Donnelly a study in focus
Right-hander one of the candidates to take on closer's role
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Rule No. 1 with new Red Sox reliever Brendan Donnelly. Do not talk to the man as soon as he gets back to the dugout. Give him a few seconds to get back to planet earth. Donnelly is the first to admit that he's somewhere else when he's competing.
"It's kind of a joke," Donnelly said of his self-proclaimed 10-second rule. "I've noticed over the years that when someone tries to talk to me almost immediately, what comes out of my mouth isn't English, you know what I mean? It's just gibberish. No one can understand me. You're just coming back to earth. You're kind of on the next level for a little while and when you come down, that's when everything starts making sense again."
So to make sense of why Donnelly became disenchanted with the Angels last season, you need only to know this: He was watching when the game was on the line.
To a fierce competitor like Donnelly, pitching in mop-up situations is like cruel and unusual punishment.
"A lot had to do with the talent of [Scot] Shields and Frankie [Rodriguez]," said Donnelly. "They weren't just one-inning guys. When [Troy] Percival was there, he was a one-inning guy, so it was different. Frankie might get four or five outs and so will Shields. And the starting rotation got better, too. In the past, we used to have guys who went five innings. There were more innings to go around."
With the Red Sox, the bullpen happens to be the biggest question mark. The team has yet to name a closer, though Donnelly is one of four men competing for the job. Whether he closes games or pitches in a crucial setup spot, Donnelly feels rejuvenated at the age of 35.
"I thought I'd be in Anaheim kind of getting buried," said Donnelly. "They made the move and traded me over here and I have zero complaints. I just have to go out and do my work. If I do the things I need to do, good things are going to happen."
The last time Donnelly closed with any regularity was for Triple-A Salt Lake in 2002. That said, if manager Terry Francona calls his number at last call, he'll crave the opportunity.
"We play the game to be the best," said Donnelly. "In the bullpen, what I guess is defined as the best is the closer. The later you can get the ball is what you strive for. That's not to say that I don't enjoy pitching, as long as it's late in the game. Whatever the case is, I have no complaints. I'm in a situation this year that I didn't think I was going to be in."
Francona expressed confidence that Donnelly could close, but said it will come down to how the pieces best fit together in the back end of the bullpen.
"He likes to pitch," said Francona. "He's not scared. He throws some real quality pitches anyway. He's the kind of guy who wants the ball when the game is still in doubt. He really wants to pitch. In Anaheim, some of those guys are pretty special, they've got Shields and K-Rod, so we're really hoping this is going to be a nice addition to our bullpen."
"It's self taught," Donnelly said. "I think over the years every pitching coach has tried to get me to change something. My delivery is a combination of a lot of different pitching coaches over the years. I used to be real slow to the plate and that's where the herky jerky came in. It's self taught.
"I have no idea, I've been doing it so long, I can't do anything else. I'm not going to change anything. What I would say to kids is don't do what I do as far as mechanics go. I've been doing it so long."
One man who will not miss facing Donnelly is Red Sox superstar David Ortiz. Big Papi could never quite pick up Donnelly's funky delivery, and would frequently complain he could never see the ball coming. Ortiz is 0-for-6 with three strikeouts in his encounters with Donnelly. It has recently become a source of comedy in the Boston clubhouse.
"David mimicked my delivery the other day," said Donnely. "He picked up a water bottle and shirt and another piece of trash and he went through the delivery and just threw everything out there, and said, 'That's what it is.' He said he sees my glove, he sees my hat and my glasses flying around and then he sees the ball. Me and him, we've known each other for a long time. I've gotten extremely lucky with him over the years."
In truth, there is little luck to what has helped Donnelly to a solid career as a reliever. It has just about all been about perseverance and dedication.
Donnelly pitched in the Minor Leagues -- both affiliated and independent leagues -- for a full decade before finally getting the call to Anaheim in 2002. The timing of call-up was fortunate for both Donnelly and the Angels, as the righty helped them win a World Series that October.
How did Donnelly stay at it so long before finally getting the call at the age of 30?
"It's like, if a kid starts his homework and doesn't finish it, it's incomplete and no good," said Donnelly. "That's kind of the way I started looking at my baseball career. I started it, but if I don't finish it, it's no good. What do I have on the backside? I've got nothing. I passed up a lot of things along the way where it started to become all or nothing."
There was one dose of reality that he'll never forget.
"I went to an ATM in '96 and tried to take out 20 bucks, me and my wife, to go to the movies, and the ATM said no," said Donnelly. "I think that was the point where I think me and my wife decided, OK, I have to really commit and really make some changes and put everything in, make it an all or nothing situation. She went to work. And we went down the path we were already committed to. You get to a point where there's so much time you've put in, you don't want to leave the game without anything to show for it. That's unacceptable to me. With her working, she enabled me to continue."
And here he is, still going strong, putting passion and commitment into his job.
"He's just not the type of guy that when he comes out of the game, it's that warm, fuzzy moment," said Francona. "Just give him a little while."
The intensity can be traced to the fact that not one day of his baseball career has come easy to him.
I can't take anything for granted, because I don't have all the talent in the world, you know what I mean," said Donnelly. "I don't have a whole lot of God-given ability. It takes everything I got in my big toe to get the ball over at 90 mph. I've got to rely on location and movement to get people out. I guess part of my mechanics is a little deception, too. I try to hide the ball with my stomach, that's why I'm a little overweight. It's part of the plan."
As unorthodox as it may be, Donnelly's plan has gotten him to the cusp of closing games for the Red Sox.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.