Marc Rzepczynski didn’t even last one inning. The batter he faced made contact on Marc’s one and only pitch, and he was immediately pulled from the game.
“Tough day, Marc,” said his manager, Terry Francona, patting him on the back as he left the field.
So why was Rzepczynski (pronounced zep-chin-skee), a 6-foot, 2-inch, 220-pound left-handed relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians – and the guy who fired off just one 91-mph sinkerball – smiling? For that matter, why were his teammates in the dugout laughing?
The answer reveals a bit about what it’s like to be a relief pitcher in the intense, topsy-turvy pressure cooker that is Major League Baseball. It touches on what supreme confidence it takes to focus and compete in front of thousands of fans in a packed stadium and millions more in front of digital screens throughout the world. And it illustrates how one outing – in some cases, an entire season – can hinge on one pitch.
Here’s what happened: With his one toss, Rzepczynski, who competed on Servite High School’s varsity baseball team from 2001 to 2003, got Houston Astros outfielder Colby Rasmus to ground out into a double play, ending the inning and helping the Indians to hold on to their 1-0 lead. Francona and his players were joking; Rzepczynski (whose nickname, for obvious reasons, is “Scrabble,”) did an outstanding job.
However, that same pitch just a few millimeters higher could’ve resulted in a two-run homer. One pitch. One swing. Game over.
Life was a lot less pressure-filled when little Marc Rzepczynski first took to the field as an OC youth in 1989. “I was 4 years old in the East Yorba Little League,” he says. Baseball came naturally to him, and he loved it.
Years later, as his skills grew along with his affinity for the game, he pitched on Servite High School’s varsity team. “There were a lot of really great players in the Serra League [which became the Trinity League in 2007],” Rzepczynski says. “We had six guys on our team alone that went to NCAA Division 1 schools. [Being at Servite] truly readied me for a higher level of baseball.”
A.J. LaMonda, a high school teammate, concurs. “Some of the teams we faced were great,” he says. “The league was just loaded with talent. Bishop Amat was in our league then, and they were the national champs in 2002. You just get better by competing against the top talent.”
“The Serra League was one of the toughest in the nation,” says Todd Cook, Servite’s head baseball coach from 1999 to 2007. “It still is. You look at the talent that comes out of the Trinity League. Kids go on to play at such high levels in every sport.”
Rzepczynski didn’t emerge as a bona fide star until his senior season, when he learned to control his pitches.
“He had problems with his command,” Cook says. “He had great movement on his pitches but walked a lot of batters.”
One outing had a lasting impression on the young pitcher.
“During a summer league game after his junior year, he couldn’t get out of the inning,” Cook says. “I thought about pulling him, but my assistant coaches said, ‘Leave him in. He has to learn.’ We weren’t going to bail him out.”
Although he struggled through the inning, “It was amazing how he developed after that,” Cook says.
Now able to control his pitches, Rzepczynski started his senior season tossing a one-hitter. “And that was against Lakewood High,” Cook says. “They were a real powerhouse at the time.”
After graduating from Servite in 2003, Rzepczynski attended UC Riverside, where he competed for the Highlanders from 2004 to 2007. There, he became a relief pitcher after performing for years as a starter. During his senior season, the squad won the Big West Conference championship and appeared in that year’s NCAA Tournament.
Rzepczynski was drafted in the fifth round by the Toronto Blue Jays. He made his Major League debut in 2009, against the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays, when he gave up two hits, walked four and struck out seven in six innings of work.
He became a world champion after being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in the summer of 2011. That fall, the Cards won it all, beating the Texas Rangers in seven games. Rzepczynski appeared in four games, striking out four of the 10 batters he faced. He was traded to the Cleveland Indians, his current team, in July 2013.
This year he’ll make $2.4 million. According to Cook, he’s earned every penny.
“Marc’s driving force was his work ethic,” he says. “That, more than anything, is what got him to the next level.”
Nevertheless, some things can’t be taught.
“God touches a few people with certain gifts,” says LaMonda, “and throwing 90 miles an hour from the left side is his.”
It doesn’t hurt that baseball is Rzepczynski’s passion.
“Playing the game,” says LaMonda, “is one thing he really loves to do.”