ST. PETERSBURG — After years of trying, Rays right-hander Brad Boxberger has finally established himself by starring in situations like the one he faced Friday night.
The Rays led by four in the eighth, but the Yankees had two on and one out and future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter at the plate. Boxberger, as usual, was unfazed, even after giving up a single to Jeter.
He struck out the next two batters to leave the bases loaded and secure the Rays' shutout win.
"No big deal," manager Joe Maddon said. "That's just who he is. He has demonstrated that consistently."
Boxberger has also demonstrated that he belongs in the majors, for good.
The reliever appeared in 42 games for the Padres over the past two seasons before coming to the Rays in January in a seven-player trade that sent pitchers Alex Torres and Jesse Hahn to San Diego. But those appearances came over nine different stints in the majors, with the rest of the time spent in Triple-A Tucson.
Since the Rays recalled Boxberger in May, he has solidified his spot in the bullpen with some of the best statistics in the league.
His 14.26 strikeouts per nine innings is second among AL relievers, and he's on pace to shatter Grant Balfour's club record (12.65). His .144 opposing batting average ranks among the top 10 in the majors among relievers, and lefties have only one hit in their past 57 at-bats against him.
"He knows if he doesn't have a great night, he's still going to be out there pitching again," Maddon said. "I think when you know that, you have less bad nights because you're just out there letting it fly."
By doing that, Boxberger, 26, has corrected his biggest flaw: inconsistency in the strike zone.
Boxberger allowed 31 walks in his previous 49 2/3 major-league innings. This year, with a secure roster spot and the faith of his manager, he has issued only 17 in 53 innings while striking out almost 43 percent of the batters he has faced.
"I think the biggest tweak was being able to actually get an opportunity," Boxberger said. "I never had the opportunity in San Diego to stay for a good amount of time. They never really gave me the chance that I've had here. I've just kind of taken the opportunity and ran."
The Rays haven't just trusted Boxberger to stay in the majors; they've trusted him in pressure situations, as part of Maddon's closer-by-committee strategy. With Friday's two-strikeout performance against the Yankees, opponents dropped to 0-for-9 with six strikeouts against Boxberger with the bases loaded, and he has stranded the past 11 runners he has inherited.
He delivered one of the biggest highlights of the Rays' year in May by walking into a bases-loaded, no-out situation against Baltimore. Boxberger struck out the side on nine pitches, and he allowed himself a rare jolt of emotion to celebrate.
"More often than not," starter Alex Cobb said, "he's going to come clean up your mess."
Boxberger credits his success in pressure-packed situations to his ability to stay calm.
Like his dad, Rod, a former minor-league pitcher who played summer ball with Maddon, Boxberger doesn't say much and shows little emotion. He pitches the same way he warms up: Quickly and efficiently, with a cool confidence befitting someone who knows he finally belongs.
"In that situation, if I try to do too much, I could leave a pitch up, and then a lot of bad things can happen," Boxberger said. "If I'm able to control my emotions and make my pitches, success is hopefully going to follow."
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.
. FAST FACTS
Brad Boxberger has been one of the AL's most dominant relievers. Some numbers and where he ranks (among relievers with 20 or more IP):
Stat Total AL rank
ERA 1.87 11th
SO 84 2nd
K/9 14.26 2nd
K/BB 4.94 13th
WHIP 0.79 4th
BAA .144 3rd
WHIP — walks+hits/IP; BAA — batting average allowed