Even-keel, low-key Gregg a welcome addition
Veteran closer converting saves, providing amiable presence to Cubs' bullpen
CHICAGO -- Greg Maddux's success was based on well-located fastballs, which is what Kevin Gregg tries to do as well, which is how he got his nickname.
"I was watching [Gregg] throw a front-door sinker one day, and we won a series," Cubs reliever Shawn Camp said. "I was just messing around with him one day, and it just kind of fit."
Camp dubbed the Cubs' closer "Kevin Gregg Maddux," which is an appropriate moniker for a pitcher who relies on his command.
"It's a different style," said Gregg, who will never be confused style-wise with the Reds' Aroldis Chapman. "I stay on the corners all the time and I never back down from that. [Camp] kind of makes fun of me, but [the name] also compliments you in the same sentence. I'm able to put the ball on each corner throughout my outings."
It's worked for the Cubs. Since joining the team in mid-April, Gregg is a perfect 6-for-6 in save opportunities. He's replaced Kyuji Fujikawa, who replaced Carlos Marmol, who lost the closer's job after the first week of the season. Not bad for a pitcher who was throwing at an Oregon high school earlier in the month, waiting for someone to call.
After spending 2012 with the Orioles, Gregg signed a Minor League contract with the Dodgers on Feb. 10. He had a solid spring and gave up only one run on three hits over 11 innings in 11 games. He didn't walk a batter and struck out five. But there was a mutual understanding that the Dodgers would release him if there wasn't room on the Major League roster. That happened April 3.
Gregg returned home to Corvallis, Ore. He was 34, had been traded twice, released twice, pitched for five teams in the big leagues and spent 2012 with the Orioles, appearing in just 40 games. But he never thought his career was over.
"That didn't cross my mind," Gregg said. "Teams have needs and you have to realize the situation. [The Dodgers] were in a situation where they didn't have space for me. I know teams always have a need in the bullpen, but also know it was difficult early in the season -- teams set their roster and usually it takes time to figure out a roster spot. I knew my back was against the wall from that standpoint, but I knew my stuff still competed to be able to play."
Gregg had tweaked his mechanics in the offseason, and when he arrived in the Dodgers' camp, they suggested some changes, which were along the lines of what he was already doing. It was nothing major, just being in a better position on the mound and adjusting his hands.
"I showed in Spring Training I still could pitch and still get people out," Gregg said. "It was just the matter of finding the right spot and how long it was going to take."
The Cubs signed him to a Minor League contract on April 14, and two days later, he joined the big league team for the second time. Gregg pitched for Chicago in 2009, going 23-for-30 in save situations, with a 4.72 ERA. He's a better pitcher now.
"I think he's still the same guy who's aggressive and attacks the strike zone," said bullpen coach Lester Strode, who was on the Cubs' staff in 2009, "but somewhere over the years, he's gotten a better feel for his pitches and executing them much better as far as throwing strikes."
Which goes back to the Maddux comparison.
"The way he's been pitching, I could see that being his nickname," Strode said.
Gregg and Camp were teammates in Toronto in 2010, when Gregg ranked fourth in the American League with 37 saves.
"He's a straight professional, veteran presence guy," Camp said. "He's always willing to lend a hand and help out when he can. That means a lot. He's helped me out. You have a relationship with your pitching coach and bullpen coach and they see things every day, but sometimes you have a relationship with certain players who have seen you in the past and know a little bit about you and what has made you successful. He's one of those guys you can talk to about things, and if you're a little bit off, he'll tell you. He's just a smart pitcher."
Cubs reliever Michael Bowden also has benefitted from Gregg's expertise.
"He's a good staple to have in the bullpen," Bowden said. "He knows what he's doing, he knows how to pitch, and it's just fun to have him in the bullpen and be around him and talk with him."
Bowden was asked about Gregg not being the stereotypical hard-throwing closer, but he interrupted to say the veteran is a "normal guy." Normal?
"He's been around the game a long time and, I don't know, he just seems like a normal guy," Bowden said. "He's even keel, very low key. He's just a good guy."
There's no heavy metal song playing when Gregg enters in the ninth. There are no pyrotechnics on the scoreboard -- at least not on the current Wrigley Field video scoreboard. He does have a routine but does it well before the ballpark gates are open. Gregg is meticulous about his pregame workouts. He'll vary his running sessions and do sprints one day, distance another and agility drills on the third day. Gregg likes to get his lifting in early, too. There's plenty of recovery time when you're not expected to pitch until two hours after the game starts.
In the clubhouse, on the mound, in the game -- Gregg is the same guy. No pacing in the 'pen.
"It's like he's just sitting there watching, and enjoying the atmosphere and waiting for the phone to ring," Strode said.
Camp knows how it feels to be released late in spring and pitching at a high school without a job. It happened to him in 2012, and the Cubs signed him days before the season started.
"Inside, you feel you're not done," Camp said. "This business sometimes is not friendly. In Kevin's situation, it worked out well. Confidence and opportunity create a lot of things for you in your career.
"This game is also about timing. [Gregg] is a good person to have, because not only is he a great pitcher with a closer mentality who has done it before, but he's always a good person. That's someone you look forward to being around every day."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.