- Luke Cyphers
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Editor's Note: This story appears in the Sept. 10 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
Joseph Jason Putz acts as if he has all the time in the world. He moves slowly, the way only large creatures can -- oxen or lions or 250-pound righthanders -- creatures who know, because of their size, that nobody is stupid enough to provoke them. He looks like a football player, a little like Jeremy Shockey maybe, and his face has just a hint of that same wild-man menace. Before games, he glides through the Mariners' clubhouse gradually, like a container ship crossing Puget Sound. After games, it's the same thing, except he ferries a giant ice pack on the starboard shoulder.
Never does Seattle's closer move more slowly than in the ninth inning, when pressure spikes and hearts race and games hang in the balance. He paces toward the mound, his head down as he approaches the summit, still down as he braces his right foot against the rubber. Clutching the ball in his right hand, he adjusts the bill of his cap, hunches over, puts (which is how he pronounces his name) his glove hand on his left knee, and cradles the ball behind his back. Then, dramatically, he rolls his chin up and levels his gaze at the catcher's sign. He looks down again, as he rises to his full, 6'5" height. Finally, he looks up for good, staring at the catcher's target and starting his delivery. Suspense builds, for he is about to unleash hell on the batter -- with either a high-90s fastball that he can pinpoint anywhere, or a high-80s splitter that starts out straight and looks hittable before it tumbles out of the strike zone.
Tonight's first victim is Vladimir Guerrero. With the Mariners leading the Angels 2-0 in the top of the ninth and Safeco Field's 31,232 fans on their feet, Putz wings three shoulder-high fastballs -- 95 mph, 97, 96. Guerrero swings as hard as he can at all three, but the legendary bad-ball slugger never even comes close. Putz sets down the next two hitters, the fans roar, and the Mariners win again.
With J.J., we feel like we're playing an eight-inning game
-- Mariners manager John McLaren
The whole deliberate show is as intimidating as it is successful. Through Aug. 23, Putz boasted a 1.37 ERA and had converted
36 of 38 save chances, including, at one point, 31 in a row going back to last season. He didn't give up a run on the road for nearly four months, and he made his first All-Star team, at age 30. He's a huge reason the Mariners, an afterthought in the AL West since 2003, are in the hunt for the division title and the wild card.
Fittingly, for Putz, it's been a slow build.
In the ninth inning, alone on the mound, your only allies are your stuff, your experience, your defense -- and time. "The whole key is to slow things down," says Putz, sipping coffee at a Starbucks near his home in suburban Issaquah. "Never speed up. This game's hard enough at a normal speed. When you let it get faster, you start hearing the crowd, start thinking about something other than your next pitch. Pretty soon you've given up a four-spot and you're wondering, What just happened?"
For a closer, the game changes pitch to pitch, so Putz lives in the moment: "If I go ball one, ball two, it's time to start over."
Step off, look at the ground, rub the ball, step back on the mound, adjust cap with ball in hand. Deep breath, okay, this pitch, he tells himself. Get out of panic mode and refocus. One way he stays focused is by staring at the dirt. "I've always done it," he says. The best soil? "Safeco. That mound is money." Best away mound?
"Detroit. With that little strip leading out from it, it feels like you're right on top of the hitter. It's like, 'No way this is 60 feet.' " Facing Putz, a lot of hitters feel the same way. Since becoming Seattle's closer early last season, he has anchored the team at the end of games the way Ichiro leads at the top of the lineup: with authority and style. "With J.J., we feel like we're playing an eight-inning game," says manager John McLaren.
That kind of security has been invaluable for a club with multiple reasons to freak out. Spring snowstorms and squalls threw the early schedule into chaos, forcing postponements in five of the Mariners' first seven road games. Their young middle infielders struggled early, with gifted shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt making 19 first-half errors before harnessing his throws. Slugging first baseman Richie Sexson has hovered around .200 much of the season, and the M's have barely scored more runs than they've given up. Their big free agent acquisition, World Series hero Jeff Weaver, was 0-6 with a 14.32 ERA through May. Their manager, Mike Hargrove, quit in the middle of the season, amid rumors that the face of the franchise, Ichiro, had pushed him out. Their GM, Bill Bavasi, couldn't pull off a deadline deal for another arm. And in the middle of it all, local billionaire Paul Allen sold off the cushy private jet he'd leased the team.
Yet the Mariners have hung around, in striking distance of the Angels and neck and neck for the wild card just as hitters like Sexson, Adrián Beltré and Raul Ibáñez are heating up. "It shows the mental toughness of every guy, one through 25, on this team," Putz says.
"There's this feeling of, if you don't get it done today, I will. The camaraderie on this team is something I haven't felt since college." When the M's were five games into a seven-game slide in late July, Putz had just the answer: buzz cuts. Nearly everyone did it, even the team's PR guy. They won four of their next six.
The ploy was pure Putz. Yeah, baseball's difficult and pressure-filled, but it's still a game.
