Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Brad Kilby, RP

For Brad Kilby, 2009 started off like a nightmare, but finished like a dream. Kilby began the year wondering if he was ever going to take the mound again after he was struck in the head by a line-drive while playing in the winter leagues. He was able to recover and put together the best season of his career, which culminated with his major league debut. We caught-up with him on Wednesday for a Q&A

For many teams around baseball, finding seven competent relievers to fill out a bullpen is a struggle. For the Oakland A's, selecting only seven relievers out of the group in big league camp to make the Opening Day roster will be a challenge. On many teams, a reliever coming off of a season in which he posted a 2.13 ERA at Triple-A and a 0.53 ERA in 17 big league innings would be all but guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster. However, the A's have arguably the most bullpen depth in the American League. The team is returning nearly all of the main relievers from the bullpen that led the American League in ERA in 2009 and is adding a reliever who posted an ERA under 1.00 in 2008. Making the A's Opening Day roster might be a challenge, but Brad Kilby has been meeting challenges throughout his professional career.

Kilby first had to overcome the stigma that comes with being a low round pick, having been selected in the 29th round in 2005 out of San Jose State. The Northern California native has answered doubters every season since then, never posting an ERA higher than 3.47 in any professional campaign. In five minor league seasons, Kilby has 2.53 ERA and 339 strike-outs in 295.2 innings. He also posted a 1.64 ERA in the Arizona Fall League in 2007.

After a strong 2008 season with Triple-A Sacramento, Kilby looked poised to be added to the A's 40-man roster that off-season. However, he was struck in the head by a line-drive while playing in the Dominican Winter League and it was unclear as late as January 2009 whether he would ever be able to play baseball again. Kilby was able to get back on the mound by spring training and he didn't miss a beat during the 2009 season, posting a 2.13 ERA with the River Cats. That performance earned him a September call-up and he took full advantage of his opportunity with the A's. In 17 innings, Kilby allowed only one earned run. He struck-out 20, walked only four and allowed only 10 hits.

This spring Kilby is competing in his first big league spring training for an opportunity to be on the A's Opening Day roster. We caught-up with Kilby on Wednesday to get his thoughts on the first few days of camp, his big league debut, overcoming the head injury and more…

OaklandClubhouse: How have the first couple of days of big league camp gone? Were they what you expected going in?

Brad Kilby: Yeah, the first couple of days have been short and sweet. We had some rain the first couple of days, so we pretty much played catch and did our conditioning and stuff. We didn't really get into any drills. I was kind of expecting it to be short and sweet and it has been. We have been broken up pretty much into four groups and we've done three PFP [pitcher fielding practice] stations and there has been a lecture station. It is pretty similar to how minor league camp is run. The stations [in minor league camp] are about 20 minutes long and these have been about 10 to 15 minutes long. Like I said, it's been nice and short and sweet. You get in and get out and get ready for the next day.

OC: You spent all of September with the big league club, but was there any nervousness coming into camp because it was your first big league camp, or do you feel completely comfortable because of that time you spent with the A's last season?

BK: Walking into the lockerroom the first day, I definitely had some butterflies. Once we started stretching and once I started mingling with the guys a little bit more – guys I hadn't seen in a couple of months – once I started doing that, I settled right down. I feel completely comfortable with these guys right now and everybody is making me feel right at home.

OC: Was your off-season any different being on a 40-man roster for the first time?

BK: Yeah, it was a lot different. I didn't have to get an off-season job for the first time, which was really nice, and I wasn't recovering from an injury like I was the previous off-season, so I was able to get a lot of working out in. I work out at a place called Results, which is where Max Stassi [A's 2009 fourth round pick and non-roster invitee to big league spring training] and Justin Souza [current member of A's 40-man roster] worked out. Most of the professional baseball players from the Sacramento area work out there. I was able to be with those guys and get ready for the season. They got me ready to go. It was nice to be able to concentrate solely on baseball and not have to worry about another income or something like that.

