Mike Timlin joined an exclusive club earlier this season, becoming just the 13th pitcher in big league history to appear in as many as 1,000 games. Still going strong at the age of 41, the 17-year veteran took the mound 50 times in 2007, logging a record of 2-1, 3.42 with one save in his familiar role of Red Sox set-up man. A closer during his time with Toronto and Baltimore–the right-hander has 140 career saves–Timlin earned World Series rings with the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993, and with the Red Sox in 2004.
David talked to Timlin about his longevity, his evolution as a pitcher, and his success against former Yankee Bernie Williams.
David Laurila: A thousand games. What does that mean to you?
Mike Timlin: It means a lot of hard work, a lot of longevity, and a lot of blessings from God; Him keeping me healthy and strong to do what I have to do. Just to know that I’m one of 13 guys throughout major league history that has crossed that line, it’s pretty significant.
DL: You’ve pitched in as many as 68 games in a season five times, and four have come since you joined the Red Sox at age 36. Can you talk a little about your durability?
MT: My philosophy on working out is pretty simple: just try to keep up with my wife! As you know, my wife runs marathons. She loves to run; she loves to run half marathons, triathlons, and she does the Pan-Mass Bike Challenge. She likes to work out, and she enjoys it. In the offseason, I used to have about two weeks where I didn’t have to do very much, now it’s three or four days and she’s asking me if I’m going to come to the gym with her. So, if I just stay consistent, and don’t try to do too much–just do what I need to do, and don’t overdo it–I’ve been able to stay relatively healthy.
DL: How have you evolved as a pitcher over the years?
MT: I threw two pitches when I got to the big leagues; I was basically sinker/slider. From there, throughout the course of my career, I’ve adjusted so I could throw a changeup, and there was a time, for a while, when I threw a curveball. My splitter–no, I should say that my sinker has kind of evolved into a splitter, where I change speeds with that. That’s another element of pitching for me. I’ve mixed in a cutter, I’ve stayed with my slider and changeup, and I’ve basically moved pitches in and out of my arsenal just to keep everybody guessing.
DL: Have you changed much since coming to Boston?
MT: I have. Probably 90 percent of the time that I’ve thrown my curveball has been here in Boston, mostly the first three or four years. More recently I’ve worked in the cutter, which has probably been my main pitch as of late. So I’ve definitely changed in the five years that I’ve been here.
DL: Many veteran pitchers talk about reaching a point in their careers where they went from being a thrower to more of a pitcher. When did that happen for you?
MT: Probably just before I got to Boston. That’s when I learned to pitch a bit more; going through Baltimore. At that point I was still more of a thrower, where I was just learning to pitch, because I was still getting away with stuff because I threw hard enough. That’s basically the definition of a thrower–if you throw hard enough, you can make a mistake down the middle and guys don’t center it. Once your speed starts dropping a little bit, obviously you can’t do that anymore and need to move it in and out, up and down. I’ve done that–I’ve regressed into more of a pitcher now. I also have a little better mental attitude out on the hill, where things don’t speed up as fast during a game. It’s easier to take a deep breath, slow things down, and check out my surroundings, and kind of see where I’m at.
DL: A lot of guys talk about pitching to contact. What does that term mean to you?
MT: I’ve always been a contact pitcher; I try to make guys hit the ball on the ground. Throwing a sinker, unless you throw something really nasty to go with it, you are a contact pitcher. Most sinkerball pitchers are. You rely on your infielders to throw guys out at first, or to turn double plays if there are runners on base. Basically, you’re out there trying to get guys to hit the ball on the ground.
DL: Outside of simply keeping the ball down, how does a pitcher induce ground balls?
MT: You force them to hit the ball where you want them to hit it. You do that by means of locating your sinker in and out, up and down, and by basically knowing when they’re going to swing. Some guys have swing patterns; some don’t. Say, a guy comes up and he’s a second-ball swinger; he swings 90 percent of the time on 1-0. I know that if I miss with the first pitch he’s probably going to be swinging at the next one, so I throw a sinker. We have a lot of information that helps us out in that regard.
DL: You’re known for having a good sinking fastball, but you also like to elevate the ball at times. When, and why, do you like to go upstairs?
