By Patrick Allen
Canadian Baseball Network
In a game as unforgiving as professional baseball, opportunity blossoms in the most unlikely of situations. A concept that is all too familiar to Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Ryan Tepera.
Coming into 2017, his last season with minor league options, Tepera was committed to not letting this season be a repeat of the previous year, where, as one of the few Blue Jays pitchers with options remaining, the hard throwing right-hander was optioned six times between the big league club and their triple-A affiliate Buffalo Bisons.
Tepera persevered through his turbulent 2016 campaign, posting a 2.58 ERA with the Bisons, and most importantly, using his time split between the two ball clubs as an opportunity to hone his game and mature as a pitcher.
“I came to learn a lot about myself, learn how my body works and my arm works,” the 29-year-old said in the Blue Jays clubhouse last week before a game against the Boston Red Sox. “Mainly [I learned] that I don’t actually have to overthrow and gas it up every time. [Instead] just focus on staying smooth and executing pitches rather than just throwing hard.”
At the midway point of the Blue Jays’ 2017 season, Tepera has emerged as one of the most dependable performers in Toronto’s bullpen, with the Houston native owning a 3.45 ERA and leading all Blue Jays relievers with 44 1/3 innings pitched. He also pieced together an impressive 19-inning stretch where he did not surrender an earned run.
“It’s hard to believe,” the right-hander said of his recent success. “Especially considering the last two years and the ups and downs I’ve had between options. [But] coming into spring training it was my goal to make this team and [to] stay up all year, so realistically I could always see myself finding success.”
Tepera credits part of his strong play to the cohesiveness of the Blue Jays bullpen, who, with a combined 3.90 ERA and 334 strikeouts, have proven to be an unexpected source of consistency on a Toronto team still trying to establish their rhythm after back-to-back trips to the American League Championship Series.
“We’ve got a good group of guys down there. We stick together, go to dinners, hang out, we’re pretty close knit. I think that’s what helps in the bullpen and it’s a big part of why we’ve been successful this year,” said Tepera.
The life of a major-league ballplayer is not without hardship, however, a reality that the Jays bullpen experienced first-hand when the charismatic reliever Jason Grilli was designated for assignment on June 27.
“It always helps to have a veteran down there helping us out and showing us the way, and Grilli was unbelievable. It’s hard losing that. [He was] so positive and the love and emotion that he shows for this game is unbelievable,” the 29-year-old said of his former teammate.
Though an emotional departure, the designation of Grilli, paired with a June injury to Joe Smith, has allowed Tepera to increasingly be relied upon in high-leverage situations, with the right-hander currently serving as one of the Blue Jays' go-to options for eighth inning work.
Despite his rapid ascent up the Blue Jays bullpen ladder, Tepera has ambitions to push the envelope further next spring, publicly expressing his desire to stretch out his arm and try to earn a spot in the Blue Jays' starting rotation.
“The main thing is developing a third pitch, whether it’s a slower breaking ball or a changeup. To turn the lineup over three times you need to have some kind of third pitch,” the right-hander said about his principle challenge to becoming a starting pitcher.
“I did have a fairly good feel for the changeup this spring training but I’ve kind of stuck it in my back pocket and [have] just been going with the bread and butter [fastball and cutter] … I am just sticking with what works for now.”
Considering the uncertainty surrounding the Blue Jays' starting rotation after this season, with both Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano eligible for free agency this winter, Tepera may find himself in the right place at the right time to get a decent shot at cracking the Blue Jays' starting rotation this coming spring.