OC: Going back to last season, what was it like when you heard from [Sacramento manager] Tony [DeFrancesco] or whoever it was that you were finally getting that call to the big leagues?

BK: Oh, man, it was unbelievable. First off, we were in Reno, Nevada. In my entire career, there have been two pitchers who have pitched in the game and then gotten called up to another level that day. Those pitchers were Jeff Gray in 2006 and Jay Marshall last year. So it was about the seventh inning and RickyRod [Sacramento pitching coach Rick Rodriguez] called down to the bullpen and said, ‘get Scott Patterson ready for the eighth and [Sam] Demel's got the ninth.' I was thinking to myself, ‘man, if there is a chance that I am going up, it has got to be today.' Then whoever was pitching, I can't remember who was pitching, he got into a jam and Ricky calls down again and says, ‘get Kilby ready for Eric Byrnes,' who was on-deck. I was down in the bullpen and I was not happy [laughs]. I got ready quick and came in and got Eric Byrnes out and I think I got the first two outs of the next inning and then Tony pulled me.

So I went into the lockerroom and after the game Tony called a team meeting. We knew guys were being called up [it was August 31st, the day before major leauge rosters expand]. We figured that Jerry Blevins was one of them because he was already on the 40-man and the A's needed bullpen help. Tony starts talking about the game because Chris Carter hit three homeruns that game and that doesn't happen that often. He's like, ‘that is something that you guys are going to remember for the rest of your lives.' Then he said, ‘we have three guys going up, one of them for the first time.' I was standing right next to [Travis] Buck. Tony looked right at me when he said that, but the guy standing to my left was Henry [Rodriguez, who hadn't made his major league debut yet]. I kind of was like, ‘oh, he's already on the 40-man roster, so maybe it is him.' [Tony] starts going on and on, and this was like 10 minutes later, [laughs] and finally he goes, ‘tomorrow, Kilby, you are going to be pitching for the Oakland A's at the Oakland Coliseum, putting on that uniform. It is going to be the best feeling ever.'

I broke down and kind of lost it. I started crying and all the guys were giving me hugs. It was an unbelievable feeling. I went outside and immediately called my mom and dad and my brother and sister and all of my family who have supported me all of the way coming up. It was the biggest moment of my entire life, no doubt about it. The only things that may top it someday is maybe getting married and having a kid. I can't imagine anything else that special. It was something that I will always remember and the way that Tony did it was perfectly fine with me. [laughs]

OC: Your debut was against Kansas City at home and you threw two pretty much clean innings. Did getting off to a good start catapult you to the outstanding month that you had?

BK: Yeah, it was pretty smooth sailing. We had a 10-3 lead, so there wasn't really any pressure on me. I was throwing to Landon [Powell, A's back-up catcher] in my first outing and I had thrown to him a few times in my career. He comes out and it was a day game, so there were maybe 7,000 people there and the stadium is huge. He comes out and says, ‘don't let this huge crowd distract you.' I started laughing and he says, ‘hey, let's just throw the heater. I might not even put a sign down. Let's see what these guys can do with your fastball.' He had the confidence in my fastball and my stuff. That gave me confidence. It was a nice feeling.

The first batter I faced was actually my catcher in the Dominican league [Brayan Pena] when I went down there. I kind of knew he was a first ball hitter. I just threw a fastball on the outer-half and he hit a routine fly ball to Rajai [Davis] and the rest was history. As soon as that first out was made, total relaxation set in. I was like, ‘if I can get these guys out, I can get anyone out.' I started believing in myself and things took off.

OC: You put together a string of innings for the A's that were as impressive as any reliever is going to have during a season and the team started to turn to you in late-game situations. When you started pitching in those situations, did your feelings change on the mound at all or was each outing the same for you regardless of the situation?

