From Little League to the big leagues, good bullpen arms are hard to come by. From power arms to lefty specialists to long relief guys to setup guys to closers, every good professional team wants a reliable guy for each role.
Our ballclub is no different. We have been fortunate to enjoy success this season thanks to a reliable band of arms we have sitting out in our bullpen each night. With a first-half division title and a playoff berth in hand, our players with Na Koa Ikaika Maui have continued to play well in the first week of our second half, going 5-1 in a six-game homestand.
A big part of that has been our pitching staff, which currently leads the Golden League in team ERA (3.16), opponent batting average (.231), fewest walks allowed and fewest hits surrendered.
Our lefties, Kaimi Mead and Harold Williams, give us perhaps the best bullpen southpaw duo in the league. Williams is a legitimate power arm, while Mead boasts one of the best breaking balls in our league. Our long man, former major leaguer Jerry Spradlin, has filled valuable innings for us in the middle of ballgames, while our set-up men, TJ Macy and Kent Tsujimoto, have been outstanding in late innings.
But like any other strong professional baseball team, much of our success can be traced to our success in the ninth inning. The ability to finish ballgames is a rare and delicate gift. In the big leagues, it is not uncommon to see "stuff guys" with Hall of Fame natural ability, operating in the upper 90 mph range, walking the bases loaded before striking out the side.
But there’s a reason why there aren’t many pitch ability guys — pitchers with OK stuff and good control — finishing games at the higher levels of the game. The last three outs of the ballgame are the hardest to get. While teams may lose and regain focus at the plate throughout the course of a game, most any team will bear down to rally in late innings with the game on the line.
Our manager, Cory Snyder, and I chose to find a closer who could make big pitches in the tightest situations. A pitcher with a mix of command and stuff who would keep his cool as the walls came crumbling down around him.
Early in the year, we had a sort of open audition for the job, as we used a mix of different relievers to finish ballgames. Just a few games into the season, we began turning to former major leaguer Jamie Vermilyea.
We initially penciled Vermilyea in as a set-up type guy, with his track record of success both as a starter and a reliever in the minor leagues up to the AAA level with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Soon, we began using him to finish games, and he has proven to be perhaps the top closer in the highly competitive Golden League. Vermilyea has racked-up 10 saves in a little over half a season, leading all league closers in ERA at 1.91 in 21 appearances.
The key to Vermilyea’s success is his intensity and ability to produce one clutch pitch after another at times when every pitch could dictate the fate of the ballgame. With a fall-off-the-table sinker, a swing-and-miss slider and toughness to burn, he has been a major part of our success.
Off the field, Vermilyea is, simply put, a really good guy — a nice guy, a humble guy who never makes a big deal about his major-league experience. He is a professional in all respects, and has served as a fine role model for our younger, less experienced players.
But once he puts on his uniform and makes his way to the field at game time, he becomes a completely different guy. While a lot of our other bullpen guys stay loose and sit back and shoot the breeze with their fellow relievers as they await the call to action from the dugout, Vermilyea stalks the grassy area in our bullpen at Maehara Stadium like a lion protecting his pride. With a steely glare in his eyes, he paces back and forth between the pitcher’s mounds and the home plate area in our bullpen for nine innings.
Once it becomes apparent a save situation is at hand, Vermilyea heats up in a hurry and then makes his customary dead sprint onto the field, with his mane of hair flowing out the back of his cap as he hustles to the mound. Once he claims his spot on the mound, he absolutely attacks each hitter with pitch after pitch on the edges of the plate, down at the knees.
In this past series, Vermilyea recorded saves in three wins over the Tucson Toros, managed by former major league manager Tim Johnson. The first two were seven-pitch saves, while the third took him all of 10 pitches to record the three outs we needed for the win. The kid just flat-out knows how to pitch.
If we are to carry on with our winning ways and make a run at a league title, we will need Jamie to continue his assault on GBL hitters. There’s no sign of him letting up anytime soon.
Brendan Sagara, a Leilehua and Hawaii-Hilo product, is the pitching coach for Na Koa Ikaika, Maui’s team in the Golden Baseball League.