SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Ninth inning. 5-2 lead. Two men on and nobody out. The type of pressure situation that great closers must thrive in.
Even though it was a relatively meaningless Cactus League contest, relief pitching prospect Heath Hembree treated the final frame of the San Francisco Giants’ 5-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks as if it was the real deal.
“You get that little bit of adrenaline going,” Hembree said. “It doesn’t really matter what game it is; you always want to get that save and get the job done. I’m just as competitive as I would be any other game.”
Hembree, who has saved 56 games over a three-year minor league career with a fastball that consistently lives in the mid-to-high 90s, got the call in the ninth with the Giants holding on to a three-run lead. The first batter he faced, Mark Teahen, shot a ball right back up the middle that ricocheted off the mound and straight up into the air for a base hit.
“It had a lot of top spin on it,” Hembree said. “So I saw it and thought I had it, but it just went under the glove.”
Josh Wilson followed with a double to left on a ball that kept carrying over Francisco Peguero’s head, bringing the tying run to the plate with no outs. That’s when Hembree flipped a switch and became the lights out closer that the Giants think so highly of.
Hembree got Jon Griffin to hit a weak grounder to first that Ricky Oropesa handled himself for the first out of the ninth. Teahen scored on the play, but any closer will tell you their only concern is preventing the tying run from crossing home plate. He did just that, striking out Tony Campana looking and inducing a weak fly ball to right from Nick Ahmed to end the game and pick up his first Cactus League save of the season.
What did Hembree tell himself when he was facing Teahen with two men on and no outs?
“Don’t speed the game up too much. After the first couple hitters, I felt like I found a little bit better rhythm and was able to locate the ball better towards the end. I felt good.”
In addition to his overpowering fastball, Hembree has a biting slider and a developing changeup that he’s growing more confident in. He said that mixing his pitches instead of relying on the heat was the difference in shutting the door on the Diamondbacks.
“The first couple guys probably saw too many fastballs,” Hembree admitted. “I thought I should start mixing that stuff in if I wanted to get out of it.”
Hembree said he only threw one changeup, to the left-handed hitting Campana, but that it’s a pitch that he wants to work into his repertoire more often.
“I feel really good about it and I have a lot more confidence in it now than I have ever. I feel good throwing it, I feel like I can throw it any count, so I feel like it’s going to help me out.
“It’s something I’ve been working on the past couple years. I’m just now getting to where I feel really comfortable with it.”
Giants manger Bruce Bochy said he was impressed with Hembree’s outing and didn’t even fault him for the two hits that created the jam.
“He threw well even to start the inning,” Bochy said. “He had two strikes there and the ball went off the mound. The other one – we’re in Arizona and that ball just carried and hit the top of the fence or else that’s an out. With two guys getting on, he showed good poise out there and made some pitches. That’s what you gotta do if you want to be a closer or set-up guy.”
While Hembree remains a long shot to make the Giants’ Opening Day roster, he may be the closer-in-waiting for the franchise. When asked if he’s envisioned himself on the mound at AT&T Park closing out a must-win game in front of over 40,000 fans a la Brian Wilson or Sergio Romo, Hembree didn’t hesitate:
“You watch guys and you always want to one day be in that same situation. Bases loaded, two outs. You gotta be ready for any situation they throw at you.”