ATLANTA — Jake McGee has returned from offseason elbow surgery, and that is a boon to the Rays’ bullpen since McGee led the team in saves in 2014 and was emerging as one of the top young closers in the major leagues.
And then came the surgery in December.
And that was followed by Brad Boxberger.
While McGee was working his way back into shape after having loose bodies removed from the elbow, Boxberger quietly stepped in and began this season perfect in his 10 save opportunities.
Now Boxberger, like McGee, is emerging as one of the top young closers in the major leagues.
“Boxer will be closing for a long time,” Rays reliever Kevin Jepsen said. “It fits him. That’s what he is. He’s a closer.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash said as far back as the beginning of spring training that the final three outs of a victory will be shared property among several members of the bullpen — McGee, Boxberger and Jepsen. Steve Geltz has pushed his way into that mix. Ernesto Frieri might get there as well.
It is quite the luxury for a manager to have McGee (19 saves in 2014) and Boxberger (10 this year and counting) at the back end of the bullpen. Having a righty (Boxberger) and a lefty (McGee) allows Cash to match up better in the eighth and ninth innings. Having those two means Cash should never be without a closer as long as the setup men can do the job often enough so Cash doesn’t have to use McGee and Boxberger to close out every win.
With McGee’s return on the horizon, Boxberger was asked during the recent homestand if he would like to remain the closer.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m comfortable there right now. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job there in that role, but with McGee coming back and everything he’s done, it will be interesting to see what they’re going to do.”
Boxberger had two saves in 2014 when he developed into the setup man for McGee. Boxberger said that experience coupled with the nearly full season he spent last year at the big-league level helped him develop into the pitcher he is this year.
“Definitely helped out to get more comfortable and figure out more about myself as a pitcher, what I can do and how I can do that,” Boxberger said.
What he can’t do, Boxberger said, is throw what he called, “wrong-decision pitches.”
And those are?
“Pretty much a wrong decision is a ball that goes over the wall,” he said. “Kind of learn from it, stuff that you remember.”
What makes Boxberger such a good fit for the ninth inning, according to Jepsen, is his ability to remain calm and execute his pitches no matter who is at the plate.
“From my standpoint, seeing different closers, he’s every bit as good as anybody else that I’ve played with,” Jepsen said. “He’s embraced it, and I think that’s what his calling is.”
His teammates wonder if Boxberger even has a pulse on the mound, if he has ice water running through his veins.
“He does. He really does,” catcher Bobby Wilson said. “You wonder if his heart rate gets up at all when he’s out there. He stays the same way when it’s good, bad, loud, quiet. He’s same the guy, which is what you need. You need guys that are not too high, not too low, even-keel guys, and that’s what he brings to the table.”
Boxberger’s teammates are happy to report that he does have a personality and that he can be, well, funny.
“It’s not what you guys see,” Geltz said. “That’s just putting on the suit and tie and being professional. But when it comes to hanging out with us and letting his guard down a little bit, he’s hilarious.”
“He’s a dry funny, that’s for sure,” Wilson said.
“Very, very dry,” Jepsen added.
Cash wondered recently about what it would take to make Boxberger excited on the mound.
Good question. What gets Boxy excited?
“Not too much that I know of,” Boxberger said. “It will be exciting when we go to the playoffs and do all that. That will be the first time you see more excitement out of me.”