Belisle personifies spirit of Twins' Cinderella season
NEW YORK — Every day in the big leagues is Christmas morning to Matt Belisle, the accidental closer who embodies the unpredictable journey of these 2017 Minnesota Twins.
The affable Texan was signed only 10 days before spring training to a modest $2.05 million contract to be a veteran set-up man while mentoring a young bullpen about managing failure, success and the roller coaster ride of a 162-game season.
Nothing in the job description mentioned the 37-year-old right-hander closing games, not with Brandon Kintzler returning to the role and a rebuild on Minnesota's horizon.
Yet there was Belisle smiling and shagging fly balls in the October shadows of Yankee Stadium, the bullpen bulwark preparing for a chance to close out the Yankees in Tuesday's American League wild-card playoff game.
"I always smile at this game, put my hands up and just say, 'It's baseball,'" Belisle said. "I'm grateful for every year I get to wear a big-league uniform, and this year, maybe among them all, has been the most fun."
That is not just hyperbole from a 13-year major-league veteran with his sixth organization. He is a twice-failed starter and survivor who is the all-time leader in appearances for the Colorado Rockies (392) and in the top-10 in appearances since 2010 among all relievers.
Belisle converted nine of 11 save opportunities with a 2.55 earned-run average after taking over for Kintzler, who was traded to the Washington National during Minnesota's non-waiver deadline. He had allowed just one earned run and four hits with no walks and five strikeouts over his past nine outings.
Twins manager Paul Molitor pledged to go the closer-by-committee approach, but Belisle seized the job after reducing his workload and pitch counts that made him vulnerable to surrendering runs in bunches. His savvy also made him a natural choice.
"When Brandon got traded, I looked at the people we had available, people that wouldn't necessarily succumb to the fact that it's the ninth inning and be able to still throw strikes and throw all four pitches and those types of things," Molitor said. "He's earned my trust, and for the most part, since Kintz went on to Washington, he's taken care of business."
Four bad outings bloated Belisle ERA. He allowed five runs in two-thirds of an inning April 26 at Texas; six in one-third of an inning May 7 against the Red Sox; three in one-third of an inning May 29 against Houston; and four in two-thirds of an inning June 11 at San Francisco.
"He really transformed himself midway through the year," said Derek Falvey, the Twins' chief baseball operator. "A lot of that role, in my mind, is your ability to handle it mentally. You couldn't think of a better person to step in at that moment. We knew he'd handle it from that standpoint, and he's rewarded this team with the way he's gone about pitching in that role."
Belisle shrugged off the responsibility that goes along with trying to snuff out a lineup and spark a celebratory handshake line.
"I've always been taught when I was coming into this league that when you get the baseball, you have an inning to close no matter when that is," he said. "As this has evolved, I don't look at it as different from any other opportunity that I've had previously because I have an inning where I'm asked to get outs and execute pitches."
Belisle is a gym rat who realizes he is on the back-nine of a career that started as Atlanta's 1998 second-round draft pick. He is a recreational hunter and fisherman who loves to retreat to his native Texas to run cattle on his ranch and unplug with family and friends in the winter.
However this journey ends in Minnesota, Belisle is grateful to have been part of it.
"I'm just so honored to be a part of the 2017 Twins; this is an incredible group of individuals," he gushed. "When you know guys are out for each other, and they're going in the same direction, it's clichéd remarks, but when it's bought into and seen through, it's really special."
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