Tejay Antone, by every statistical metric, is having a dominant start to the season out of the Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen.
Antone has permitted four hits, one run and four walks in 10 2/3 innings (0.84 ERA). He’s struck out 17 of the 40 batters he’s faced. The Reds save him for high-leverage situations, relying on him to protect leads. He’s faltered just once, surrendering a game-tying homer to Andrew Young on Tuesday.
But there is one strange part about Antone’s success. He’s had trouble with the first batter. In his six relief appearances, the leadoff batter against Antone has reached base five times (four walks, one single).
Why has he struggled against the first batter?
“I like pressure – no, I’m kidding,” Antone said, laughing. “I think it’s just settling in, making it click on the mound. I really do wish I could make it click a lot faster. It would be a lot less stressful for me.”
Following the first batter, opposing hitters are 3-for-33 (.091 batting average) with 17 strikeouts and zero walks against Antone.
It says something about Antone’s dominance in the first three weeks of the season that he’s been able to pitch around leadoff walks. When he entered with two runners on base and two outs in the seventh inning Wednesday, he was OK issuing a leadoff walk to Josh VanMeter because he challenged him with a lot of offspeed pitches. He stranded the bases loaded with a strikeout.
“As soon as the hitter gets into the box, it kind of allows me to finally fine-tune everything,” Antone said. “I think that’s why I’ve been walking the first hitter, but I’ll clean that up. I really want to start visualizing hitters in the box and visualizing better targets before I come into the game.”
“It's something, knowing him, that he'll find the solution for and he'll be determined to be even better from the first hitter,” Reds manager David Bell said. “He's been so good. I think the challenge is he can't pitch every inning and every day.”
A big key for Antone is that he’s increased how much he uses his curveball. He throws it just as much as his slider, which rated as one of the best in baseball last year.
“I was thinking about it last night, I really didn’t work on my curveball too much in the offseason,” Antone said. “I showed up to camp and it was like really bad. I couldn’t throw it for a strike at all. Well, it wasn’t bad. The pitch was good. I just couldn’t throw it for a strike, which makes the pitch bad.”
What fixed his curveball? He remembered Trevor Bauer always talked about “getting his shoulder out front instead of so much of the hand,” and he credited pitching coach Derek Johnson for helping him throughout the spring.
Seven of Antone’s 17 strikeouts are through curveballs this season.
“Now I can just dump it in there for strikes,” Antone said. “The hitters have to respect it and as soon as they do start to look for it, flash a fastball right by him. It helps a lot. I think comparatively last year to this year, the pitch usage is more equal to my slider, which also is pretty tough as a hitter because now they have to look for both.”
FREE MAN: Vladimir Gutierrez is expected to complete his 80-game suspension Thursday after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, Stanozolol, last spring. He had 18 games remaining on his suspension this year.
Gutierrez, who has been pitching at the alternate site in Louisville, will be added back to the 40-man roster. The Reds opened a space on their 40-man roster when reliever Cam Bedrosian was designated for assignment.
The 25-year-old Gutierrez allowed two hits and zero earned runs across seven innings during spring training, striking out 11 and walking two.
FRAZIER CALLED UP: The Pittsburgh Pirates announced Thursday that they called up Todd Frazier to their Major League roster.
Frazier, who will wear No. 99, opted out of his minor-league contract when he didn't make the Pirates' Opening Day roster, but he re-signed with the organization a few days afterward.
He was a two-time All-Star in five seasons with the Reds.