PAWTUCKET --- After opening his 2012 season with four woeful starts for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, Brock Huntzinger knew that something drastic needed to be done to resurrect not only his season, but possibly his career.
“I just felt like, ‘I get it, I know how this game works,” he recalled. “You either put up or (the organization) gets rid of you or sends you down. I knew there was more in the tank for me as a pitcher, so I had to do something.”
That ‘something’ was to change his role on the staff and work out of the bullpen instead of the Sea Dogs’ rotation, and since Huntzinger made that decision, his career has taken a sharp turn for the better.
“Everything’s been great,” said Huntzinger, who is now a reliever for the Pawtucket Red Sox. “I think the move last season really kind of saved my career and turned it around. I didn’t take it as a demotion or anything like that. I just think I work better in short bursts. As a reliever, you’re in there to get 3-6 guys out, and I’ve been able to do that.”
Huntzinger, who will be 25 next Tuesday, is enjoying the best season of a pro career that began in 2007 when he was chosen out of Pendleton Heights High in Indiana as Boston’s third-round pick in that June’s MLB draft.
After going 3-0 with 13 saves and a 2.32 ERA in 25 contests this year with the Sea Dogs, he was called up to the PawSox on June 19, and in five appearances, he’s gone 1-0 with a 2.35 ERA.
“This is a new opportunity and a new chance for me, and I’ve kind of run with it and had some pretty good success,” he added with a smile.
For the first four years of his career, Huntzinger enjoyed his share of success as a starter, totaling 24 victoriess and crafting a 3.89 ERA as he rose through the Single-A ranks and reached the Double-A Sea Dogs in time for the 2011 season.
But his first season in Portland got off to a nightmarish start, and even though he made up for it with a strong second half, he ended the year with an unimpressive 5-11 mark and a 6.17 ERA in 25 starts.
“It took me two months to get things turned around, but at that point, my numbers were so bad,” admitted Huntzinger. “It’s hard to feel good about your season when you look at the back of your baseball card and it has all your numbers there.”
Huntzinger certainly didn’t feel good about his first four starts of 2012, which saw him pick up a loss in each of them and surrender a staggering 16 earned runs in just 15 2/3 innings of work.
“When you’re going bad, the sun never comes up,” he said. “I talked to (pitching coach Bob Kipper) and I told him, ‘I don’t want to sound like I’m quitting on you or giving up, but I can’t keep doing this. I went through this last year and the same thing’s happening here, and I really think that I could help the team out better in a relief role.’”
Not only did Kipper agree, but so did his manager, Kevin Boles, and Ben Crockett, the organization’s Director of Player Development, who at the time, was in Portland with a couple of members from his staff.
“(Kipper) said, ‘Why don’t you come in here and tell (Crockett) what you just told me,’” said Huntzinger. “I did, and I found out they were kind of thinking about that in spring training. But a couple of guys got injured that were going to be starters in Portland, so it just made sense to keep me as a starter.”
Huntzinger then made his next 34 appearances out of the bullpen for the Dogs, posting a 4-1 record with six saves and a 2.44 ERA, and along the way, he was named the Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Month for June after going 1-0 with two saves and a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings of work.
Before the Sea Dogs’ season came to a close, Huntzinger was promoted to the PawSox, and not only did he make two appearances to close out the regular season, he pitched in one game in the International League playoffs to help Pawtucket win its first Governors’ Cup title since 1984.
From a summer in New England came an autumn in the desert for Huntzinger and a solid showing with Surprise in the Arizona Fall League (1.93 ERA in 14 innings). Then came spring training in Florida, and just when Huntzinger thought he was going to break camp with the PawSox, he instead landed back in Portland.
“It was kind of a tough one to swallow for me,” he added, “but you can only control what you can control. All you can do is throw zeroes and some good stuff and pitch well.”
But instead of returning to the Sea Dogs a middle-inning reliever, he became their closer and thrived in that role. He was among the Eastern League leaders in saves at the time of his callup to Pawtucket, and he saved seven games in his last 10 appearances.
“I love coming in at the end of a game,” he noted. “As a starter, you kind of pace yourself to go five, six, or seven innings, but as a late-inning guy or a closer, you feel the pressure. (A starting pitcher) has a win all lined up, and now it’s your turn to come in and slam the door. There’s a lot of hype and energy and it’s great.”
With Pawtucket, he’s back toiling in middle relief, with the bulk of the save opportunities going to Anthony Carter (13 saves in 14 opportunities), but right now, getting the chance to succeed at the Triple-A level and be one step away from pitching in the big leagues is all that matters to him.
“We have guys in our bullpen who have pitched really well and done their job and I just want to fit it,” said Huntzinger. “I’m just happy to be back at this level, get some innings under my belt, and help this team win.”
Follow Eric Benevides on Twitter @EricBen24