Zeal and ferocity can take many forms, big and small. Paul Molitor is reminded of that by Matt Belisle before every Twins game, during the most otherwise mundane ritual.
“When he comes in that dugout before the game, and we all fist bump down the line with the relievers before they head out, he hits me a little harder than most,” Molitor said of the unquestioned leader of the Twins bullpen. “He’s got a lot of intensity about what he does.”
It’s a fervor reminiscent, in fact, of a soldier, which is how Belisle sometimes describes himself in relation to his unit — the Twins, and its relief corps in particular. Belisle never enlisted in the military, never served in a squadron, and he would object to any suggestion that playing baseball for a small fortune is in any way comparable. But he still takes inspiration from the armed services in how he approaches his job, his team and every inning of every game.
“You just take the ball when you’re told to, and do everything you possibly can to accomplish your task,” Belisle said. “I feel that’s my duty as a reliever. It’s an honor to be able to pitch in the big leagues, and my role has nothing to do with what inning I’m asked to pitch. It’s, when someone points you in the right direction, let’s go.”
The inning he pitches has changed of late, however, if his devotion to duty, honor and accomplishment have not. When the team traded All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler to Washington on July 31, Molitor and his coaches debated who should step into such a conspicuous and often glamorous role. They chose the player who dodges attention and disdains glamour more than any other.
And though Belisle has mostly thrived since being given the battlefield promotion — he’s held batters to a .184 average since Kintzler departed, has struck out 16 batters and walked only three in 11 innings, and recorded seven saves in eight opportunities — Belisle says he’s only vaguely aware of his success, and not at all concerned about having the title of “closer.”
“The spotlight is something that comes from outside this clubhouse, and I don’t pay any attention to that,” Belisle says of the new role. “I enjoy winning. I couldn’t care less about what inning, I guess. When you sign a contract to pitch for the team, it says nothing about when.”
Molitor gave it a lot of thought, though, and while he said Kintzler’s departure has made it necessary to entrust more than one pitcher with greater responsibilities, he has largely turned to Belisle in the ninth inning, despite recording only five saves in his 14-year career.
“It’s a combination of his experience; [that] at the time of the transition, he was throwing the ball as well as anybody; and of our righties, he probably gets lefties out better than anyone, so you don’t have to worry about splits too much,” Molitor said. “Some of our guys had experience closing in the minors, but those things steered me in his direction.”
It was a choice that received unanimous support in the bullpen, where Belisle serves as something of a platoon sergeant, leading by example — “I’ve never seen a guy as prepared as he is,” lefthander Taylor Rogers said. “He’s laser-focused. We all take our attitude toward the job from him” — but also by design. Belisle, who admits he considered enlisting in the military before baseball became an option, said he was the beneficiary of strong veteran leadership while apprenticing in Reds bullpens that included the likes of David Weathers, Scott Williamson and yes, current Twins bullpen coach Eddie Guardado. And he intends to pass along his own knowledge now.
“Without a doubt, he’s our leader,” righthander Tyler Duffey said. “He’s constantly working to make himself better. He doesn’t put anything ahead of getting ready to do his job, and he has us all working toward something that’s bigger than one guy.”
Belisle has routines and schedules, believing that consistency is a reliever’s best friend. At a specified time every day, for instance, he places a lacrosse ball on the ground and rolls his shoulder on it, to loosen the rotator cuff before warming up. He watches the game from the bullpen like he’s playing center field, intent upon knowing the situation and hitters he’ll face.
“It’s rubbed off on all of us, too,” Rogers said. “It’s been cool to watch him through the whole season. He hasn’t changed a bit since he got here, and it’s really something.”
That’s what the Twins were hoping for when they signed him last winter. “We were trying to find some experience, character that could still perform. And leadership in our bullpen was more required than some of the places that he’s been,” Molitor said. “He’s taken that on, some mentoring and direction-giving for some of our guys. He loves doing that. There’s no boastfulness about it, or arrogance about it, he’s just passing the torch.”