GENEVA – Nothing about Zac Curtis makes him look like a closer.
He stands 5-foot-10, throws left-handed and his fastest pitch reaches low 90s on a good day.
But that hasn’t stopped Curtis from earning the spot not only as the Kane County Cougars ninth-inning man, but also as the Midwest League’s leader in saves.
“Zac is a guy that has earned his role,” Cougars manager Mark Grudzielanek said. “He’s gone out there and done his job when he’s been called on. He’s deceiving and mixes pitches well to keep guys off balance. He throws hard enough and he’s tough to lock in on and has shown that each time he goes out there.”
Curtis picked up his 17th save of the season (in 19 opportunities) Friday against Clinton, pitching a scoreless ninth inning to lower his ERA to 1.84.
As a starter throughout his four years at Middle Tennessee State University, Curtis never really had bullpen experience. After he had pitch a few too many innings, coaches of Hillsboro, where Curtis played his baseball last season, wanted to move him to a relief role.
When approached with the idea of being a closer, Curtis liked the idea, felt comfortable and has run with it ever since.
“It’s always been a cool thing to think about,” Curtis said. “A guy coming in for one inning and closing the door for the win. When I was a starter, I always wanted to get to the ninth inning with the crowd into it, in a pressure spot and now that’s my everyday role.”
Curtis’ experience as a starter has helped him pitch as a closer with a starter’s mentality. The southpaw throws four pitches, a curve, slider and change-up, mixed in his fastball.
But the way Curtis throws, a “funky” motion often makes his pitches tough to read and sometime seem faster than they actually are.
“Any left-hander is kind of funky in his own way,” Grudzielanek said. “Zac is one of those and he throws from a different angle and it gets on you pretty quickly. So his 91-92 can sometimes seem like 94-95 to other guys.”
Not many closers have the repertoire Curtis does, but that added to not looking like the prototypical closer, has helped him become one of the toughest ninth-inning relievers to face in the MWL.
“I just go with it. ... Guys are always going to be saying he’s short, he doesn’t throw as hard,” Curtis said. “I don’t want to say it adds fuel to the fire, but it definitely motivates me to keep going out there and doing my job.”
Curtis also has the opportunity to work with Cougars pitching coach Doug Bochtler.
In his days as a reliever, Bochtler spent time in the San Diego Padres’ bullpen with one of the greatest closers of all-time, Trevor Hoffman.
Bochtler said a lot guys have the physicality to be a reliever, but not many can adjust to a closer’s mentality.
“It can’t be validated by a number, but a lot guys can’t pitch without a safety net behind them,” Bochtler said. “Zac does a great job with fastball command ... constantly throwing strikes. His effectiveness comes from command and not getting rattled by the situation. He’s taken to the role and done a great job when he’s called upon.”
The preparation is also much different for Curtis before and during each game, not knowing whether he’s going to pitch or not.
He said he usually can tell as the game progresses if it is going to end up being a game in which he pitches.
But the time it takes to get into that mentality, from sitting for seven, sometimes eight innings is something else that has taken time for Curtis to grow accustomed to.
“It’s different,” Curtis said. “For the first six innings or so, I try to relax and talk to the guys, maybe talk to some fans. But once it gets later in the game, I can tell if my number is going to be called. And if I get in there, it’s here it is. If you hit it, you hit it, and it you don’t ... sorry about it.”
As Curtis is the only left-handed pitcher on the Cougars, Grudzielanek likes the luxury of having a southpaw who is more than just a specialist.
“There’s more right-handed hitters than there are lefties in this game,” Grudzielnaek said. “Righties often hit lefty pitchers pretty well, so you have to be real good in that aspect and Zac has certainly been effective pitching to both sides of the plate.”
Opponents are batting .191 against Curtis this season, with left-handers hitting just .158. He also has 42 strikeouts in 29.1 innings pitched after Friday’s outing.