BOSTON — Contrary to the visual evidence from watching him at work as one of the Rays’ most trusted and successful relievers, All-Star Andrew Kittredge insists there really are some things he gets happy, excited and even loud about.
Family, of course, with a wife and son, and six older brothers and sisters. As a University of Washington product, he roots hard for the Huskies’ football team and follows the Seahawks. He is “a big Pearl Jam guy.”
A highly placed source in the Rays bullpen — let’s call him, uh, Drew Rasmussen — claimed Kittredge is “constantly smiling down there, cracking jokes, all that kind of stuff.”
Even Kittredge himself, with some prompting, admits, “when I’m off the mound, I can talk with anybody.”
But when he is on the mound, Kittredge is all business. And as his 8-1 record, four saves and 1.33 ERA over 41 games through Friday show, he’s all about the business of getting outs — in just about any and every situation, from the first through 11th innings.
Serious, solemn and stoic all describe Kittredge’s demeanor on the mound, and those are just the S words.
Rays manager Kevin Cash, who has joked that Kittredge takes the mound looking like he just woke up from a nap, has his own description.
“Perfect,” he said. “I think you look at all of the good pitchers over time, they learn the ability to really — when a lot of stuff is going around, outside of you and outside of your control, and fans are screaming and baserunners here and there — be able to have that calm presence. It probably has helped allow for ‘Kitt’ to just be consistently dominant in those outings.”
Kittredge, 31, had to develop into that guy.
“A lot of it is stuff I’ve learned over the years from mental strength coaches,” he said. “We talk about just slowing the game down. And for me, slowing the game down is trying to slow everything down — slow my heart rate down, slow my mind down so I’m able to think a lot more clearly.
“I look calm and collected on the mound, but my mind is going 100 miles an hour. I’m just trying to control my breathing, control my thoughts and just slow the game down as much as I can.”
Kittredge got some further guidance from veteran reliever Sergio Romo during Romo’s 2017-18 stint with the Rays that helped to shape his approach and outlook.
“The thing that I really appreciated that he mentioned to me was try to be the same guy every day regardless of how it’s going,” Kittredge said. “He said, it’s just good for your team, it’s good for your own psyche. If you just try to keep that attitude, you’re not going to get too high or too low ever. When things aren’t going good, there’s a lot less self-pity. And when things are going well, he’s like, that could always flip on you just like that.”
That approach has allowed Kittredge to handle numerous ups and downs. He signed with the Mariners as an undrafted free agent in 2011, was traded to the Rays in November 2016, shuttled between the minors and majors and twice was dropped from the 40-man roster and brought back on a minor-league deal. He has yet to spend a full season in the majors.
He sustained a potentially career-threatening elbow injury on Aug. 11, 2020, when he opened a game after closing out the previous night’s for his first big-league save.
A partially torn ulnar collateral ligament often leads to Tommy John surgery, and the potential to miss the full 2021 season would have endangered Kittredge’s chances — given his age and, to that point, limited success — to return to the majors.
After extended conversations and consultations with agent Brian Grieper and Dr. Keith Meister, Kittredge opted for a more conservative plan of rest, rehab and an Organogenisis Renu (amniotic tissue that has regenerative and anti-inflammatory properties) shot, knowing he had a window of several months to gauge the progress and could still have the surgery and be ready for 2022.
“It just was a no-brainer to try the rehab,” Kittredge said.
There was some doubt along the way, but Kittredge said he eventually felt better, and strong showings in a pair of December bullpen sessions at Tropicana Field left him convinced he was good to go.
Along the way, he corrected a mechanical flaw that he felt may have led to the injury. As a bonus, the adjustment has allowed him to throw his fastball harder and his slider sharper. The result has been his most successful season, his emergence as the Rays’ most reliable reliever amid a litany of injuries and unexpected All-Star honors.
The one-year anniversary of Kittredge’s injury was Wednesday. Ironically, the Rays were back at the scene of the pain, Fenway Park. Kittredge, unsurprisingly, said it wasn’t a big deal, mentioning it only to his wife, Tobey.
“I’m having a good year, but I’m building off a lot of the things that I had kind of gotten to last year before getting hurt. So I guess I’m not surprised that I feel good,” the bushy-bearded right-hander said. “I’m very, very proud of where I’ve come from and gotten to, and hopefully just keep it going and hopefully keep getting good results.”
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