TAMPA, Fla. -- Evaluating his bullpen options earlier this week, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington noted the one trait most of Pittsburgh's relievers lack: experience. As Huntington put it, "We don't have guys that have long backs of baseball cards."But the Pirates have one veteran with a career 3.00 ERA
TAMPA, Fla. -- Evaluating his bullpen options earlier this week, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington noted the one trait most of Pittsburgh's relievers lack: experience. As Huntington put it, "We don't have guys that have long backs of baseball cards."
But the Pirates have one veteran with a career 3.00 ERA in more than 300 games, two World Series rings and a critical role in this year's relief corps: George Kontos. The Bucs claimed the 32-year-old right-hander off waivers last August, immediately installed him as a late-inning pitcher and watched him put up a 1.84 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings.
Back in camp this spring amid a group full of young arms, Kontos will return to the eighth inning as closer Felipe Rivero's primary setup reliever. After pitching in just about every situation during his 5 1/2 years in San Francisco, Kontos appreciates the certainty that comes with his assignment.
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"I think I had as much success as I did last year because I knew when I was going to pitch," Kontos said. "I knew when I had to get ready. I had my routine. I got myself ready to go. All that stuff just helps you build confidence and get yourself into your routine. It's definitely mind-easing, and I'm glad that I'm going in knowing that's what I'm going to be doing."
Over the final two weeks of Spring Training, the Pirates will reveal the full makeup of their Opening Day bullpen. At this point, it seems Rivero and Kontos are the only two relievers with established roles. In the volatile profession of relief pitching, knowing what time the bullpen phone will ring each night is a welcome comfort.
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"The mental battle is most of the grind," he said. "That preparation allows you to get into a good mental state of mind and get yourself ready to pitch. I don't want to say it was easier, but it makes it a lot easier to get ready when you know when you're going to pitch."
Kontos' role and experience should also make him something of a leader -- and he learned from some of the best in that regard. Kontos debuted in 2011 with the Yankees, whose bullpen included legendary closer Mariano Rivera. Kontos took every opportunity to learn from Rivera and, in fact, uses the same cutter grip as the future Hall of Famer.
Then Kontos was dealt to San Francisco, where the Giants won three World Series in five years due in large part to the bullpen core formed by Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo. In 2012, Giants clubhouse manager Mike Murphy put Kontos' locker between Lopez and Affeldt, who totaled 19 years of Major League experience and three championship rings between them at the time.
Every year after that, Murphy would ask Kontos if he wanted to move his locker. Every year, the answer was the same: Nope, right here is perfect.
"I was lucky," Kontos said. "I learned a ton from that. … All those guys were imperative to where I've come."
Kontos also learned that a successful bullpen is not built on ability alone. Few of San Francisco's relievers had truly overpowering stuff, but they executed their pitches and rarely buckled under pressure. In conversations around the Pirates' clubhouse, Kontos can see signs of a promising group -- even if the backs of their baseball cards might not show it yet.
"The good thing about it is they all have great arms, but they're hungry and good kids that want to learn," Kontos said. "If I can help any of them, go out there and continue to do what I do, hopefully we can be successful."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.