It’s the top of the seventh inning and his team is leading by two runs. There are two outs, but the bases are loaded with opposing base runners.
It’s the kind of situation the best relief pitchers almost seem to relish coming in to face.
Lefty Steve Gruver and right-hander Tyler Jones have been among the most reliable bullpen arms in the Midwest League this season and have presented a formidable lefty-righty combination out of the Kernels bullpen.
Gruver was one of eight Kernels named to the Midwest League All-Star Game in June and on Friday night it was Gruver who entered the game with two outs and the bases loaded, determined to protect that two-run Kernels lead.
Gruver would like to forget the moments that followed, as Tyrone Taylor launched a grand slam home run off a pitch that found its way too close to the middle of the plate and put the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers up by an 8-6 score.
Gruver finished the final 2 1/3 innings of the game for Cedar Rapids and the Kernels scored once in the eighth inning, but it wasn’t enough, as they lost to Wisconsin 8-7.
The next day, on Saturday afternoon, before the Kernels took on the Lumber Kings in Clinton, Gruver, who was drafted by the Twins out of the University of Tennessee in the seventh round of the 2011 First Year Player Draft, talked about the life of a professional relief pitcher.
Jim Crikket: Steve, this is your second year in the Midwest League and you spent time in Beloit last year both as a part of their starting rotation and pitching out of the bullpen, correct?
Steve Gruver: Most of the year, I started and then toward the end of the year, actually right around this time, I went to the bullpen.
JC: Was that primarily to limit the number of innings on your arm? I know they had a few guys that pitched in both roles last year.
Gruver: There were a few, but mainly for me, my velocity started dropping a little bit and I had a few bad outings in a row. So I was just trying to get back in to not thinking and just trying to throw hard and get my velocity back up a little.
JC: Coming in to this year, did the Twins tell you that this is your role, working out of the bullpen, or did they tell you to be prepared for anything again?
Gruver: It was kind of be prepared for anything. They don’t really let you know too much. They want you to be prepared for anything. They want you to be able to be versatile and come out in any role so I’ve kind of kept it open and like there was a chance to do anything really.
JC: Do you have a particular preference, now that you’ve done both? Is there one role you prefer over the other?
Gruver: I enjoy both. I’m not too picky, as long as I’m pitching. I try to treat every inning as just one inning at a time, whether I’m trying to go six or seven that day or just one. I try and look at it the same, whether I’m starting or relieving.
JC: The preparation between games has to be a little different, though, right?
Gruver: There’s differences in the preparation between the two and I try and keep that the limit of the differences. But there are definitely differences there.
Starting, you have four or five days in between each start, so it’s a little bit more logistical, I guess, in how you prepare. You have a little bit more of a plan going through each day, on what you do each day in your bullpens in between when you pitch.
When you’re in the pen, you kind of have to let it fly. You never know. You could pitch two, three days in a row sometimes. So you don’t have those days in between to throw pens and work out as much. You kind of have to have somewhat of a loose routine when you’re coming out of the pen, compared to a starter routine, which would be very strict and kind of a more day-to-day basis.
JC: As a starter, your pitching coach can work with you in between starts, maybe work on a new grip for one of your pitches. How do you go about making those sorts of adjustments as a reliever when you don’t know whether you’re going to have to pitch that night or not?
Gruver: You have to limit your pitches. You have to really be diligent in what you do and every pitch has to matter when you’re in a relief role.
When you’re trying to get that extra work in, you have to use every pitch. I may only throw 10 pitches in my bullpen when I go out, but I try and make sure every pitch counts and I have a plan for each pitch so that every time I throw, I’m getting something out of it.
JC: What about the mental approach to relieving, as opposed to starting? Out of the bullpen, you have to be prepared to go in either to start an inning or with guys on base.
Gruver: I enjoy that. I enjoy having that excitement, especially when you come in with guys on base. It’s a do or die situation and it kind of gets you focused, it gets you excited and it kind of gets your heart rate up a little bit.
