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Pitching in: Position players take mound in record frequency

Chicago Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo throws his first major league pitch in relief during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Chicago on July 23, 2018. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)
Chicago Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo throws his first major league pitch in relief during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Chicago on July 23, 2018. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)
By Pat Graham Associated Press

DENVER – To summon a recent reliever, Cubs manager Joe Maddon didn’t even need to signal his bullpen. He just pointed toward his first baseman.

Now pitching: Anthony Rizzo.

That’s no sort of curveball, either.

In an increasing trend this season, position players are making more appearances on the mound to save wear and tear on the bullpen in games that have spiraled out of hand or as a last resort.

Through Thursday, there have been 49 appearances by 39 non-pitchers (not counting two-way player Shohei Ohtani ). Both figures are major-league highs for the expansion era starting in 1961, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“It’s just cool to be up there and get to do something that you don’t get to do,” said Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer, who was a closer and infielder at Oklahoma State but has never pitched in the majors despite his best lobbying efforts. “You have the ball in your hands nonstop.”

Rizzo pleaded for a while to get into a game. His chance arrived on July 23 with the Cubs trailing 7-1 to Arizona and two outs in the ninth. Maddon sauntered out and tossed Rizzo a different glove – a non-first baseman’s mitt – before inserting him. The fans at Wrigley Field cheered as Rizzo’s walk-up music – normally reserved for when he steps into the batter’s box – blared during his warmup pitches.

One batter, two “sliders” – that’s how they were listed – and a fly out later, Rizzo now boasts a career ERA of 0.00.

“He got his shot. I don’t want to hear it again,” Maddon cracked.

Rizzo’s far from alone in getting his break on the mound. A quick sample:

– San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval threw 11 pitches for a clean inning on April 28 against the Dodgers.

– The Diamondbacks used two position players in one game with infielder Daniel Descalso and catcher Alex Avila throwing on July 11 in a 19-2 loss at Colorado.

– The Cubs have utilized five position players on the mound this season. In addition to Rizzo, they’ve inserted Victor Caratini, Chris Gimenez, Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella . They’ve used multiple position players to throw in the same game twice.

– Using a short-armed delivery, New York Mets infielder Jose Reyes made his major league mound debut in a 25-4 loss to Washington on Tuesday. He threw 48 pitches in one inning and allowed six runs.

One thing’s for sure: No batter wants to get an out because of a position player turned momentary reliever. But it’s challenging to go up there and face someone who throws at unorthodox speeds, such as a 62 mph slider (Rizzo) or a 69 mph curveball (Tampa Bay infielder Daniel Robertson on April 7 at Boston) or an 85 mph four-seam fastball (Minnesota infielder Willians Astudillo on July 14 against Tampa Bay).

“You’re a hitter: You’re supposed to get a hit against him,” Dodgers utility player Enrique Hernandez said. “It’s a little hard when the pitcher’s throwing under the hitting zone. It’s never fun.

“Unless you hit a homer,” which Philadelphia’s Trevor Plouffe did against Hernandez to end a 16-inning game.

For Mercer, the next time the Pirates need an emergency reliever, no need to call the bullpen.

Just point to him at shortstop.

“I remind people that I used to pitch in college,” Mercer said. “I remind them all the time.”

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