Just for fun, next time you watch Joe Biagini pitch – assuming there is a next time – watch his butt. Maybe you’ve noticed already. He stands upright on the mound, feet together. With his right hand holding the ball in his glove, he raises his hands in front of his face, then drops them to shoulder level and stops. Now, watch for it: he bends his knees slightly, and when he does that, his tenses his gluteal muscles.
And for a split second, his butt jiggles and his body goes taut.
By now, you may suspect deviant thoughts have overcome me. But I couldn’t help but notice. I’ve never seen a pitcher do a pronounced, if momentary, butt shake before releasing the ball.
And so, after the Blue Jays’ rookie retired the side in order in his major-league debut – including a strikeout of David Ortiz, no less – and after he threw one 95-mph fastball after another, journalistic curiosity compelled me to ask the haunting question.
What’s with the butt shake?
“I thought it looked cute,” Biagini says.
This is the sort of answer he is inclined to give when approached by jaded beat writers for comment. There is something of the self-denigrating stand-up comic in Biagini, who not only stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 240 pounds, but also has a fairly advanced sense of droll timing between his semi-smartass initial answers and the attempt at serious self-examination that follows.
For example, after his clean inning – two groundouts and the Ortiz whiff – in the Jays’ 8-7 loss in their home opener Friday night, a reporter asked if he had called anyone special following the game.
“My parents are actually here,” he says.
“So I’ll have to hug them a bunch of times, probably.”
“Hopefully that goes quickly.”
Photo Credit: John Lott
I digress. We were discussing the butt shake. After telling me he thought it looked cute, Biagini turns serious.
“I think that it was actually a mechanical thing that I do,” he says. “I think I started doing it last year, where I wanted to kind of set in my posture before I started my windup. I think that when I would kind of come set in the windup and then just engage my core to make sure everything’s kind of in the right place, I think that kind of evolved into that.”
Last year, when Biagini began to use his butt to make him a better pitcher, he was with the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the Giants’ Double-A affiliate in Virginia. He was very good – 2.42 ERA in 23 games (22 starts) – but the Giants left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, and the Blue Jays grabbed him.
When you claim a player in the Rule 5 draft, you must keep him on your big-league roster for the whole season or, if you decide you don’t want him, you must offer him back to his original team.
Which means that when your team must make a roster move – as the Jays must on Sunday, when they activate starter Marco Estrada from the disabled list – a Rule 5 pick is often the easiest player to kick to the curb.
But Biagini’s stock rose again on Saturday, when he worked another scoreless inning, escaping a no-outs, two-on predicament of his own making. The betting is that he’ll stick.
“I like everything we’ve seen,” said manager John Gibbons after Saturday’s 8-4 loss. “His first appearance last night against some pretty good hitters, and today he got into a little bit of a jam and worked his way out of it. He’s got a great arm. You never really know how somebody’s going to react the first time in the big leagues. I tip my hat to him. He’s handled it like a big pro.”
Biagini made the team because he pitched well in spring training. He’s big and he throws hard. But general manager Ross Atkins carved Biagini’s plight in bold relief before Friday’s game.
”I don’t get nervous often watching baseball games,” Atkins said, “but I get nervous watching him pitch because of the situation that he’s in. He knows that he’s pitching for his job. So there’s no hiding behind that.”
Biagini said he tries not to think about that. He did not resort to the one-day-at-a-time cliché, but that’s what his answer amounted to when someone asked if he was nervous entering the ninth inning to face Boston’s 3-4-5 hitters.
Not nervous, he said. More like anxious.
“It’s ironic that all the years you dream about it and stuff, you kind of think about this wild fantasy that you have of playing at this level,” he says. “But then as you get close, you have to start telling yourself, ‘I belong. I’m good enough. I deserve it. I’m going to be good.’ You have to kind of convince yourself. It’s kind of funny that when that moment happens, it’s a little bit more like, ‘Yeah, I belong here. I don’t need to be nervous. I just gotta attack ‘em like I always do.’ ”
So he did, and it worked.
Photo Credit: John Lott
As sportswriters often do in these situations, someone also asked if he was distracted by an adrenaline rush as he prepared to make his major-league debut.
“I don’t know what adrenaline feels like exactly, but I’d imagine it feels like it did an hour ago,” he says, approximately an hour after retiring Xander Bogaerts, Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez in order. “Again, it’s just kind of surreal to find yourself in this environment. It’s a lot different from Double-A …
“… although we did have some nice crowds there.”
Did you get the ball you used to strike out Ortiz?
“I got one ball,” Biagini says. “I don’t know what it was from. Might’ve been just picked up off the ground of the dugout. But I’m going to pretend like that’s what it is.
“I think George (Poulis), the trainer, he said he got one or two (balls) authenticated or something, which I didn’t know I was legitimate enough to be authenticated. But I guess that’s mind of how it goes.”
Wherever the souvenir ball came from, he promises to try not to drop it on his way home.
Upon making the opening-day roster, Biagini said it felt surreal. It still feels that way. If he survives the Sunday cut, he hopes he gets a chance to let that feeling morph from surreal to real.
“I think just each little progressive event that I can hopefully still have here will just help it sink in a little more,” he says.
“If it doesn’t,” he says, without pausing before the punchline, “maybe I’ll have to try to go to therapy or something.”
The scrum lasts almost 10 minutes. When it ends, several reporters offer Biagini congratulations for an auspicious big-league debut.
“Thanks very much,” he says. “Congratulations to you guys for doing a great interview.”