Gronkiewicz holds unique role on Team USA

Oct. 25, 2007

By Conor Nicholl/MLB.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Lee Gronkiewicz was never drafted. He isn’t a prototype relief pitcher with a tall build, a mid-90s fastball and a nasty breaking ball. On Team USA, Gronkiewicz’s name isn’t as eye-popping as elite prospects Evan Longoria, Delwyn Young and Chris Perez.

But he holds a unique role on Team USA. And he understands that role.

Gronkiewicz, a Blue Jays prospect and one of the Minors’ best relievers, is the only returning member of the 2006 Team USA squad.

Last year, Gronkiewicz was vital in Team USA’s gold medal-winning run in the Olympic qualifying tournament. He allowed three runs in five appearances (five innings) and -– in front of 45,000 screaming Cubans in the final game –- pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings and earned the win over Cuba.

On a young team with few players that have international or Major League service time, Gronkiewicz’s experience is important to Team USA’s success. On Tuesday, he had a message for general manager Bob Watson.

“The first thing [Lee] said was ‘I will talk to them about playing in front of 45,000 people,’” Watson recalled. “Because let’s face it, most of these guys haven’t played in front of that many people.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, Gronkiewicz hadn’t spoken to his teammates yet, but he had an outline for his speech.

“It’s a game,” Gronkiewicz said. “It’s exactly what they were playing in Little League. Those guys who bought tickets to come to the game, they can say whatever they want to say. They can make as much noise as they want to, but you just have to go out there and play. ... and execute.”

Gronkiewicz impresses at every level

That’s been Gronkiewicz’s (pronounced Gron-K-vitch) mantra his entire career. He hasn’t worried what fans, prognosticators, scouts and baseball personnel have said about his skills and body type. He simply succeeds.

Gronkiewicz, a right-hander, is 5-foot-11 and weighs 180 pounds. He throws a fastball, curve, slurve, split-finger fastball and a cutter.

The fastball runs at 87-89 miles an hour and he will hit 91 “once or twice a season.” The cutter is his best pitch. He raises more comparisons to Indians’ closer Joe Borowski, a pitcher who works more on guile than results, than fireballer Jonathan Papelbon.

“He doesn’t fit the prototype of the 6-foot-5 inch closer,” said Ray Tanner, Gronkiewicz’s college coach at South Carolina, said. “But we are talking about a results-oriented guy. Lee has put up numbers at every level.”

Gronkiewicz has a 2.48 ERA in seven Minor League seasons. In 2007, he posted a 6-3 record and a 2.41 ERA at two Minor League levels. His 8.3/1 strikeout to walk rate this year ranked fourth among all Minor League relievers. Gronkiewicz made his Major League debut on June 19 and pitched four innings of one-run ball in his only appearance.

“Every single level, they had me at a full season at each level and I always pitched good enough that they kept on moving me up,” Gronkiewicz said. “I will probably start at Triple-A in 2008, but that is all up to [Toronto general manager] J.P. Ricciardi and hopefully I will be able to fill in with more than one appearance next year.”

Gronkiewicz starts new role

At age four, Gronkiewicz started pitching to his dad in his front lawn. Self-taught, Gronkiewicz knew that he had to throw consistent strikes and create deception to have success. He tinkered with different motions and eventually formed his signature Dontrelle Willis-esque leg kick that he still uses today.

“I was always trying to hit [my dad’s] mitt and trying to find whatever it is mechanically-wise that allows me to do that,” he said. “My leg kind of comes back to the shortstop a little bit and I get a little twist. Hitters say is it is tough to pick up and they pick it up real late. … That is just natural, what felt good with me.

It is has kind of just developed over the years. It started out just a little bit and then it developed more and more. It just kept on going and going.”

Gronkiewicz took his mid-80s fastball and leg kick to a junior college. He began his career as a starter but had problems in the fifth and sixth innings. One time, his coach asked if wanted to try closing. Gronkiewicz found a new role.

He closed at South Carolina, too. In 2001, he earned All-American honors and led the nation in saves.

“He attacked hitters with both sides of the plate and could locate pretty good,” Tanner said. “He had the closer mentality and would go right after you with fastball and breaking ball.”

But it didn’t yield a draft slot. Gronkiewicz went undrafted –- the only player on Team USA who wasn’t picked -– and signed with Cleveland when Tanner called scout (now assistant general manager) John Mirabelli. Gronkiewicz was sent to Rookie ball as a 22-year-old and referred to himself as “someone who took care of the pitching staff,” a staff that mainly consisted of 18-year-olds straight from high school.

But Gronkiewicz morphed from caretaker into a dominant pitcher. He succeeded at every level and was selected by the Blue Jays in the 2004 Rule 5 Draft. Coupled with his leg kick and stuff, Gronkiewicz succeeded on a simple philosophy: stay low in the strike zone.

“It’s like [Blue Jays pitching coach] Brad Arnsburg says: Pound down,” Gronkiewicz said. “If you pitch at the knees, you can miss over the middle of the plate. You want to work down in the zone and work on the corners separately.”

Gronkiewicz joins Team USA:

In 2006, Gronkiewicz received a call from Paul Seiler, executive director for USA Baseball, asking if he would like to play for Team USA.

“At that point, it was the highlight of my career,” Gronkiewicz said. “I didn’t even think I would even be mentioned for that. To go over there for Cuba and to represent my country, you can’t say enough about that.”

Gronkiewicz, who posted a 3.27 ERA in 2006, continued his success with Team USA in Cuba. He entered into several tough situations and, using his average stuff, high leg kick and pitching philosophy, just kept coaxing outs and yielding results.

He wasn’t fazed by the crowds, especially the baseball-hungry Cubans who wanted nothing more than to beat Team USA in the gold medal game. Gronkiewicz kept calm and followed his mantra.

“It was a tough situation every single time in a close game and I didn’t have time to be nervous,” he said. “I had to go out there and execute pitches. I threw a lot of cutters, a lot of sliders, a lot of curveballs. Whatever I had that day, that is what I threw out there.”

A year later, he is the elder statesman for Team USA, a player with a unique story to tell, a story that can help the young squad win in Taiwan.

“[Gronkiewicz’s experience] is important,” Watson said. “When these guys are going to dinner together, or rooming together or playing video games together or playing rock, paper, scissors, they know what is going on and know what to expect. It is a very valuable experience.”

Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com.