ST. PETERSBURG -- At the start of the season, right-hander Collin McHugh had to ask himself some tough questions. He’s 33 years old, he's coming off a season in which he did not pitch and he’s dealt with arm issues in the past. The rust of not competing for 18 months showed in his first few outings, as he owned a 10.13 ERA before going on the 10-day injured list in late April with a low back strain.
“You have to look at yourself in the mirror and be like, 'Can I still do this?'” McHugh said Sunday morning. “Which is an uncomfortable feeling, but one that we're all familiar with.”
It’s also a question he’s answered quite clearly since then. McHugh struck out five batters in two scoreless innings against the Orioles on Saturday at Tropicana Field, playing a huge part in the Rays’ 5-4 win. That outing extended a streak of dominance out of the bullpen for the veteran right-hander, who has given up one run while striking out 31 batters in 18 innings over 11 outings dating back to May 6.
As strange as it might sound, McHugh said the rough stretch he endured early this season was helpful. It reminded him what it felt like to pitch in high-pressure situations, how hard it is to pitch in the big leagues every day and that he won’t necessarily bounce back from outings at age 33 -- in his ninth big league season -- like he did six or seven years ago.
That brought to mind something McHugh used to hear from Josh Hopper, his pitching coach at Berry College who is now the Pirates’ pitching development coordinator: “Sometimes you’re out there with a pocket knife, and sometimes you’re out there with a machete.”
“I think the growth part is realizing you don't have to be that person. You bring the body that you've got to the game every day. Whatever that looks like, you've got to go and compete,” McHugh said. “You don't know what you have on a given day, but you've got to compete with what you've got. And I think that I've kind of taken that to heart and understood the things that make me good at this level, and just tried to maximize that.”
For McHugh, that list is probably topped by his versatility and his ability to spin the baseball. He has played an important role in Tampa Bay’s bullpen, working multiple innings in seven of his last 11 appearances while striking out 44.9% of the hitters he’s faced during that stretch. And he’s leaned heavily on his slider to do so, throwing the breaking ball 52% of the time with a 31.4% swing-and-miss rate this season.
“From the side, it looks like a Frisbee going up there,” manager Kevin Cash said after Saturday’s game. “Hitters, you can't give up on it, and then it just expands and carries out of the zone and looks like a strike for a long time."
McHugh’s success has not come as a surprise to Kevin Kiermaier. Before they became teammates, McHugh held Kiermaier to just two hits with five strikeouts and a walk in 14 career matchups. Kiermaier much prefers his current view of McHugh from center field.
“I hated facing him back in the day. About a month or two ago, he said, ‘Don’t let the kid get hot.’ He was kind of joking around, but he meant that at the same time,” Kiermaier said. “He’s nasty. He can go out there for an inning or two, four or five, it doesn’t matter. Those guys are so valuable to have down there.”
Having an option like McHugh, who signed a $1.8 million deal with the Rays in February, has only deepened Tampa Bay’s bullpen. The Rays are essentially operating without any low-leverage options, allowing Cash to mix and match with just about anybody at any point of the game. They entered Sunday’s series finale against the Orioles with a 3.13 ERA, the best mark in the American League and third-best in the Majors behind the Padres and the Cubs.
“I'm out here throwing every day with these guys, and I'm like, 'How do they ever give up runs?'” McHugh said. “It's guys who want to pitch, guys who want the ball. I think more than anything, that makes for a really fun, competitive, enjoyable atmosphere. And it makes guys better. It sharpens each of us to know that the next guy going out is going to throw up a zero, so you've got to go throw up a zero, too.”