Nothing like Jim Johnson off the mound, Tommy Hunter hopes to produce like him on it

Orioles hope easygoing closer can close as well as all-business predecessor this season

  • Orioles pitcher Tommy Hunter, the heir apparent to Jim Johnson as the team's closer, poses during the team's photo day at the Orioles' spring training facility in February.
Orioles pitcher Tommy Hunter, the heir apparent to Jim Johnson… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
March 29, 2014|By Peter Schmuck | The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — If there is one thing you need to know about reliever Tommy Hunter, it is that he is the interpersonal opposite of the guy the Orioles hope he replaces in the critical closer role.

Jim Johnson, who last year became the first American League reliever with 50 or more saves in back-to-back seasons, remained all business, all the time. Whether he was warming up for a big save situation, going about his duties as the clubhouse union representative or putting together the club's annual spring training charity golf tournament, there was not a lot of nonsense.

Nonsense is Hunter's middle name. While Johnson never seemed to stray from the task at hand, Hunter is all over the place. Joshing with reporters. Challenging a teammate to a game of pingpong. Engaging in the fraternal goofiness that reigns in every baseball clubhouse this time of year.

When he finally sits still long enough for a reporter to start picking his brain, he pulls another chair up next to him and sets the tone right away.

"I love these 'True Hollywood' stories," he says.

This one starts about as far from Hollywood, so to speak, as you can get.

Hunter was a high school star in Indiana who went to Alabama and impressed scouts so much that he was chosen as a supplemental first-round pick in the 2007 amateur draft. Three years later, he was starting a World Series game for the Texas Rangers. Two years after that, he was converted into a full-time reliever by the Orioles after failing to hold a place in their rotation.

Somehow, none of it has gotten under his skin. He talks glowingly of his brief time in the Rangers' starting rotation and seemed perfectly happy to be in the Orioles bullpen last season. Perhaps it is that ability to go with the flow that will make him a terrific closer this year, but there is really no way to know until he actually starts pitching under end-game pressure.

That's why it's tempting to psychoanalyze him. There is no way to replicate those ninth-inning situations during spring training, because there are no pressure-packed innings. The reason Hunter came into camp as the presumptive closer is that he has classic stuff for the role, and he was very successful as a setup man last year.

Everybody knows he can throw hard and challenge hitters. The question is whether he can handle the night-to-night pressure and bounce back from failure. Clearly, he doesn't think that will be an issue.

"Yeah, I don't have a problem with it," Hunter said. "I mean, sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you. I like that quote. I'm not going to leave anything out on the field, and there are going to be times you're going to get beat. ... The guys who can forget the previous day are the ones who are going to play for a while, and I want to play for a while."

The closer mentality

If you ask longtime pitching coach Dave Wallace, who has had some experience with big-time closers, he'll tell you it isn't about outward personality. The fact that Hunter is an easygoing guy and Johnson appeared to be just the opposite is not all that relevant.

"I don't think that matters," Wallace said. "I've had John Wetteland, Eric Gagne, Jason Isringhausen, all different personalities. I think off-the-field personality is sometimes a little different when they get to the mound. I don't think it's a real big key what they are like off the field or away from the game. I think it's what happens when you're working out and what they bring into the ballgame."

Wallace doesn't think there is a perfect closer personality, but he does think there is such a thing as a "closer mentality."

"Absolutely, I wish I could describe what it was, because I could sell it and probably do well," he said. "I think it's being resilient. It's the ability to have controlled emotion. The two guys who come to mind are [Dennis] Eckersley, who used his emotion, and a guy like Mariano [Rivera], who internalized it and carried it into the game. … Call it controlled aggression. Closers in general all have that in common."

There is only one way to find out whether a pitcher has it, and it appears that Hunter will get every opportunity to develop that mentality if he hasn't yet.

"Your tendency is to say he's got that personality," Wallace said. "He's got what it takes, but obviously I haven't seen Tommy in the regular season. I've just seen him in spring training. I've heard all the talk about him. He's great. He's intense. He's aggressive. He does all those things. Can you channel him in the right way? Hopefully, we'll find out, but he's got that package that you look for."

Catcher Matt Wieters probably has a better sense of both Hunter and his predecessor than anyone. The differences between them, he said, are not so obvious when they take the mound in a big situation.

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