Starting is different. Starting, you have to be a little bit more under control. You’re starting the game and you know that you’re the one the team is counting on to get through the long innings.
There are different approaches to it, but both are exciting in their own way.
JC: Which leads us to last (Friday) night. Bases loaded, you come in and second pitch didn’t go where you wanted it to go. At least it didn’t end up where you wanted it to end up.
Gruver: No, it didn’t. The pitch didn’t go where I wanted it to go, either.
I made a bad pitch and he got the best of me on that one.
As a relief pitcher, that’s got to just disappear from your mind, because tonight they may call on you again in the same situation and you can’t go in there thinking about what happened last time.
Even closer to the situation, I had to go two more innings afterward. I had to get out of that situation and tell myself we can still come back. I have to be able to put that behind me and keep going through the game, just in case we score.
We were only down two and still had a chance to come back. If that was still on my mind, I could have given up two or three more runs the next innings and really blown it.
You have to have a very short memory in those situations.
JC: You said you enjoy that aspect of being a relief pitcher, of always being ready. Is that part of it, too, knowing there’s a little bit of a mental challenge to have that short memory?
Gruver: Yeah, that’s definitely something that’s tough for a lot of guys, but it is exciting. When you can push through that, you feel good even in a bad situation like that. You feel good coming out of it, knowing that you got through it.
You really tell yourself it’s not the end of the world. So next time, you might come in a little bit more relaxed and get out of that situation.
JC: There are some who believe that it takes greater mental fortitude to be a late-inning reliever, as opposed to a middle reliever. Do you look at it that way or does it really not matter when you go in to a game?
Gruver: I try not to make it matter. I try and take every inning as the same. Really, you can break it down in to one pitch at a time, even less than an inning. I’m trying to throw that one pitch, whether you’re up five or down five, you’re trying to make that one pitch at a time.
If you’re coming in during the fourth inning, you tend to be either up a lot or down a lot, so there is a little bit less pressure sometimes. You can come in and try to pound the zone a little more, knowing that even if you give up one or two that you’re still going to be in the game or you’re not inherently affecting the game, where coming in in the eighth or ninth, a lot of times the game’s on the line.
But, overall, you try and look at it the same way.
JC: There’s a perception that it may take a guy less time to reach the Big Leagues as a relief pitcher than as a starting pitcher, particularly for a lefty. Does that influence your preference as far as your role or do you even think about that kind of thing?
Gruver: It’s not my decision. I do what they tell me and I’m happy to be in whatever role, as long as I’m still playing. And If I’m moving up, it doesn’t really matter to me what role I’m in.
JC: Tell me a bit about how you’re finding the Cedar Rapids experience this year. Is there anything in particular about playing in Cedar Rapids that stands out to you?
Gruver: I really enjoy the fans. They get behind us a lot. The games are always exciting in that way. It’s always loud and the fans get in to it. When we’re playing well, the fans let us know. It’s fun to hear a loud crowd. When you’re on the field and something good happens, the fans get in to it just as much as you do.
JC: Off the field, do you have hobbies or other interests? What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at the ballpark?
Gruver: I enjoy some movies. I enjoy being outside a lot. Anything I can. Playing other sports, but I really can’t do that in the season. In the season, in the time I’m not at the field, I enjoy some movies.
I enjoy reading a lot, especially with all the road trips we have and all the time on buses, I’m really getting in to some books. I enjoy that a lot.
JC: Do you have a favorite movie?
Gruver: One of my favorites is “Shawshank Redemption.” It’s a classic favorite.
Speaking of redemption…
On Monday night in Clinton, In Gruver’s first appearance since Friday’s tough loss, Gruver entered the game in the fifth inning with the Kernels trailing Clinton 3-1.
He threw three shutout innings, giving up just two hits and one walk, while striking out three Lumber Kings hitters, while his team mates came back to take a lead and earning Gruver his fifth win of the season.