Runzler loses phenom status, gains maturity
Advice from Lopez helped reliever learn from rough 2013 season
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It's such a cliche, particularly among athletes, but it's much more true than trite. You'd think a representative sampling of ballplayers would have it tattooed somewhere on their torsos.
I can't worry about things I can't control.
Dan Runzler recited that adage the other day as if it were the Pledge of Allegiance and added, "I'm starting to get that, finally, after a while."
Hence, Runzler's not preoccupied with whether he'll make the Opening Day roster. He weathered that stress during several previous springs. Make no mistake: The left-hander remains fiercely competitive and hopeful of helping the Giants. But if he never again wears a San Francisco uniform in the regular season, it won't wear on him.
Runzler, who'll turn 29 on March 30, feels mentally and emotionally equipped for the future. He draws strength and joy from his wife, Michelle, and their son, 13-month-old Ryan, who doesn't care whether Daddy blew a save or walked three batters in a row.
"Those two have been a blessing," Runzler said.
Runzler also has looked physically prepared so far in Cactus League activity. The reliever is unscored upon in 1 2/3 innings over two appearances and, more impressively, has stranded a whopping five baserunners. He left the bases loaded in the third inning of the Feb. 26 exhibition opener against Oakland and stranded a pair of Padres in Monday's sixth inning.
"I know I have the stuff to pitch in the big leagues and I know that I can get back here," Runzler said. "Whether it's here or somewhere else, that's something I can't control, so I'm not worried about it."
Runzler's effectiveness commanded the Giants' attention years ago. His ascent to the Majors in 2009 was nothing short of spectacular, as he began the season with Class A Augusta before climbing each professional rung en route to San Francisco. When the Giants recalled him, his aggregate Minor League statistics featured an 0.76 ERA and 83 strikeouts in 59 innings. In his Major League debut Sept. 4 at Milwaukee, Runzler struck out Jody Gerut with runners on first and second to end the sixth inning and preserve a 2-2 tie before the Giants proceeded to win.
The Giants loved his velocity and his poise.
"One of the most impressive debuts that I've seen," said closer Sergio Romo, who has witnessed each one performed by a Giants rookie since his own in June 2008. "When I first met him, he pitched at about 90, 91 miles an hour. A couple of years after I met him he was at 97."
Unusual circumstances befell Runzler the following year, not many of them good. He made the Opening Day roster and contributed to the Giants' drive to the World Series by compiling a 3-0 record, a 3.03 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings spanning 41 outings. But he also was sidelined for 47 games with an injury to his left patella that he sustained while making his first Major League plate appearance, of all things.
The aftershocks of that mishap continued to rock Runzler. He never regained his consistency, making only 37 appearances with the Giants in 2011-12. That included a 2011 season when his ERA ballooned to 6.26. Moreover, in a bizarre procedural twist, Runzler's injury rehabilitation outings in 2010 prevented him from becoming a six-year Minor League free agent this past offseason. Had Runzler gone on the open market, he surely would have attracted multiple bidders. Instead, he's a non-roster invitee, destined to begin his second year in a row with Triple-A Fresno unless he overwhelms the Giants' braintrust -- which he did as a rookie.
Through it all, Runzler's confidence has fluctuated.
"It can go by the wayside and you have to try to find it again," he said. "I wouldn't say that I'm 100 percent and that I've figured it out, but I'm constantly working to get better. I need to keep myself out of my own head and have fun throwing a baseball again."
Runzler felt devoid of such passion toward the end of last year. He finished with a 5.68 ERA in 51 games at Triple-A Fresno and apparently was never remotely considered for a promotion to San Francisco.
"I was doing everything I could and it wasn't working for me and I let stuff get to me," Runzler said. "I would say I tried to do too much. At that point it can snowball on you pretty quickly. ... I wanted to get back [to the Majors] so badly that I let it control me."
Seeking a confidant, Runzler contacted fellow lefty Javier Lopez, who endured similar career struggles before being traded to the Giants in 2010. As a result, Lopez strongly empathized with Runzler.
"When you're trying to make the club and you put all the effort in and it doesn't work out that way, it can really be a grind for you," Lopez said. "So what I tried to tell him was stay the course. Keep a simple plan. ... Really, the most important thing to control is the mental aspect."
Said Runzler, "Javy told me that you learn a lot more from failing than succeeding and I agree with that 100 percent."
Runzler hasn't ignored basic baseball mechanics. He has simplified his delivery to gain consistency.
"Less moving parts, I'd say," Runzler explained. "I wouldn't say it's anything major. Just small things."
Nothing's insignificant, though, about the maturity Runzler has gained.