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Andy Furillo: River Cats reliever Clay Rapada eyes September call-up

Sacramento River Cats pitcher Clay Rapada (39), pitches as the River Cats play the Round Rock Express at Raley Field, Saturday August 15, 2015.
Sacramento River Cats pitcher Clay Rapada (39), pitches as the River Cats play the Round Rock Express at Raley Field, Saturday August 15, 2015. Special to the Bee

Clay Rapada stands high and swoops left and dips south, and batters who swing from the same side as the 6-foot-5 River Cats left-handed relief specialist throws know well the feeling of failure when they face him.

This year, left-handed hackers in the Pacific Coast League have touched him up to the tune of only .119, a horrible average, but only slightly worse than the .164 major leaguers have compiled against Rapada over seven seasons with the Cubs, Tigers, Rangers, Orioles, Yankees and Indians.

Rapada’s success, with and against some of the game’s biggest names, has translated into two measures of perfection. Lifetime in the major leagues, he’s 8-0. In three postseason series, his career ERA in two innings is 0.00.

Yankees closer Mariano Rivera picked up his 604th save in one of Rapada’s wins in 2012, then autographed the game ball for him. Pitching for Baltimore in 2011, Rapada struck out Adrian Gonzalez on three pitches and got David Ortiz on a fly ball to beat Boston. He won games in relief of Kenny Rogers and Justin Verlander for Detroit in 2008, once when Miguel Cabrera slammed a tiebreaking two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth when Rapada was the pitcher of record. Also with the Yankees, he retired the Tigers’ Prince Fielder three times in the 2012 playoffs without a hit, once by strikeout, although he walked him once. He faced the Nationals’ Bryce Harper twice in 2012 and struck him out both times.

I’ve been around, to almost every league. There’s not much I haven’t seen in Triple A. It’s been a blessing.

River Cats reliever Clay Rapada

Maybe someday Rapada, 34, will take a moment to reflect more deeply on such momentousness. But he can’t right now. Even from Sacramento, he is deeply involved in a pennant race that is developing in San Francisco.

With September call-ups from the Triple-A affiliates just a few weeks away, managers like the Giants’ Bruce Bochy, with more arms to employ, will have the luxury to make situational moves earlier in tight games where the starting pitcher is struggling. Do you think Bochy might want to bring in Rapada to face a Josh Reddick, an Adrian Gonzalez, a Carlos Gonzalez or any other left-handed hitter when the Giants play the A’s, Dodgers and Rockies in the last three series of the season?

Rapada does. He sees himself as “an extra bullet in the bullpen” at a time of year when “the arms get a little heavy and the legs get a little tired.”

“I think I would be a good addition for September, maybe give Lopy (Giants reliever Javier Lopez) a little breather, and maybe if a game comes to a situation where a starter is not going as deep as they want him to, I could come in and throw early and he could come in and throw late,” Rapada said.

September’s decisions will reveal themselves soon enough. But for Rapada, there is nothing other than the here and now of August in Sacramento.

“I try to keep the mentality of doing my job here,” Rapada said. “I try to tell the younger guys, if your head’s up in the big leagues, you’re not here with us; you’re not focused on the job you need to do. So try to stay focused on where you’re at and let the cards fall where they may.”

Rapada pitched for Virginia State and was signed by the Cubs, his favorite team as a kid, in 2002 as an undrafted free agent. It took him five years in Boise, Lansing, Daytona Beach, Jackson and Des Moines before he made it to Wrigleyville to face one batter, Seattle’s Raul Ibanez, in one game, and he got him out on a liner to left.

I just try to stay humble, appreciate the game and attack lefties.

River Cats reliever Clay Rapada

A trade to Detroit meant time with Triple-A Toledo as well as the Tigers. His tenure in Texas and Baltimore came with round-trip tickets to Oklahoma City and Norfolk between stints with the big-league clubs. New York wasn’t too far from the Yankees’ affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where Rapada put in more minor-league tillage. His deal with Cleveland introduced him to the Ohio capital of Columbus, where he lives in the offseason with his wife, Heather, and where he is a big Cleveland Browns fan. He also signed with the Mariners but only pitched in Tacoma, not Seattle.

“I’ve been around, to almost every league,” Rapada said. “There’s not much I haven’t seen in Triple A. It’s been a blessing. This game is a lot of fun, and being able to play it up and down, east and west, hot and cold – it’s all part of the journey.”

Long and lanky, Rapada registered 86 mph with his fastball Saturday night at Raley Field in his scoreless inning of work against Round Rock. He makes it on the mound, he said, with “deception and funk.” He changes speeds, sinks his fastball and has a variety of breaking pitches thrown from a smorgasbord of motions and deliveries.

“He knows he’s not going to go out there and blow guys away,” said River Cats pitching coach Dwight Bernard. “Location – he can run a ball inside to guys and angle it away and get guys out that way, too. He just tries to keep the ball down. If he’s coming in with guys on base, he knows he’s got to keep the ball down and away and hopefully they’ll hit it on the ground.”

Rapada lists his one game with the Cubs, his presence on a World Series team in Texas and the honor of winning a game saved by Rivera as his career highlights. His best year was 2012 with the Yankees, when he went 3-0 with a 2.82 ERA while striking out 38 batters in 381/3 innings.

In 13 seasons in the minors, he’s 34-27. He’s 1-3 this year in Sacramento with a 3.47 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 361/3 innings.

Mature in his role as a left-handed relief specialist, Rapada is more interested in holding leads for starters than worrying about the W-L and ERA columns. He knows his limitations. He also knows what he can do well.

“I just try to stay humble, appreciate the game,” he said, “and attack lefties.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, afurillo@sacbee.com, @andyfurillo

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