Gregg closing in on career year

Gregg closing in on career year

TORONTO -- Kevin Gregg was not promised the closer's role when he penned his name on a one-year pact with the Blue Jays last winter. The veteran reliever was not awarded the job after piecing together a strong showing in Spring Training, either.

Gregg did not complain. He just waited for his opportunity.

Now, with roughly one month left on the schedule, Gregg is entrenched as the Jays' stopper, quietly fashioning the best season of his career. There have been a handful of ugly turns along the way, but Gregg's overall body of work has been solid in his inaugural tour with Toronto.

"He's done a good job for us," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "Without him, we wouldn't have a lot of these wins. He's had trouble at times, but most of the time, he's done a good job. He's only had a few bad times out there."

No one is perfect.

On Saturday, Gregg took the mound at Rogers Centre, clinging to a 5-4 lead over the Tigers with two outs and a man on second base. One run had just crossed the plate on a double yielded by the closer. Unfazed, Gregg needed only four pitches to strike out Detroit's Ramon Santiago, sealing the win and collecting a save.

It was not necessarily pretty, but it was effective.

That, in a sense, has been the story of Gregg's season.

That save against the Tigers was the 30th of the year for Gregg, marking his most since saving a career-best 32 as the closer for the Marlins in 2007. Gregg's total this year is made more impressive when considering he did not receive the primary ninth-inning duties until mid-April.

Having the chance to earn the job was a main reason Gregg chose to sign with the Blue Jays in February. During Spring Training, Gregg's desire to claim that role at the back end of the bullpen led to an open mind while working with Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton.

"He was open for suggesstions -- he always was," Walton said. "You don't know when you first meet somebody how open they're going to be. I think the opportunity to close again was huge for him. He was really hoping that opportunity came."

Walton pored over video footage of Gregg's work as the closer for the Cubs in 2009, and the pitching coach did not like everything he saw. Walton felt the pitcher relied too heavily on his curveball and splitter, and he wanted to explore other ways to help Gregg keep hitters off-balance and guessing.

"In Chicago, on some of the tape I saw, he threw a lot of curveballs," Walton said. "He threw a lot of [junk] and got in trouble at times. I think that he was searching for a pitch to get somebody out with, when he had it the whole time."

In their early mound sessions, Walton -- known as "Pappy" around the Jays -- and Gregg focused on the pitcher's sinker, which dives away from left-handed hitters. Then, the pitching coach asked the reliever if he had ever thrown a cutter, which would have potential to nicely complement his two-seam sinker.

"The sinker has never been a great pitch for me," Gregg said. "It's been pretty inconsistent. So he was like, 'Well, can you make the ball go the other way?' I said, 'Yeah. Sure.' I throw it and it was like, 'There you go. Do that more.'

"So we talked about when to use it out of the 'pen and how to use it out of the 'pen, and those kind of theories. We fine-tuned it a little bit and it's been good."

The increased use of the cutter and sinker have helped Gregg become more effective with his fastball. He still features his curveball and an occasional splitter, but Walton said those pitchers are no longer his go-to options. Gregg has had a wide mix of weapons to choose from this year.

"We brought a couple pitches into his game," Walton said. "Overall, I think his performance has been about him just trusting his fastball. I think he really trusts it. He's really putting his fastball in good locations, and it's allowing him to go out there and execute the ninth inning."

Heading into this weekend's series against the Yankees, Gregg had 30 saves in 35 chances and had the lowest ERA (3.34) of any season in his career. Gregg is averaging more strikeouts per nine innings (9.7) than he ever has before, and yet his pitches per inning (17.77) is at its lowest since 2004.

There have been certainly been setbacks.

In his five blown saves, the 32-year-old Gregg has allowed 11 runs on 11 hits with 10 walks over just 3 2/3 innings. In his 45 other appearances, though, the veteran righty has a 1.41 ERA. Dating back to June 14, Gregg has fashioned a 2.01 ERA with 15 saves and a .185 opponents' batting average over 24 games.

The retooled approach on the mound has helped.

So has a clean bill of health.

Gregg underwent surgery on his left knee at the end of the 2008 campaign, and he fought fatigue in the joint as he got deeper into last season with Chicago. By August of last year, Gregg was laboring mightily on the mound, and the Cubs stripped him of his job as the closer.

One year later, Gregg has not had any lingering issues with the injury.

"I feel really good throwing the ball," Gregg said. "Being another year away from knee surgery makes it that much easier. It makes a huge difference being able to keep the strength up in my legs. Without that, it makes it difficult to pitch.

"Now, I just take the ball when asked."

Whether Gregg will take the ball again for the Jays next year remains to be seen.

Gregg's contract includes a $4.75 million club option for 2011 or an $8.75 million club option for both the 2011-12 seasons. This offseason, general manager Alex Anthopoulos will decide between letting Gregg enter the free-agent pool or picking up one of the pitcher's two options.

Right now, it is not something that's on Gregg's mind.

"Honestly, I haven't even thought about it," Gregg said. "I'm trying to get through another year. At the end of the year, I'll probably sit down with Alex and see where their thoughts are and see where the organization is going. It's really up to Alex."

The fact that Blue Jays relievers Scott Downs and Jason Frasor are eligible for free agency could influence the club's decision on Gregg. If Downs and Frasor sign elsewhere, Toronto would suddenly be without two veteran arms at the back end of the reliefs corps.

Walton values experience in late-inning situations.

"It's always nice to have a veteran or two around," Walton said. "I would love to have a veteran-type pitcher in the eighth and ninth inning of a ballgame. There's a little more comfort, knowing they know how to handle it and they also rub off on your kids in the bullpen."

That is something Walton feels Gregg has done well this year.

Gregg just had to wait for his chance.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.