SAN FRANCISCO -- While Juan Gutierrez and Jean Machi share the title of right-handed Giants reliever and occupy adjacent lockers in the AT&T Park clubhouse, as recently as January they were the closers for rivals Leones del Caracas and Navegantes del Magallanes, respectively, of the Venezuelan Winter League.
“It’s like Red Sox and Yankees,” Gutierrez said.
Toward the end of their season, though, Gutierrez was picked up by Magallanes.
“Since I was the closer, he was my setup man – and he helped me a lot,” Machi said.
So, picture Mariano Rivera a few years ago donning a Boston uniform and passing along pointers to Jonathan Papelbon.
“The advice he gave me was to keep focused on every game and every hitter,” Machi said through a translator, adding that since they became Giants teammates, Gutierrez’s advice has expanded to include: “Try always to throw the first pitch for a strike.”
“I think we learned a lot from each other, and we’re doing the same thing here with the Giants,” Machi said. “I am very happy he signed with this organization.”
The Giants, too, have been pleased with Gutierrez, who made the team as a nonroster invitee out of spring training in a bullpen that early on has been a strength of the team. Entering Monday, the 30-year-old had allowed two runs in his previous nine appearances – both on solo home runs – after a rough first outing April 1 in Arizona, when he gave up two runs and four hits.
The Giants’ bullpen, meanwhile, entered Monday with the second-lowest ERA (2.13) of any relief unit in the majors, trailing only that of their opponent Monday, the San Diego Padres (2.03). That included a majors-best home ERA of 0.65, as Giants relievers had allowed just three earned runs in 412/3 innings at AT&T Park.
While neither Gutierrez nor Machi closes in San Francisco, manager Bruce Bochy said part of the bullpen’s success likely is attributable to the fact that many of the relievers have closed at the major-league level or in winter ball – the atmosphere at games in Venezuela is notoriously lively, and, Gutierrez said, “There’s more pressure than here.”
“They’re not afraid,” Bochy said. “They’re used to being out there with the game on the line. We’ve played a lot of close games, a lot of one-run games, and those guys have that experience in dealing with how important every pitch is, so I know that has to help.”
Saturday against the Indians, for example, Gutierrez replaced Tim Lincecum in the fifth inning of a game the Giants trailed 3-0 with the bases loaded and two outs. After falling behind Yan Gomes, 2-1, Gutierrez came back to strike him out on a 95-mph fastball to keep the deficit at three, and the Giants rallied for a 5-3 win.
Gutierrez faced just the one batter but was the pitcher of record to earn the seventh win of a major-league career that also has included stops in Houston, Arizona, Kansas City and Los Angeles, where he pitched in 28 games last year for the Angels after the Royals designated him for assignment.
The Giants invited him to camp this spring, at which point pitching coach Dave Righetti pulled some video of the 6-foot-3, 247-pounder. Gutierrez had faced the Giants with Arizona from 2009 to 2011, serving briefly as the Diamondbacks’ closer and saving 24 games, but had Tommy John surgery partway through the 2011 season.
“The thing I liked the most is he’s a guy who can locate and throw four pitches – there’s a pitcher in there,” Righetti said. “Big, giant guy, throws hard, but he can pitch. He’s got good command. He’s under control out there. He’s not flailing around.”
Indeed, according to the website FanGraphs, Gutierrez has averaged the hardest fastball on the Giants’ staff this season at 94.7 mph, striking out 12 batters and walking one in his first 111/3 innings. He said he believes his pitches actually improved after Tommy John surgery – though the reason may have been more mental.
“Probably because I got more focused in the strike zone, trying to keep the ball down,” said Gutierrez, who began this season with a 4.65 career ERA in the majors. “I just attack the hitter, and I feel great about that.”
Giants outfielder Gregor Blanco, who faced Gutierrez in winter ball in past years, said he, too, has noticed a difference in this year’s version.
“He had an amazing fastball, good offspeed pitches, but in that time he was pretty much playing just to throw the ball instead of going in there and pitching,” Blanco said. “Now it’s good to watch him pitch, the focus he has and what he’s doing.
“Tell you the truth, he’s been impressing me.”
Call the Bee’s Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015. See his baseball coverage at sacbee.com/mlb.