KITCHENER – With the playoffs just over three weeks away, a potential post-season bullpen is finally emerging for the Kitchener Panthers.
The team wants veteran Bryon Bell to be their regular closer, with American Matt Robertson as a seventh or eighth-inning guy and Japanese reliever Kaisuke Saito as the alternate set-up man for Bell.
Matt Vickers and Mike Gachene figure to be middle relievers who would come on ideally in the fifth or sixth innings.
The Intercounty Baseball League club hopes that formula will carry it the distance in the post-season. The Panthers, holding onto fourth place heading into Friday’s game against a powerhouse Brantford team, is trying to get its pitchers used to defined roles after several months of shuffling players around and experimentation.
“We’re trying to get guys into a rhythm,” said pitching coach Steve Scagnetti, before the Panthers’ 7-5 win over Toronto Thursday. “Going into playoffs, guys are going to have their roles they can get comfortable in, they’re going to know when to get up and get ready.”
The bullpen will also be bolstered by Shawn Hancock and Shaun Slemko, two relievers who were converted to starters during a recent rash of injuries, who can continue to switch back and forth.
The clarity of roles in the bullpen is coming as reinforcements are on their way for the starting rotation. Most notably, the team’s ace Marcos Reyna will make his first start Sunday after missing more than three weeks due to a sore shoulder.
After suffering a mild strain June 16 against Barrie, Reyna didn’t pitch again until Wednsday night, when he faced five batters in relief in Toronto, striking out one and didn’t give up a run.
“I’m still a little scared to let it go (fully), but right now I have enough stuff to get by. I won’t be trying to overthrow it,” the former Seattle Mariners minor leaguer said. “I’m just happy to get back out on the field.”
The club is also excited to see lefty Mitch Clarke, the former Cincinnati Reds farmhand, make his first appearance in relief for the Panthers this weekend. Although he’ll be eased into his role, the team sees him as a starter once his arm is fully ready.
Bell, meanwhile, is thrilled to be handed his new job in the ninth. After pitching an inning against Burlington back in May, Bell thought his arm was shot and he’d be limited to being a designated hitter.
But after resting his arm for a month, the veteran says it’s bounced back, and he thinks he’s getting close to being able to pitch like he did a decade ago when he was a flame-throwing starter for the Panthers.
“After that game, I couldn’t pick up a ball for three weeks. I thought I was done. I couldn’t raise my arm above my shoulder,” he said. “Now I feel almost like my old self ten years ago, when I threw 90-plus.”
Bell has two saves in his last three appearances and says he relishes coming in to help his team with the game on the line.
Scagnetti also thinks he’s been able to sort out some mechanical issues with Saito’s delivery, after the 22-year-old struggled with command in Saturday and Sunday’s games against Guelph.
The Japanese import player walked five batters in less than two innings of work, allowing eight runs – a sloppy performance that bloated his ERA to 12.86. In his first six appearances, the former draft pick of the Yomiuri Giants had only walked one batter.
Although Saito doesn’t speak much English, the pitching coach said the language barrier isn’t too much of an obstacle.
“He knows baseball English. A lot of what I have to work with him on, I just show him. He knows the lingo, so we can communicate that way,” Scagnetti said. “He’ll be alright.”
The look ahead
Matt McGovern will start in Saturday’s game against the last-place Guelph Royals, 7:30 p.m. at David E. Hastings Stadium. On Sunday at Jack Couch Park, Marcos Reyna makes his first start since June 16, in a 7 p.m. matchup against the visiting third-place Barrie Baycats.