The Orioles signed Gregg to a two-year, $10 million deal this offseason because the big right-hander has averaged 30 saves over the previous four seasons and he closed 37 games for the Toronto Blue Jays last year. They valued his durability, as the 32-year-old has never been on the disabled list in his career. They wanted his no-nonsense demeanor and steady professionalism to permeate throughout their bullpen

"I had two or three people tell me that this guy will not necessarily run your bullpen, but he will be your emotional leader, so to speak," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "He gets it. He has that competitive edge. He's going to make people around him better, and he cares what his teammates think. He'll bring what we need him to bring."

For now, the Orioles will say only that Gregg will pitch late in games. Showalter may not settle on a closer until later this spring, although Gregg and Koji Uehara, who converted 13 of 15 save opportunities in 2010, are the top candidates.

Forged through competition

The competition and role uncertainty is nothing new for Gregg, who had made it clear that he signed with the Orioles to be their closer. He broke into the big leagues in 2003 with the Anaheim Angels, serving as a part-time starter. The following year, he settled into an Angels' bullpen that included Troy Percival, Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields and Brendan Donnelly. Gregg was traded to the Marlins before the 2007 campaign, but only became their closer when other options, including former Orioles closers Jorge Julio and Armando Benitez, faltered.

Gregg saved 61 games from 2007-08 for the Marlins before he was traded to the Chicago Cubs ahead of the 2009 season. Gregg eventually became the Cubs' closer over Carlos Marmol, converting 23 of 30 save opportunities while dealing with a knee injury that required surgery. He then signed with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010 and won their closer competition versus the likes of Jason Frasor and Scott Downs.

"What makes you excited to go out there every day? I loved starting, but I just liked the idea about the game being on the line and the team counting on me to finish the game," Gregg said. "What's the difference between pitching in the sixth inning, the seventh inning, the eighth inning? There's no backstop when you're pitching in the ninth inning. It's you or nothing. If you get the job done, the team is going to win.

"You have 24 other players, plus the coaches counting on you to get the last three outs. Those are typically the toughest three outs to get. There's a lot on the line and there's a lot put on someone's shoulders. Some people handle that pressure and some people don't like that pressure. To each their own. I love that feeling and that pressure that the team is counting on me to win."

Over the last four seasons, Gregg has converted 121 of 147 (82 percent) of his save opportunities, but he is not without his detractors. While he saved 37 games in 43 chances in 2010, the fourth-highest save total in the American League, he also gave up 52 hits and walked 30 batters in 59 innings. However, both Showalter and Kranitz said the walk totals are more of a sign of Gregg failing to give into hitters, rather than poor control.

"Every pitch he throws, he believes he's going to make a pitch," Kranitz said. "He's not going to give in. That's what I like about him. He's had a few walks over the years, but I always thought his command was very good. He has that feel when to attack a guy and when to make pitches and work around a guy. That's part of being a closer."

Fiery by nature

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