And that attitude has served him well. He developed it growing up in the Detroit suburb of Trenton, Mich., playing quarterback and point guard at Trenton High. He didn't start pitching until his junior year, but because he could throw in the 90s, the White Sox chose him in the third round of the 1995 draft. "They tell you never to take the first offer, so we didn't," Putz says. "Chicago never called back." So Putz enrolled at Michigan, where he was a little bit like a guy he crossed paths with: Tom Brady. Both came up in the shadow of other local heroes. While Brady split time at QB with Drew Henson, Putz was frequently overlooked in high school and college because of Ryan Anderson, a 6'10"
flamethrower from Dearborn whom everyone compared to Randy Johnson. (Anderson never pitched in the majors and is now aiming for a career as a 6'10" chef.) "Brady lived in my dorm, but he was pretty low-key, always watching film," Putz says. "He wasn't a big party guy." When asked if he himself was, Putz grins. "I got my work done, but let's just say I had a good time in college." With the Mariners, he was just another sixth-rounder with a live arm. But he had a long-distance ally. At a party to celebrate Michigan's Big Ten tournament title his senior season, Putz met a freshman Wolverines softball player named Kelsey Kollen. After he was drafted, they couldn't resist the speed dial. "A lot of phone calls," Putz says. "We just kinda knew." But Kelsey, an All-America second baseman, wasn't ready to be a baseball wife.
"It takes a special person to be in a relationship in the minor leagues," Putz says. "Through that whole grind, the travel, not making any money and chasing a dream, she lived it all with me on the phone. She made it easy." They married in 2002, after Kelsey graduated. Right about then, Putz's career gathered momentum.
"J.J. matured late," Kelsey says. "If I'd met him when he was a freshman, I probably wouldn't be married to him. He was pretty wild. But he made the decision to commit himself to the game." Putz recites tips from pitching coaches the way Al Gore quotes his Harvard professors: in minute detail, with perfect recall. When Putz switched to the bullpen, in 2003, he sharpened his command enough to earn a spot on the Mariners' roster within a year. All he needed was a second pitch, but his curveball was too slow and his sinker too inconsistent. He fooled around with a splitter beginning in 2005, he says, "but it sucked." Early in 2006, Putz was playing catch with Eddie Guardado, Seattle's closer at the time. Guardado suggested he change his grip a quarter-turn on the splitter. "The first one I threw bit and just fell off a table," Putz says.
"I knew we had something here." Within months, Guardado, who was having elbow problems, lost his job to Putz, and American League hitters began to lose their pride flailing at his stuff.
His splitter is now so nasty, hitters sometimes try to jump on the cheese.
"A lot of guys take that approach," says Blue Jays second baseman Aaron Hill. "Go after the fastball, hope you get the bat on it and it finds a hole, and avoid that other stuff." That's fine with Putz. He loves it when hitters attack. "I still don't consider myself a strikeout pitcher," he says. "I'd rather get early contact, ground balls. A guy jumps on the first pitch and flies out? Thank you. The last thing I want to do is go deep into the count." He pauses, then adds, "But now, I know if I need a strikeout, I can get it. One out, runner on third, ground ball scores a run? You need a strikeout."
In a late-July game against the A's, with Seattle clinging to a 4-3 lead and runners on first and second, McLaren called on Putz with two outs in the eighth. The closer overpowered Jack Cust with three fastballs -- 98, 98, 97 -- to get out of the inning, then struck out three more in the ninth. It was his first appearance after losing his 31-game save streak, against Texas on July 25, and maybe Putz wanted to show he hadn't lost anything else. Or maybe not. Asked what he did after that Texas game, he says, "Slept on the plane."
Putz admits that he wants to get in a hitter's head. "You want them seeing you and thinking, 'Oh man, are you kidding me?' That's part of the mentality of it." It's a philosophy he's happy to share with Seattle's less experienced relievers: Brandon Morrow, Eric O'Flaherty and Sean Green. All were thrown into action this year, ready or not, after a series of injuries to the bullpen corps, including Arthur Rhodes and Chris Reitsma.
When Morrow, a lanky righthander with an easy delivery and a high-90s fastball, tried to nibble the corners early in the year, Putz jumped on him.
"Even if you gotta fool yourself, go after them," Putz told him. "Here it is, try to hit it. If they hit it, good. Our defense will catch it." Morrow & Co. have since kept Seattle in games even when the offense has sagged, and Putz can't say enough about the defense. "Nobody's here to do stories on me without these guys," Putz says, "because without them, there's no All-Star Game, and I wouldn't have 30 saves."
The Mariners' bullpen sits next to a wide-open concourse beyond the leftfield fence at Safeco, and people line up three deep in the eighth inning to watch Putz warm up. "Come on, J.J.!" shouts Leigh Lincoln, a small blonde here with her husband and some friends from out of town. "He's so intense, and right before he jogs out, he takes this big-ass swig from his water bottle and slams it to the ground," Lincoln says. "It's so cool." The feeling's mutual. "You've got people right there, yelling, " 'Come on, man, kick their asses!' " Putz says. "It gets me pumped." And hungry for more. The closer is convinced that this upstart squad can seal the deal in October. He has talked with teammates Jarrod Washburn and Weaver, pitchers who won World Series rings with the Angels and Cards, respectively. "Their teams weren't the best lineups in baseball, but they won because they were close," Putz says. "This team is a great group of guys, and we've been around each other enough to know when we can bust balls, or if a guy's having a bad day, when to lay off." On Turn Back the Clock Day, which required the Mariners to dress in 1977-replica uniforms, Putz was on his pregame ramble through the clubhouse when he noticed 23-year-old second baseman José Lopez had his old-school stirrup socks on backward, with the high sides in front. A discreet tip saved the slick-fielding kid from a sartorial error.
Putz, so adept at wrapping things up, could go on and on about this team and this season.
"I've never been involved in anything like this," he says. "It's all new to me, and I'm enjoying every minute of it."
Sounds like for once, J.J. Putz can't wait.
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
J.J. Putz is a huge reason the Mariners are in the hunt for the division title and the wild card.