This story about Durham Bulls' relief pitcher Jason Childers hasn't gone according to script. In his two appearances following our interview, Childers blew a pair of eighth-inning leads, the latest failures in a season-sabotaging three-week slump.
So why write about him? Childers has no dramatic hardship story to tell, no weird pitches or hobbies or character tics. Married with twin 4-year-old daughters, a 34-year-old career minor-leaguer listed at 6 feet tall and 190 pounds but probably short of both, he doesn't even throw as hard as the team's fourth-string catcher.
But without him, his team might not be contending for the playoffs. Childers leads the Bulls and is second in the International League with 55 games pitched. He has closed games and started them, pitched in long relief and in late-game hotspots. He's the pitching version of a utility player, and a skilled and durable one: His career ERA is a solid 3.09, and he's never had a major injury. Childers is also an amicable clubhouse presence: in short, an essential Triple-A commodity.
But don't think he's content with that status. "I want to pitch in the big leagues," he insisted in a recent interview. (Childers has pitched in exactly five major league games, with Tampa Bay in 2006.) "I know I can still get hitters out, and I'm confident that I can at the big-league level, too. So if I can get a break to get back to the big leagues, I would definitely play for four or five more years."
So how does a veteran get that break? Bonus babies, such as recent Bulls David Price and Evan Longoria, have it easy: They're often (and sometimes undeservingly) rushed through the minors in order to "justify" a team's investment. But Childers was never a prospect; Milwaukee took him as an undrafted free agent after college.
"I got no money to sign," Childers said. "I was just there to fill a spot." Twelve years later, he's filling a bigger one, long after many of his high-dollar peers have been cashiered. "If they give you money, you have to prove that you can't play. If they don't give you money, you have to prove every day that you can."
Childers proved it last season pitching for the Bulls' intrastate rival, the Charlotte Knights, the Chicago White Sox Triple-A affiliate. Although he's a classic soft-tosser, Childers was the team's closer. He posted a 1.22 ERA in 50 games, struck out nearly five batters for every one that he walked and converted all 17 of his save chances. He had his best professional season, improbably, at age 33.
How did he do it? "The ballpark in Charlotte's really small," Childers said, "so I just concentrated on getting ground ball after ground ball," rather than risk fly balls turning into cheap homers. What makes the canny and tactical Childers hard to hit isn't his modest velocity but his wily admixing of four different pitches and his stratagem of forcing hitters into uncomfortably paced at-bats.
"I like to pitch as quick as I can," he said. "If a hitter sees a fastball and fouls it off"—Childers likes to throw his fastball on the first pitch of an at-bat—"I want to throw a changeup within 15 seconds, so that [fastball] is still in his head." Childers will then mix in his curveball and a hybrid slider/cut fastball, further unsettling the hitter's timing and plate coverage.
Childers thought his superb 2008 performance earned him a big-league opportunity, but the White Sox didn't call him up. So he declined their offer of a 2009 contract—he earned extra money for his family by playing in the winter Mexican League—and resolved to return to the Tampa Bay Rays' meritocracy, where "I thought if I'd had as good a year as I did last year, I would probably have a shot [at the majors]."
But Childers struggled early in 2009. "I buried myself" in the Rays' depth chart with that bad stretch, Childers acknowledged. Still, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo and pitching coach Xavier Hernandez, who according to Childers had lobbied the Rays to re-sign him, trusted him to escape his funk. He did: Over 19 appearances spanning 24 innings—including four saves in five days while the Bulls' regular closers were in the majors—Childers allowed just two runs. For a third of the season, he was the Bulls' best pitcher, and perhaps the league's best reliever.
But then, suddenly, he wasn't. "I can't explain why we go through those ruts," Childers said, noting that every pitcher mysteriously falls into them sometimes. This is particularly true of relievers, who unlike starters can't predict when they'll be pitching and thus have difficulty maintaining routines; they spend the first half of every ballgame in a liminal zone between repose and procinctus ("I mess around the first four or five innings," Childers said, although he does watch the game closely). Also, they're relievers precisely because, generally speaking, they can't command their pitches as consistently as starters can.
Childers watched plenty of game film and thought he'd spotted a flaw in his pitching motion, but he kept getting hit hard. As a consequence, he won't reach the majors this year, yet again.
He keeps working, though, and in his last two games, Childers has regained his command. And then came another gift, out of left field. Last week, Childers and fellow Bull Jon Weber (also a veteran minor leaguer, and at age 31 having perhaps his best season) made Team USA, which travels to Europe later this month to compete in the Baseball World Cup. America is the defending champion, winning in 2007 with contributions from former Bull Evan Longoria and current Bull Justin Ruggiano.
With baseball no longer an Olympic sport, with the World Cup perplexingly scheduled at the same time as the major-league pennant drive and with the recent emergence of the World Baseball Classic—which features star-powered, major-league talent—the Baseball World Cup has lost some luster. Nonetheless, "I'm real excited," said Childers, who has never been to Europe. He just left the Bulls to go train at Team USA's training complex in Cary. "I'm really proud that they picked me. Not many [ballplayers] can say that they played for their country."
It may not be a call-up to the majors, but it's a rarer honor, and it came his way via a nomination from Team USA's hitting coach, who happens to be Childers's former teammate. "After 12 years of pro ball, it's who you know," Childers said, smiling like a man who has spent a career working and looking for a break, and finally got one.
The Durham Bulls' final regular-season home game happens Labor Day Monday, Sept. 7, at 1:05 p.m., although at press time, the Bulls were well positioned to make the playoffs. Visit www.durhambulls.com. For more on USA Baseball, visit www.usabaseball.com.