PORTLAND, Maine — It’s not exactly “Rookie of the Year,” but T.J. Large’s baseball career is a bit reminiscent of a Disney sports movie.
To hear him tell it, the best thing to happen to him is being selected to play in a prestigious fall baseball league last year, but if not for a health issue in surgery on his throwing hand five years ago, the Portland Sea Dogs’ relief pitcher may never have had that chance.
“Ever since I had my wrist surgery in 2004 to remove a cyst, I started throwing the cutter [part fastball, part slider],” said Large, a righthander who was 3-0 with a 1.11 ERA through Wednesday. “They took three tendons and pushed them over and moved another over to the other side.”
The procedure had an unintended, but very beneficial, side effect.
“It seemed to make my middle finger stronger and my pointer finger weaker, so my middle finger sets up on top of the ball naturally and pulls down on the ball better,” the former collegiate starting pitcher explained. “It’s a natural thing and thank God I got it. It’s saving me.”
And saving the Sea Dogs to the tune of a team-high eight saves in nine opportunities this season, although Large shies away from the “closer” label.
I don’t really think of myself as a closer,” he said. “I get saves, but I think almost every reliever on our staff has a save.”
Well, six of the 10 pitchers used in relief so far this season have at least one, but Large definitely looms just that way when the game is on the line for Portland.
“I think his command is what sets him apart, along with his aggressiveness. He trusts his stuff,” said Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler. “He just comes in and throws strikes.
“He works ahead of hitters and is very efficient, which has allowed him to get back out there a lot. He likes to throw and he bounces back strong on back-to-back days.
In his first 33 appearances this season, the 6-foot-4, 185 pound Floridian has allowed 30 hits in 40ª innings while striking out 33 batters and walking 14.
“I guess when I stopped trying to strike everybody out was my biggest adjustment,” Large said. “I tried to do that my first year and now I don’t care, and I’m walking less guys and still coming up with strikeouts.”
Large credits Portland pitching coach Mike Cather and catcher Mark Wagner, both of whom worked with him in the Arizona Fall League last year, for his improvement.
“I give all my recent success to [Cather],” Large said. “He knows a ton about the game and how to communicate with me. He knows I throw differently than anyone else on the team with my cutter.”
Cather also provided a mental adjustment.
“Cath says the toughest thing about pitching is getting to nothing,” he said. “You want to be thinking about nothing and just do it.”
Large isn’t your typical closer, as he doesn’t rely on just one or two overpowering pitches, as good as his cut fastball is. He has four quality pitches and has the confidence to throw any of them at any time.
“I don’t throw 95 to 98 so I have to have some other pitches and, as a reliever, you have to have every one of your pitches ready to go,” he said. “This year, the first pitch I throw is a curveball where before I went fastball a lot. That’s a big deal for me to be able to come in and get a first-pitch strike on a curveball, and I have a lot more confidence in my changeup now, too.”
Large had never really been a relief pitcher, let alone a closer, until after he was drafted as a starter out of the University of Alabama with the 46th pick of the 49th round (1,390th overall) in the 2005 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
“I always joke about that with other guys when I find out what round they were drafted,” Large says with a big smile. “I’m like ‘Oh, you were fifth round, 41 rounds above me, and you’re here with me now? Good job man.”
Rain soaking Sea Dogs
The Sea Dogs’ second rainout in five days and fourth overall this season wasn’t sitting well with players or coaches this week.
“Oh, it’s a pain. It’s been a pain all year because these guys need to get out on the field and get consistent,” said Beyeler. “It affects our consistency. This last month our consistency’s been hitting in a cage to see if we’re going to play until 6 or 8 at night and nobody likes that.”
Beyeler, who has been managing in the minors for nine seasons (three with Portland), said he’s never seen anything like the last five weeks’ worth of soaked and soggy conditions.
“I’ve seen it before, but not for a solid month over so large a region,” he said. “Everywhere it’s been that way. Everybody in the league’s having the same problem.”
The Dogs took out their frustrations Tuesday on Binghamton with a doubleheader sweep: 3-1 and 6-2.