Man of mystery: Boxberger baffles hitters
Low-key right-hander shuns spotlight while dominating out of Rays' bullpen
There's The Box, smack in the middle of the Rays' formal-attire team photo, powder-blue top hat askew on his head.
He -- Tampa Bay reliever Brad Boxberger, that is -- is dressed as Harry Dunne from "Dumb and Dumber." His tuxedo is an exact replica, down to the shirt with the satin ruffles -- which are, unfortunately, obscured in the photograph by the sizable left shoulder of Boxberger's partner in fashion crime.
Yes, Jake is standing next to The Box, of course. That's left-hander Jake McGee. He is in an orange tux of his own, the suit Jim Carrey's character, Lloyd Christmas, sported in the film.
Loud suits are, for the most part, the loudest the two pitchers get. McGee and Boxberger -- or "Jake and The Box," as manager Joe Maddon has labeled them -- are the anti-dynamic duo anchoring the back of the Rays' bullpen. They let their arms do most of their talking. The "Dumb and Dumber" tandem tuxedos for the team's latest themed road trip were an unexpected, and wildly successful, twist.
McGee has been in the public eye more often, as he has become the team's de facto closer, despite Maddon's insistence on not naming one officially. But Boxberger, in a befittingly quiet manner, has become a lockdown relief arm in his own right and is in the midst of a remarkable stretch.
Not only does the 26-year-old right-hander have a 2.00 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP in 43 appearances this season, Boxberger has also struck out 71 of the 169 batters he's faced. That's 42 percent. He does it with a fastball-changeup combo reminiscent of ex-Rays closer Fernando Rodney's -- Maddon has made the comparison -- delivered with a befuddling cross-body, yanking arm action.
"From the beginning of camp, I just saw hitters blanch at a typical strike -- like, middle, middle-away for a right-on-right [matchup]," Maddon said. "[I'd think,] 'You know, those guys are really not seeing the ball that well.'"
Boxberger even strikes out batters when he is trying to induce contact, like during his personal career highlight and self-proclaimed craziest moment on the mound.
On May 8 against the Orioles, Boxberger tossed an "immaculate inning" -- when a pitcher strikes out the side on nine pitches -- and he was the first pitcher in Major League history to do so after entering the game with the bases loaded.
After striking out Steve Pearce for the first out, though, Boxberger wanted a ground ball.
"I was like, 'OK, double play. Pitch away.' Was trying to get that," Boxberger said. "But it worked out to where two more guys struck out, and the inning was over."
Boxberger is also tough on lefties. He has held left-handed hitters to an MLB-low .077 batting average against this year, and they're hitless in their past 43 at-bats against him. The most recent time a lefty stepped into the box against Box and came away with a hit was on May 20, when Nick Punto did it for the A's -- on an infield single to first base.
So where did this guy come from, this righty who stifles lefties even more than the southpaw McGee?
Well, there is the technical answer: "San Diego" -- the team that traded Boxberger to Tampa Bay last offseason in a deal that included current Rays teammate Logan Forsythe.
"It's definitely fun to experience something I wasn't able to in San Diego, in being part of a more winning organization and having a chance every year to go to the playoffs," Boxberger said.
Other than that, though, it is hard to tease much out about the mellow, mutton-chopped, mysterious Box.
Even from McGee, who chills out two lockers down from Boxberger before games, tapping away on his iPad while The Box scans his phone.
"The bullpen doesn't tell stories," McGee said with a smile.
Neither do the other Rays, at least about Boxberger. Forsythe has a few stories, he just can't share them. What he would share was his explanation of why Boxberger, who was in the Minor Leagues as recently as this season, was such a well-kept secret.
"He wasn't really given his opportunity over in San Diego," Forsythe said. "You saw the stuff he had -- at times. He wasn't consistent enough over there. [Maddon] and the guys here showed confidence in [Boxberger], and it's brought out the best in him."
And McGee, at least, did offer his scouting report of his friend: "Pretty quiet guy. But when you get to know him, [he's] pretty outgoing. Good fastball, good changeup -- really good changeup. [He] strikes out a lot of guys."
McGee sat back and laughed.