BALTIMORE (AP) — Tommy Hunter has a strong arm, a wicked fastball and knows what it’s like to pitch with a one-run lead in the ninth inning.
Those qualities make the right-hander a viable candidate to earn role as the Baltimore Orioles’ closer. Hunter has previously experienced moderate success at the job, yet the manner in which he handles failure will ultimately determine his worthiness as the last man out of the bullpen.
Hunter is vying to replace closer Jim Johnson, who was traded to Oakland during the offseason in a cost-cutting move. The Orioles reached agreement with former Oakland closer Grant Balfour to fill the role, but Balfour flunked his physical and was let loose.
So now Hunter and Darren O’Day, along with newcomers Ryan Webb and Alfredo Aceves, will vie to become Johnson’s successor. The competition begins Friday with the team’s first spring training workout in Sarasota, Fla.
After struggling as a starter, Hunter was moved to the bullpen in 2012 by manager Buck Showalter. Last year, Hunter pitched primarily in the eighth inning but also earned four saves in six tries.
Now he’s preparing to work the ninth.
“I don’t think you have to do anything above and beyond what you normally do,” he said. “I don’t think it’s something you need to go out and run an extra 10 miles because you’re going to throw one inning later. I think it’s a mindset.”
Johnson totaled 101 saves over the past two years. Although he blew nine save opportunities in 2013, the only reason he’s not coming back is because the Orioles didn’t want to pay in excess of $10 million for a closer.
Each of the competitors in camp has the arm to handle the job. But that’s only part of the requirement.
“Being a closer is not hard until you fail. Really, until you fail a couple times,” O’Day said. “Then it’s having the fortitude to come back and have confidence in yourself. I have done it, I did it in college, I did it in the minor leagues. I’ve done it a few times in the big leagues when guys were down. I can do it. It’s getting three outs in the ninth inning, which is not that much different from the eighth inning — until you screw it up.”
O’Day earned two of his career four saves last year. His sidearm delivery makes him difficult to hit, but if fastball speed is the determining factor, than Hunter has the edge.
“Tommy’s kind of gone from being a bull in a china shop to having a year where he’s trying to use his technique,” O’Day said. “One hundred mph is a lot of fun, and you can usually get away with just blowing people away. But he’s learned how to control it and be a little more tactful with what he has.”
The closer’s job is only one of several duels that will take place at camp over the next six weeks. Showalter is also looking for a second baseman to replace the departed Brian Roberts and a left fielder to take over for Nate McLouth. Roberts signed as a free agent with the Yankees and McLouth latched on with the Washington Nationals.
Second baseman Jemile Weeks, obtained for Johnson, will compete against Ryan Flaherty. The oft-injured Nolan Reimold and David Lough, who came to Kansas City in a December trade for Danny Valencia, hope to join Adam Jones and Nick Markakis in the Baltimore outfield.
Showalter might also find a need for a third baseman.
Manny Machado is recovering from offseason surgery on his left knee and remains questionable for opening day.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)