TORONTO - Marc Rzepczynski is quietly making a name for himself.
Not that he expects most people to remember how to spell it.
“The name is why my freshman high school coach started calling me Zip, and it’s stuck ever since. I don’t see it changing anytime soon,” the Blue Jays reliever says.
There is a broad grin stuck like jam to toast on his face. Rzepczynski has lots to smile about these days, other than the alphabet soup it looks like someone spilled on the backside of his uniform.
A few months ago his chances of making the major league roster were hanging out on a limb; he’d been told he wasn’t in the plans to make the Toronto rotation and there was a logjam to get through the bullpen door.
But Rzepczynski did have one thing in his favour. He’s a lefty. “We had a lot of young starters coming into spring training and with the off-season moves the team made we didn’t have a lefty in the pen. So, I wasn’t totally shocked with the idea of becoming a reliever.”
After being a starter throughout a minor league career, some might’ve balked at the move. “I looked at it as an opportunity,” said Rzepczynski.
Six weeks into the season, he has become a vital cog in what has emerged as arguably the best bullpen in the major leagues. Rzepczynski leads the Jays pitching staff with 18 appearances, calling on him in more than half their games.
Many of those appearances have come at crucial moments. “I’ve faced pretty much every situation; gone multiple innings, the start of an inning, come in with runners on base and I’m starting to feel just like another guy in the bullpen,” he said. Outside of the position players, he may quietly have had as much impact on keeping the Jays from floundering through a difficult start to the season, as anyone on the roster.
His 18 appearances ties for second in the league and he’s surrendered a run in just three of those games. There was a blown save against Boston, but otherwise the move from starter has been seamless: four holds, a string of eight consecutive scoreless innings and two wins.
“He’s on a steady pace to become one of the better relievers in the game,” said manager John Farrell. “His velocity has climbed and he’s got multiple weapons to get both left and right hand hitters out. We can put him in there against anyone.”
And, they have had to do so on many occasions because if not for the Toronto bullpen, this team would’ve lost all hope of being a pretender — let alone a contender. Rzepczynski is part of a relief corps tied for the major league lead with 127 1/3 innings — nearly half of the team’s 332.1 innings played.
Through injuries to key position players, a sputtering offence and a rotation that often can’t get past the sixth inning, the bullpen has been a salvation.
To illustrate the impact consider the Jays rank 17th overall in pitching and the starters are 10-15. Relievers are 7-5, have combined for the third-best ERA in the American League, and held hitters to a .204 average, which ranks second in the majors behind only the Giants at .200.
They have kept the Jays in games that otherwise would’ve been lost early. “There’s a quiet confidence (among the relievers),” Rzepczynski said. “We’re not going to be an out-going, cocky group. We all have confidence in each other that if one day one guy can’t do the job; the next guy will. Like the other day, I had confidence (Jon) Rauch was going to get me out of a jam; just like I felt (Jason) Frasor had confidence I’d get him out of a jam. Right now everybody just feels good about themselves and the guy next to them.”
Rzepczynski points in a lot of directions to explain his, and the bullpen’s, early evolvement. “I threw relief a lot in college so I took some things from that experience but it really started last year with (Scott) Downs, both of us are left-handed, two-pitch (fastball, sinker) guys. There isn’t one guy who’s brain I haven’t tried to pick.
“Frasor and Camp know the AL East. Rauch played with and pitched against all those guys in the AL Central. Frankie (Francisco) knows the AL West and having Carlos (Villanueva), he’s from the National League, so he knows the guys who’ve come over from there. We talk to him about what those hitters do. And, everyone down there has four-plus years experience.”
The best piece of advice? “Pat Hentgen (Toronto’s bullpen coach) told me to attack. Early on, I was trying to be too fine, trying to be too cute. As a starter you’re always saving something for the third or fourth time you face a hitter. I don’t have to think about that now. I just go out there and give ‘em everything I’ve got.”
And, while he might still be new at this job, he has already adopted the mantra of every successful relief pitcher: “I’m going out there not fearing anybody. You have to trust yourself.”
Marc Rzepczynski profile
Born: Yorba Linda, Calif.
Schools: Servile High, Anaheim and University of California, Riverside.
Drafted: Fifth round (175th overall) of the 2007 Major League Baseball Draft by the Jays.
Statistically speaking: Of the 65 batters he’s faced, just one this season has an extra-base hit.
Record: 2-0, 2.60, 17 1/3 IP, 18 K.
Social networking: Developed the nickname “Scrabble” in the blogosphere in reference to the high score his last name would earn in the board game.