Early in the morning on Tuesday May 6, Indianapolis Indians relief pitcher Phil Irwin was still up watching an extra-inning battle between the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants.
As the game wore on, Irwin became hopeful. The Pirates, the Indians’ major league affiliate, would use seven pitchers in the 13-inning contest – including then-former Indians starting pitcher Jeff Locke – in an 11-10 loss to the Giants.
At the time, the Indians were in Moosic, Penn., battling through a four-game series against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. As Irwin watched Pittsburgh’s game wear on through the early hours of the morning, his in-room hotel phone began to ring with Tribe manager Dean Treanor waiting on the other end of the line.
Irwin picked up the phone and listened in bemusement as Treanor told him he had tried calling his cell phone first.
“Well, I left it in Indianapolis in the bathroom when we flew out,” Irwin said, recalling what he told Treanor. “I haven’t had it in five days. (Treanor) was like, ‘Alright, well, you’re going to Pittsburgh.'”
It was the second time Irwin has been called up to the big leagues – the first roughly a year prior on April 14, 2013 – and much had changed since his MLB debut. Namely, the shutdown reliever was then working as a top-of-the rotation starter, until his recent injury caused a setback.
Last July, Irwin continued to feel a lingering discomfort and opted for ulnar nerve transposition surgery on his right elbow. He said the pain originated with a tingling and numbness in his fingers during his stint in Pittsburgh.
“I went out, just played catch and threw my bullpen,” Irwin said. “I just barely got through my bullpen, it was killing me.”
The Pirates sat Irwin out for two and a half weeks, hoping that the rest from the season would allow his arm to heal. As Irwin resumed his full workout and neared a return, the righty decided he wasn’t quite ready to rejoin the Club. Stated bluntly, he said, “No, I’m not doing it.”
Irwin attempted to ease back into his normal role, but following a lone rehab outing with Hi-A Bradenton, he decided to undergo surgery.
Fast forward through a successful 2014 spring training with the Pirates, and Irwin says his arms “feels good now.” But to meet the wear and tear from pitching, be it in a game or bullpen session, Irwin now heavily ices his right elbow and shoulder.
“It’s just part of my routine,” Irwin said. “I’ve been hurt a lot. I’m doing everything I can to keep my shoulder and elbow healthy.
“I really need to stay off the [disabled list] this year. If you’re not pitching then you’re not going to go up, you’re not going to accomplish a lot of things you want to accomplish.”
Back in his hotel room in Moosic, Irwin would wait just eight more hours before catching a connecting flight from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. As soon as he touched down, he hopped into a car from the Pirates’ vehicle service, raced to PNC Park and swung into the stadium just in time for the team’s pre-game stretching session.
Irwin spent two games with the Pirates, both of which saw starting pitchers Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole work eight innings. A self-described “long reliever,” Irwin’s revamped arm was kept in waiting out in the bullpen.
After the Pirates’ Wednesday afternoon game, Irwin was called into Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle’s office, where he was informed he would return to Triple-A Indianapolis to continue working out of the first-place team’s bullpen.
Despite not seeing any MLB action, Irwin said his recall to Pittsburgh put him at ease.
“I finally got to sit back and watch a couple games and realize it was just a normal game and nothing’s any different (between levels),” he said. “So as long as I go out there and pitch my game, I can have success.”
Irwin’s game included two starts for the Indians this season before shifting to a fulltime bullpen role for the first time of his career. On Sunday, May 11, against the visiting Norfolk Tides, Irwin pitched two scoreless innings while picking up his first career save – “On any level of baseball,” he said.
Irwin has appeared in nine Indians games this year as of May 13. After seeing his ERA balloon to 17.65 through his first four appearances, Irwin has come into his own as a reliever, allowing just one run over his last five games and 12.2 innings pitched.
This month alone, Irwin was yet to give up either a run or walk in 7.1 IP, while striking out eight.
The right-hander said he likes the adrenaline that relief-pitching offers, suggesting it puts him in the zone faster than operating as a starting pitcher. That, plus he also knows relief pitching may take him back up to Pittsburgh this season.
Taking his two MLB games in stride, Irwin has seen things begin to fall in place as he progresses through the campaign: He says his arm feels great. He’s pitching better. Now he just needs an opportunity.
“If we end up making a run at it to October, I want to be a part of that.”