Highs and lows: 'Big O' Ondrusek experiences life of a reliever
Reds reliever Logan Ondrusek had a meandering start to 2014 but knows that life in the bullpen means keeping your confidence up.
Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Logan Ondrusek knows not to let one bad outing destroy his confidence.
Frank Victores / USA TODAY Sports
By Hal McCoy
When Bryan Price first saw Logan Ondrusek, the epitome of "The Long, Tall Texan," he said to Cincinnati Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, "I'll bet you at some point in time this kid is going to close games for us. Yeah, I did."
There is only one 'Big O' in Cincinnati sports lore, and that's former University of Cincinnati and NBA superstar Oscar Robertson. But it is understandable that Ondrusek's teammates call him 'The Big O."
At 6 feet 8 inches tall, he is, indeed, a big man and an imposing vision standing on the middle of the pitcher's mound when he arrives to pitch in relief.
Price was the Reds pitching coach in 2010 when Ondrusek first arrived, making the team out of spring training from Triple-A Louisville after he was drafted out of Shiner, Tex., in the 13th round of the 2005 draft.
Ondrusek appeared 60 times in 2010 and was 5-0 with a 3.68 earned run average. And entering this season he was 18-8 with a 3.61 ERA over 241 appearances in four seasons.
In short, he was a very tall and very important part of the Cincinnati bullpen.
Then came the 2014 season and a meandering start. In his first four appearances, he gave up five runs and his earned run average rivaled the Dow Jones at 11.25.
And the fans howled. They booed before he took two steps out of the bullpen. Callers on talk radio skewered him.
Ondrusek, a soft-spoken, low-key guy who knows it is all part of the job description -- you are only as good as your last strikeout or as bad as your last wild pitch.
After the slow start, Ondrusek steadily worked his way toward lowering that ERA. After five straight scoreless appearances in June, his ERA dipped to 3.86. Then in one game in San Diego, he gave up three runs in one-third of an inning and his ERA exploded to 4.72.
Ah, life in the bullpen. One bad outing makes your ERA rise like an August thermometer in Houston. Ondrusek pitched two scoreless innings in his most recent outings and the ERA was back on the down-swing to 4.45.
"Between Logan Ondrusek and J.J. Hoover, the slow starts and the bad numbers, people become real fickle with relievers in particular," said Price. "With us, early in the season, those first two months, we asked guys to come into low-scoring games with no margin for error. They got some early-season losses and that can affect your confidence."
Ondrusek is the first to admit that his start wasn't something to get him off on the highway toward winning any Fireman of the Year award.
"It started off rough," he said. "A lot of it is just bad luck. You make some good pitches that go for hits and then you make a mistake and it snowballs on you."
Ondrusek said one or two bad outings can't destroy your confidence or the snowball becomes an avalanche.
"It's about trusting your stuff and shaking off the run of bad luck when you know you're healthy and it is nothing that you are doing bad," he said. "It's baseball, just the way it goes. You have to still compete and do the best you can on any day that you're called upon."
Of his ever-changing ERA, Ondrusek said, "I've had a couple of those bad outings in short appearances. You go well, then in one game things don't go right and you give up three runs in a third of an inning and it ruins the ERA for a while. That means you just have to work that much harder to get the ERA back down."
There was a long stretch in June when the starters were going seven and eight innings, the innings usually occupied by Ondrusek. That meant he sat and watched a lot. There was a period of 17 games, from June 23 to July 8, when he made only one appearance -- the ill-fated three runs in a third of an inning in San Diego.
So how does an inactive relief pitcher stay active, other than to get up and down off his chair and stretch once in a while in the bullpen?
"It is difficult, but you have to use the time you are asked to get up and warmup and not get into games," he said. "You try to get your feel back, use your play-catch time before games to make sure things feel right. Once you are called into the game, it is just competing and the extra adrenaline kicks in. It falls back on the fact you have been doing it so long."
Fans, of course, don't understand the vagaries of pitching in the bullpen and turn on a relief pitcher at the drop of a bunt.
"You hear a lot, you hear stuff," he said. "You have family and friends who read stuff and hear stuff and they tell you. You have to ignore it because they don't understand. Most of them haven't been in our situation. You know your job, know how good you are and can be. You aren't going to be a hero every time."
Price knows what Ondrusek can do. Ondrusek pitched two scoreless innings this week against the Chicago Cubs in the second game of a doubleheader and received the victory, a game in which the Reds came from 5-0 down to win, 6-5.
"That game was definitely a boost to his confidence and his understanding that he is an important piece to what we're doing here," said Price. "There is still some untapped potential in there for Logan to be really, really good, really be outstanding. Maybe his last appearance was a jump-start to his greatness."