Lott: Eccentric reliever Joe Biagini gets his first big league win, with a little help from Justin Smoak

The Blue Jays mob Justin Smoak
Photo Credit: John Lott

As Joe Biagini assumed his position in the media scrum after his first big-league win, teammate Josh Thole leaned in, grinning, anticipating a good show. He got one, and so did those of us wielding recorders and notebooks.

Biagini is an unlikely story and an unassuming eccentric. He often wears a slightly puzzled look. And his one-liners seem totally spontaneous. It’s as though he can’t help himself. A quip pops out, followed by self-effacing apology.

He is unaccustomed to the big-league stage, and yet in a peculiar way, seems comfortable in his professed discomfort. As in this reply, when, after the Blue Jays’ 3-1 walkoff win over Texas, someone asked whom he had texted with the good news.

“I had an incident with the team in the bathroom,” the new Blue Jay said quietly, almost nervously. “It was kind of a celebratory tradition, so I haven’t really been able to tell anybody. They don’t like to watch, so I have to text them individually. I’m just kidding.

“No, I haven’t had a chance to yet because you guys are bothering me. Just kidding.”

An incident with the team in the bathroom? It cried out for elaboration. So after the scrum was done, I asked him for the details.

“That’s classified,” he said, trying to beat a hasty retreat. Then he turned and added: “I just closed my eyes and thought of my cat and that got me through it.”

It was a classic Biagini ba-da-boom.

That also was the sound that the Texas Rangers’ drummers were making in the ninth inning after Biagini climbed the mound with his Blue Jays down, typically, by a run. This time the score was 1-0 and Biagini promptly threatened to make things worse by giving up a double and single in succession. But he got out of it – “I decided to start throwing better pitches,” he said – and Justin Smoak tied the score in the bottom half with an opposite-field home run.

Biagini was back out for the 10th. Three up, three ground balls, three down. Then Smoak hit a two-run homer to set up the  first walkoff mob scene of the Jays’ so-far exasperating season. Biagini was an avid participant, trading elbows with Edwin Encarnacion on the fringe as a host of teammates tried to smother Smoak and tear off his jersey, the latter of which they accomplished in short order.

Afterward, Biagini was first man up for the media

“Am I supposed to have a speech?” he said.

We knew he would, and that it would come it fits and starts, often between clichés, which he is learning to deliver with major-league panache.

So, came the clichéd question, how did it feel to get your first win?

“I just wish the Raptors weren’t playing so we could have all the attention … I think, uh … I don’t know … You never know what it’s going to feel like … I think that recently I’ve been trying to remind myself to just be grateful to be a part of this team and get the chance to, like, contribute.”

Did he get the ball Smoak lofted into the Jays’ bullpen as a souvenir of his milestone?

“Somebody gave me a ball,” he said. “I was trying to smell it to see if it had his scent of his bat on it, but I don’t quite have the skill of that yet.”

But yes, whether or not that was the correct scent, he would keep the ball and declare it the one that made him 1-0 with a 1.04 ERA just a year after spending a full season as a Richmond Flying Squirrel in the Double-A Eastern League.

Biagini was a Rule 5 pick from the Giants, which meant the Jays had to keep him all season or give him back. So far, he has impressed, both with his pitching and improv skills.

He has always been a starter, and now, as he readily acknowledges, he is the 25th man, never knowing if or when manager John Gibbons will run his finger down the roster and stop at the last name.

Is it tough to prepare for such an odd role?

“It’s tougher than it is in Little League, for example,” he dead-panned.

Then he hemmed and hawed, trying to explain that in fact, he was getting into this, that he was actually developing a useful routine. By this point, we listeners were getting into his routine too.

And, what exactly, does he do before games to prepare?

“I do my pre-game finger-painting exercises,” he said. Then: “I’m just kidding, sort of.”

He turned serious, sort of, at times, expressing appreciation to Gibbons for trusting him in the late innings of a close game and for the opportunity he’d always dreamed of as a kid in California.

When he made the team as a reliever, Biagini would start an inning pitching from a full windup, which included an odd little hitch. He would lift his hands, pause, bend his knees just a tad and tense his butt muscles. In an earlier story, I called it a butt-shake.

But the butt-shake is gone. During the team’s first road trip, he began to pitch from the stretch when he started an inning. Last week I asked him what made him decide to change.

“The pitching coach made me decide to change,” he said.

“Plus, I think that little squat might have been distracting to some of the female fans.”

Biagini has allowed one earned run in six appearances. He has enjoyed a walkoff win and a classified incident with his team in the bathroom. If he keeps pitching well and still comes to scrums full of angst, he can always think about his cat to carry him through.