TORONTO – It hasn't been a calendar year since he was thrust into the closer's role; it's taken much less time for Casey Janssen to cement himself as a reliable ninth inning pitcher.
"Honestly it was like this is my one time to show baseball that, hey, maybe I can be something more than a middle reliever," said Janssen of the opportunity given to him last May. "Unfortunately in this game you're never a closer until you get the opportunity and then it's what you do with the opportunity. I don't know how many opportunities I would get in the future if I blew it last year. I always say no one wants to be vice-president, no one wants to be assistant general manager; everyone wants to be the guy."
In an April of few positives for a Blue Jays club that won only 10 of its 27 games, Janssen has been one. He has converted each of his seven save opportunities this season and 29 of 32 dating back to last year. He has allowed only one earned run and in six conversions has faced an inning's minimum of three batters.
What's more remarkable is that Janssen's been perfect while feeling imperfect, coming off of off-season shoulder surgery. There have been days he's told manager John Gibbons he's not available to pitch.
“I'm hanging in there; I'm doing all right,” said Janssen. “I don't think anyone is super fresh but it's part of the game and part of our jobs down in the bullpen and just be ready to go tomorrow.”
“Well he's smart,” said Gibbons. “We don't need any heroes just yet. Otherwise you push him, he bites his lip when he probably shouldn't be, then it gets worse and then he's down for whatever and now things get really tough. We expect them all to be honest.”
The journey from then to now has been an unexpected one, appropriate considering Janssen is an unlikely closer. In an age when power arms are groomed for, or converted to, ninth inning work, Janssen's inability to light up a radar gun makes him a less obvious choice.
“As a closer, no,” said Gibbons, who was managing the Blue Jays when Janssen broke in to the majors in 2006. “I guess what kind of woke me up to it (was when) I was in Kansas City for three years and saw (Joakim) Soria pitch an almost identical style. He was one of the best in the game at making it easy. It makes it easier to watch; they don't beat themselves.”
“Darren (Oliver) and I laugh about it every night,” said Janssen. “Every bullpen now in the big leagues, they're bringing out guys who throw 95. We just laugh. We're like ‘what are we doing' kind of a thing because we see these guys. And then we talk about just the draft; I mean I was a fourth-round draft pick, there was plenty of guys drafted before me. If all those guys had command and worked as hard, I wouldn't be here.”
Janssen's fastball tops out in the low 90s; his curveball the trusted “out” pitch – batters strike out almost 39 percent of the time Janssen throws his curve with two strikes. His success comes from working ahead in the count, which stems from his ability to locate pitches with near pinpoint accuracy.
“You're kind of playing the cards you're dealt with and that's my game,” said Janssen. “It's the same with a guy like Mark Buehrle as well. He's never going to be a 95 guy so he's got to learn how to pitch or he's going to be out of this game and he's had a pretty long career out of it. You just have to be willing to adjust and learn and for us the margin of error is so much smaller that you pretty much have to be perfect every time.”
In Janssen's first big league season, 2006, 17 of his 19 appearances were starts. The following year, 2007, he pitched in 70 games, exclusively out of the bullpen.
Then, in 2008, came the most challenging season of Janssen's career. He underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum, an injury from which some pitchers don't recover.
Janssen missed the entire year rehabbing near his home in Santa Monica, California. He watched every game, acknowledging it “drove me crazy.” But as he watched, he learned – hitters' tendencies; pitchers' approaches – and it made him a better pitcher.
“It was tough at first because, being raised, my dad always told me you never say ‘I can't,'” said Janssen. “That was the first time I remember in my baseball career that I actually told the coaches and the staff that I can't continue; my arm's killing me. That was tough and then to not be around the guys, to sit at home and watch all the games, it made you have so much more respect for the game and what you do. But at the same time you wanted to be there and you didn't know if it was going to happen that you were going to get back there. Having said that, I mean, mentally, coming back from that you can kind of come back from everything and just appreciate the game and be grateful for everyday, which you hope people are. We love playing this game; we love everyday of it.”
Every Blue Jays' visit to Anaheim is special for Janssen; he grew up watching the Angels play. In fact, in just his fourth-career start, he pitched eight innings of shut-out ball at Angel Stadium. Taking the mound at Fenway Park, with its rich history, and pitching in Baltimore, having admired Cal Ripken's accomplishments, are other “wow” moments in Janssen's career.
You'll rarely see emotional outbursts; Janssen certainly won't be employing the gyrating mannerisms of, say, Detroit's Jose Valverde. But he doesn't criticize his fellow closers and doesn't want his cool demeanour to be misconstrued.
“If that works for them then do it because it doesn't matter how you get it done as long as you get it done in that role,” said Janssen. “You can be as flashy as you want, you could be as calm as you want but at the end of the day I think all that really matters is getting those three outs and getting the win. I haven't been a huge celebrator but that's just kind of my personality. At the same time, I'm an emotional guy and a heart-on-my-sleeve type of pitcher but once it's done, it's like you can just exhale and know that you accomplished something.”
The Blue Jays have come to count on Janssen. After all, he's gotten a save in seven of the club's 10 wins. While it's a stretch to assume he'll go through the entire season unscathed, Janssen promises he will be efficient.
“It's going to happen fast, good or bad,” joked Janssen. “Short and sweet either way and hopefully it's in the win the column. Then get ready for tomorrow. The fewer pitches you throw the more opportunity you have to go back out there the next day.”