Tuesday, September 16, 2008

We have questions, A's reliever Brad Ziegler has answers

Baseball doesn’t have an award for the feel-good story of the year, but if it did, A’s reliever Brad Ziegler would have a hammerlock on the honor.

I mean, just try to come up with a better baseball story than his.

Four years ago he nearly died in a Modesto hospital after being drilled in the head by a wicked line drive off the bat of current Giants outfielder Fred Lewis in a minor league game.

Two years ago Ziegler ditched his conventional delivery and starter’s job to become a reliever with a side-winding delivery that’s just north of submarine.

Last January Ziegler was hit in the head again, this time in a mishap while playing catch.

Then this season he started in Triple-A Sacramento, morphed into a record-setting big-league reliever and became the A’s closer.

Ziegler threw 39 consecutive scoreless innings to open his career. That set a modern (since 1900) Major League record to start a career, the American League mark for consecutive scoreless innings by a rookie and the A’s overall record. He even got to send his cleats to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

There’s more. He entered Tuesday night’s game against the Angels with a 0.50 ERA, the lowest single-season ERA in baseball history among pitchers with at least 50 innings. He had not allowed a home run all season through 54 innings. He was a perfect nine for nine in save opportunities.

“To come up and have a year like that and end up finishing the season as a closer is quite remarkable,” A’s manager Bob Geren said. “He has such good late movement on the ball that induces a lot of swings-and-misses and ground balls.

“The big thing he does is throw strikes. He comes right after the hitters. The ninth inning hasn’t fazed him a bit.”

To make the story even better, Ziegler is loving and appreciating every minute of his surreal ride.

I caught up to Ziegler before Tuesday night’s game for a few questions and answers:

Q: Have things calmed down a little since the scoreless streak ended?

A: “They have calmed down. At the same time, all the good things that have happened, I can deal with anything like that that comes with it because there are so many other benefits to this game. Having that extra media attention, I didn’t want to look at it as a detriment to the season at all. It’s just something that’s just part of being in this lifestyle.”

Q: Did you enjoy the ride, the whole Hall of Fame thing, sending your cleats to Cooperstown?

A: “It’s been crazy. I would have never thought when I came up as a middle reliever that a middle reliever could garner that much attention. It was exciting. I think about it every day, how important my team was when I went through the streak. Just the way they acted around me and encouraged me the whole time. There was never anybody wishing that I would give up a run just so I wouldn’t have the attention. They were all very supportive. They’d give me a hard time about it, but they’d do it in such a way that made me know that they were happy for me.”

Q: It must seem surreal, your story. Getting hit and almost dying and then changing your delivery. Do you sometimes shake your head and say, ‘How did this happen?’

A: “I do. But you know, I never looked at the other things as true setbacks. They were just things that I had to do along the way, not even necessarily bumps in the road, just part of what it took me to get here. I feel like God has a plan for my life, and I don’t understand why I had to go through some of the things that I did, but to get to this point I feel like he’s allowed me to have a little relief and fulfillment for the hard work that I put in to this point.”

Q: And the hard things you went through, getting hit?

A: “That’s definitely one of the impact moments of my career. Obviously impact can be used in multiple ways. At the same time, it changed my life. When I left the hospital I felt like I’d been given another chance. Because my life could have easily been taken away from me that night. I just felt like from that point on I wanted to know that whenever I walked away from this game that I gave it everything I had and I didn’t just take what was given to me and not work for extra stuff. It just kind of renewed my commitment to baseball, but also to my friends, my family, to loved ones. That was the first time I’d really had any realization it could end at any time.”

Q: Getting back out there, did it take a while to adjust again to throwing and having people hitting line drives back at you?

A: “It really didn’t. It was four or five starts into the season before I had a ball zip by me. It was at Visalia. I remember the play. I just remember thinking, ‘I think I could have caught that if it was closer to me.’ That type of thing. The odds of that happening again, being in such a vital spot on my body, to being hit so hard that I can’t even knock it down or anything, the odds of that happening again aren’t good. And hopefully now that I’ve shown I can be effective, especially getting ground balls, hopefully the line drives will be at a minimum.”

Q: Then a kid got in your way and deflected a ball that hit you in the head?

A: “Yeah. That was in January. That was just kind of a fluke thing and me just kind of not paying attention and being a little lackadaisical. I don’t blame the kid at all. He was being a kid. Most kids don’t think about what could happen if this goes wrong. And it was my fault for allowing the situation to get to the point that it did.”

Q: What did the kid do?

A: “I was playing catch with another big-leaguer, just warming up. The other kid was just standing next to me. The throw was kind of in between us, and he just kind of reached over to catch it. I reached over and he deflected it right off my forehead.”

Q: Did it take much convincing to get you to change your delivery? That’s pretty radical to go from a traditional delivery to go basically submarine.

A: “It didn’t’ take a lot of convincing from the A’s. They pitched it to me and then they let me have a few days to think about it. I didn’t want to at first, but I talked to my family, I talked to my agent and we just felt like at that point it was the right thing for me to do. If that was my best route, my best chance to get there, then I needed to give it 100 percent because the A’s were sure willing to give it 100 percent.”

Q: Was it (A’s bullpen coach) Ron Romanick who came to you first?

A: “Yeah.”

Q: How long did it take to adjust?

A: “I’m still adjusting. I’m still learning things. Romanick, after Sunday when Marlon Byrd hit that ball off the center-field wall on me, Romanick came up to me and said he saw something in my delivery that he thought I might have to tweak a little bit. Yes, that was a drastic changeover in a short period of time, but through my whole career I’ve been making adjustments. You can’t be the same pitcher every time out or pretty soon people will figure you out.”

Q: Coming from that arm angle, you’re something these batters don’t see very often, right?

A: “Yeah. And the less they see, the better. If I’m out there every game, every night, then I’m going to be figured out pretty quick.”

Q: But you’re in a closer’s role now. That’s what those closers do, isn’t it?

A: “Yeah. I have no problem with that because that means the more I’m out there the more we’re having chances of winning games. And I love winning. We had that stretch right at the beginning of the second half, and it was not fun. But to bounce back the way we have and have the young guys come up and really help us here the last few games, it’s exciting. The future’s exciting. No matter what role I have, that doesn’t change my job. My job is to get outs.”

Q: How have you felt being in that closer’s role? How much have you done it before?

A: “I did it at the end of last year in Triple-A in the playoffs, and then this season in Triple-A I had like eight saves before I got called up. A little experience. We have some crowds in Sacramento that are as big as the crowds here. I love it. At the same time, I love just pitching in a close game, period. Whether we’re losing, it’s 2-1 and we’re losing or a tie game or we’re winning, seventh, eighth, ninth innings. Any pitcher will tell you, they love those situations. They want to have the ball in their hand.”

Q: What’s your repertoire, coming from that angle?

A: “Fastball, slider, change-up.”

Q: What’s the movement on those pitches?

A: “The fastball moves down and in on a righty. The changeup has the same movement, just slower. The slider moves hard away from the righty. It’s flat. It’s a flat movement. If I throw it really well it might even rise a little bit. I’m a little more side-armed than like Chad Bradford where he’s really trying to get underneath it. I’m more on the side of the ball and so mine’s going to move more flat.”

Q: Do you call yourself a submariner or a side-armer?

A: “It’s a little lower than (sidearm). I think of Chad Bradford as submarine, and I’m not even close to that.”

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