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Left-handed reliever Aaron Loup gives Rays bullpen a different look

Arm issues behind him, the veteran believes his experience in the AL East will help him find success in Tampa Bay.
Rays pitcher Aaron Loup delivers a pitch during an intrasquad scrimmage Friday at Tropicana Field.
Rays pitcher Aaron Loup delivers a pitch during an intrasquad scrimmage Friday at Tropicana Field. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jul. 20, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays left-hander Aaron Loup won’t be confused with the team’s late-inning relief arms. He won’t bring the high-90s heat that Nick Anderson, Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo do.

But the 32-year-old isn’t envious. He’s made a career out of getting hitters out his own way.

“Those guys have electric stuff,” Loup said. “And I’ve played long enough and know myself enough, that that’s not in the cards for me. I’ve just got to stick to my game and do what I do. ... I’ll have some good days when I’ll get it up there, 93, 94, but for the most part, I’ve thrown my whole career, I’m gonna be in that 90-to-92 slot, so that ain’t changing at all.”

But if Loup proves to be healthy and over recent elbow problems that slowed his career, he could prove to be a valuable piece of the Rays’ bullpen.

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He spent most of his eight-year career pitching for the Blue Jays, so he has a valuable knowledge of AL East hitters. Over his seven full seasons in Toronto, he held lefties to a .225 batting average. And his deceptive sidearm delivery from the left side offers a unique look.

“When he’s right, he can be really dominant and go on some really impressive stretches,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s coming off of an injury, but before the camp stopped in Port Charlotte, there was a lot to like about him. He’s thrown the ball really well, the velo(city) was probably ticking up, trending up, and just with his deceptiveness I think he can be a really good addition to helping us win games at any point in the game. Whether it’s mid-to-late (innings), I think he’s up for whatever.”

A recurring strained elbow flexor limited Loup to just 7 ⅓ relief innings after he was traded to the Phillies at the 2018 trade deadline. Last season, he made just four appearances for the Padres and didn’t pitch after April 7. But Loup said he’s had a procedure on his elbow, and his arm now feels better than when he first began having flexor issues before the 2016 season.

“I feel really good,” Loup said. “It’s probably the best I’ve felt since the first time I strained my flexor. So getting that cleaned up and getting that fixed and taken care of, I feel back to before the first time it ever happened, which is really good for me. And I feel like my stuff shows that and the way I’ve been pitching shows that, and I’m looking forward to getting on the field and seeing how that goes.”

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The Rays signed Loup to a minor-league deal in February, and his performance in spring training before the pandemic earned him a spot Thursday on the 40-man roster, solidifying his place on the opening-day roster.

“(He gives the Rays) some veteran presence in the bullpen, which will help, because we’ve got some young guys down there,” Cash said. “Even though they’re a big step from last year, it never hurts to have, you know, a guy who has some experience. Chaz Roe does a lot of big things down there as far as the psyche of everybody involved, and you’re adding another quality person in Aaron Loup.”

Loup said he chose to sign with the Rays because he always admired the organization while playing against them in Toronto. He said it always seems like the Rays were one step ahead, “whether it be pitching and how they just found a way to get the best out of guys and know how to utilize guys the best way possible and put them in good situations.”

Loup has had success at Tropicana Field, with a career 1.31 ERA, .195 opponents batting average and averaging more than a strikeout an inning.

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He said he’s already learned a lot with his new organization, his fourth since his 2018 trade from Toronto to Philadelphia. The Rays’ dedication to data — specifically the Trackman information that analyzes a pitcher’s delivery, spin rate, release angle and movement, among other things — is new for Loup.

“It was the first time really using it for me,” he said. “So, being able to get familiar with it and see how my stuff plays and what it actually does, it allowed me to fine-tune things and know more so what my strengths and weaknesses are and areas I can work on and things I just need to keep doing. So yeah, I definitely think that that helped out.”

Situational lefties are always valuable bullpen cogs, and that’s the role that Loup played throughout most of his career. How the Rays use him remains to be seen, and a new three-batter minimum rule (unless a pitcher finishes an inning) might force him to face more right-handed hitters.

“I like doing anything,” Loup said. “Whether it’s one inning, one hitter, two hitters, multiple innings, it doesn’t bother me. It’s definitely going to play a role, but I don’t think it’s going to affect the game as much as people think, because I could still come in with two outs and get a lefty. You get the guy out and the inning rolls over, and I only face one guy.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.