Red Sox

Red Sox

CLEVELAND -- The nightly fire drill that is the Red Sox closer's role might've been filled 14 years ago if luck had broken just a little differently for Kirby Yates.

The Padres All-Star closer leads baseball with 30 saves and owns a miniscule 1.15 ERA in a breakout season at age 32. It took him a long time to get here, with his path winding through Tampa, New York, Cleveland, and Anaheim before settling in San Diego, with an unlikely assist from Red Sox right-hander Nathan Eovaldi.

But his first brush with pro ball actually came in 2005, when Theo Epstein and the Red Sox drafted the high school right-hander out of Hawaii in the 26th round and then waited.

Yates was a draft-and-follow, a player headed for junior college whom the Red Sox could spend a year evaluating before deciding whether to offer a contract. And here's where fate intervened.

"I was in contact with the scout the entire time when I was pitching through the fall," Yates said at All-Star media day. "And unfortunately I blew out my elbow and that was that. It didn't work out. I thought if I had a good season after that year, I would likely sign."

The door to Boston has not been closed, however. With the Red Sox desperate for help in both the rotation and bullpen, Yates could be a trade target, especially if the Padres fall out of contention in a jam-packed National League wild card race, which they currently trail by only two games.

 

Like most players in his position, Yates wouldn't engage trade speculation.

"I'm a Padre," Yates said. "I love where I'm at. I don't have any control. I'll deal with that if it happens. As of now, I don't have any thoughts on that. We haven't played our best baseball yet. It's ahead of us. Every team is trying to get hot down the stretch, and we're no different. If we play some good baseball, we're in this."

His journey is a study in perseverance and the power of pitch mix, how one change to a reliever's arsenal, even at age 30, can unlock the potential he always believed existed.

Three years after that 2006 elbow injury cost him a chance to join the Red Sox, Yates signed with the Rays as an undrafted free agent. Thus began an odyssey that saw him reach the big leagues in 2014 and struggle for parts of three seasons before reaching a crossroads in 2016 after posting a 5.23 ERA in 41 appearances with the Yankees.

"I didn't want to suck anymore," he said.

He realized the problem was his slider, a strikeout pitch when it was on, and a home run one when it wasn't. He needed to scrap it in favor of something else, so he focused on a split-fingered fastball, an offering falling out of vogue in a four seam-curveball-cutter-obsessed league. And that's where Eovaldi entered the picture.

"Going into '17 I put out a plan that I wanted to do something different," Yates said. "I wanted an out pitch. I needed a swing-and-miss breaking ball. The slider wasn't cutting it, so I developed a splitter. Along with that, there was a mindset that went into that year that was different. I didn't want to suck anymore. I wanted to be better, plain and simple. I devoted myself a lot more in the weight room and just kind of came in with a different mindset and everything came together and it just kind of happened."

He conceived of the splitter while pitching for the Yankees in 2016, and he picked the brains of his fellow pinstriped hurlers for pointers. Eovaldi's advice shouldn't surprise anyone.

"What he told me is he always wanted to throw it hard," Yates said. "I took that, because he's a power pitcher and a strikeout guy. He told me, when I throw, throw it hard, and that will help."

Even when he was posting high ERAs, Yates averaged more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Since arriving in San Diego, however, that number has leaped to nearly 14 Ks per nine, and he otherwise keeps the ball on the ground, with only one home run allowed in 30 innings. The pairing of a 94 mph fastball and 87 mph splitter that features Koji Uehara-like movement has proven devastating.

"I've always been able to strike guys out," he said. "The days I had a good slider were the days I would get my strikeouts. The problem was the days the slider was bad were the days I'd give up my homers. I had to find a balance.

 

"The split-fingered has complemented my fastball so well, it's just one of those things where it becomes a chess match and you've got to choose right."

With Eovaldi shifting to the bullpen, where he will presumably close, and the Red Sox in the market for starting pitching, it's a long shot that they'll have the resources to pursue Yates.

If that's the case, it will be the second time they've missed out on the right-hander, who has forged an against-all-odds career for himself nearly 15 years after a bad break kept him from signing in Boston.

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