MT: The times you really want to elevate the ball are primarily when you have guys on second or third base, and you have a power hitter up. He wants to drive the runner in, so he’s maybe a little anxious to get the RBI and he’s over-aggressive. Most of the time you elevate the ball when you have two strikes; you like to get it chest high, chin high, eye high. You get it up where the ball looks a little bigger to the hitter, and he thinks he can hit it, but it’s out of his swing-path.
DL: So, when you go upstairs you’re trying to let hitters get themselves out, you’re not just changing their eye-angle.
MT: It’s a two-fold process. It’s exactly what you said: you try to change their eye-angle, because even if they don’t swing, you’ll still change their eye-angle so that their perception of a sinker is a little different. Then, you can either go downstairs or throw one even higher, trying to get them to swing.
DL: Bernie Williams was only 5-for-25 off of you in his career. How did you pitch to him?
MT: Trying to get Bernie Williams out, 90 percent of the time I threw sinkers away. I’d do that, or throw backdoor cutters. He was very quick inside and liked to hit the ball middle to middle-in, so unless you went to the extreme inside, like the belt area, he could handle that. But he would swing at cutters inside, or a slider down and in. He was also susceptible to trying to drive the runner in, so he’d swing at a high fastball, but he wouldn’t do it too often. Mostly I stayed away.
MT: Catalanotto is an exceptional hitter. He’s a good contact hitter, and an intelligent hitter who follows the patterns that you throw. If you fall into the same pattern too much, he’ll guess to a pitch and come to it. I’ve looked at the charts, and have seen that I’ve fallen into a pattern where maybe my second or third pitch is a breaking ball or a changeup, something soft, so he’d look for that in a certain area. He would also concentrate on a ball that you’d get him out on, like a cutter, or slider, or maybe a changeup, and completely eliminate the others and just zone in on that. He’d take everything else, not being afraid to hit with two strikes.
DL: How about Grudzielanek?
MT: I’m not sure. His swing-path is very flat, and he just seems to match up very well with a sinker. Most of the time, he hasn’t hit me very hard; it’s been more bleeders or Texas Leaguers over the infield.
DL: Except for the three home runs.
MT: Except for the three home runs.
DL: You made three starts during your rookie season, and pitched very well in two of them. Have you ever wondered what your career path might have been had someone come up to you and said, “Timlin, you’re a starter”?
MT: Yeah, I think about it. When I had my one other start, in St. Louis, I offered to Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan that I’d be a starter if they needed it. We needed one at the time, but my value was being a set-up guy, and I was good at it, so they didn’t want to change anything. I guess we’ll never know.
DL: Before becoming a set-up man you had success as a closer. Having filled both roles, what is your opinion of how most bullpens are used in today’s game, including most closers being limited to one inning?
MT: Well, it helps the longevity of the closer if he can just come in for one inning and get it done. You can go back-to-back-to-back days, maybe even four days in a row, if you have two good set-up guys to keep you with clean innings. That way, unless the closer completely messes up the inning he can keep his pitch count down. When I first came into the league, we had me, Tom Henke, and Duane Ward. Henke was our main closer, and when he needed a day off, Duane Ward would do it. But Duane was such a workhorse that he’d pitch two innings at a time to keep Henke from really being overworked. I was more of a middle reliever, I guess you could say–I was more five-six, six-seven, to get us to Duane. That worked out really well.
DL: Do you believe that there’s such a thing as a closer’s mentality?
MT: I think that you get used to the adrenaline factor that goes on as the pressure builds around the game. That helps guys–certain guys–focus. Therefore, they have a better attitude about how they’re pitching. Of course, if they don’t have the adrenaline factor, if they don’t have the drama build-up, then the adrenaline isn’t as high and focus isn’t there. It’s harder for them to pitch with a four- or five-run lead than it is in a one-run game.
DL: How would you describe the atmosphere surrounding the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry?
MT: It’s a circus, and I’ll stand by that statement forever. It’s just a circus atmosphere. There are four thousand media people here, there are 50 players here, and the people enjoy the show that we have when we play the Yankees. It’s not really a blood rivalry, so to speak, but the media and the fans really take it to that level.