BK: I treated every outing pretty much the same. I really wasn't nervous. I can honestly say that the time I was the most nervous in the big leagues was when I faced Ken Griffey, Jr. I was standing on the mound and he was the first batter I faced in Seattle when I came in for [Clay] Mortensen in the second inning. I came in to face Griffey and I was thinking, ‘oh my God, I am facing a first-ballot Hall of Famer.' I was thinking, ‘just don't hit him and don't become another number for his homerun total.' [laughs] And then I ended up striking him out.

Every time I went out there, it seemed like I would let go of that first pitch and it would be a strike and everything would calm down after that. I can't really say that I was really nervous. I can definitely say that I was nervous warming up the first time, and, like I said, when I faced Griffey. But other than that, everything just seemed to be so smooth and so much fun. The clubhouse was great. I knew every guy in there. I think it would have been a little different if I was playing for the Yankees or the Red Sox or something where they had the sell-out crowds and all of the old veterans. But being able to come up with the A's and play with all of the guys that I came up with, I couldn't have asked for a better situation.

OC: What does it mean for you being basically a local guy to have friends and family be able to watch you on a regular basis at the Coliseum?

BK: It was awesome. There is really no other word to describe it. The first game I walked out, I wasn't really expecting to pitch and I didn't, but still, there were a hundred people there to see me that first day. I'm walking out to the bullpen and I am walking next to Andrew Bailey and we get to about two sections over from the bullpen and they all stand up and start clapping for me and yelling my name. Bailey kind of stopped and let me walk by myself and I was just like, ‘oh my God.' I'll be honest with you, my smile was so big. It was pretty awesome. The next day when I did get in there was probably about 40 or 50 people there and every one of them were standing up when I came in. My brother said my dad was crying. All of that hard work, it finally paid off. When you are so close to your family and friends, for them to be able to enjoy the moment with you, it was pretty special.

OC: Was it good for you to be able to work with [A's bullpen coach] Ron Romanick again after he was the minor league pitching coordinator for so many of your years in the minors?

BK: Yeah, absolutely. It wasn't someone I hadn't worked with. It wasn't someone I didn't know. I knew him, he knew me. He definitely helped the transition to the big leagues. He helped me out a lot. He just got me comfortable down there in the bullpen, as did guys like Brad Ziegler and Craig Breslow and Michael Wuertz. Those guys were all instrumental in my success. They helped me out by showing me how it works down there. Just being able to learn from those guys was great.

It was really just an unbelievable 30 or so days. Obviously I hope I get back. I hope I break camp [with the team], but those 30 or 40 days, until I get back [to the big leagues], are going to stick with me. It's definitely going to push me until I get back there.

OC: What is your mindset right now? The bullpen might be the strongest part of the team. Is there a sense of competition between all of the guys vying for those seven or so spots?

BK: There is definitely going be a competition. I am expecting it to pick up a little bit here when we start playing some games. But if you were to ask who my closest friend is on the team right now, I'd say Jerry Blevins is in the top three or four guys who I am closest with and he's one of the guys I am competing with. There is definitely going to be a competition here coming up, but right now, we are all on the same side. You can't really score that many points right now. It will definitely pick up, but right now, it is pretty low key between us.

OC: Are there things that you brought with you from last season that you wanted to work on, or are you just trying to maintain what you did last year?

BK: I'm pretty much just trying to maintain what I did last year. Last year RickyRod made a mechanical adjustment with my hands where I came set. I'm just trying to repeat my delivery and continue what I was doing. My slider has been a little bit better than it was last year, so maybe I'll keep working on that. Other than that, I am just working to refine my pitches to get back to where I was last year.

OC: You mentioned last year that your velocity was a little bit better. Was that because of the mechanical adjustment or something else do you think?

BK: I really don't know. It could be that my arm is still relatively fresh compared to some of these guys because I didn't pitch a lot growing up. I really didn't pitch until my junior year of college. I don't know. My velocity has improved every year and I am hoping obviously that it will keep going up. I didn't get to workout last [off-season], so theoretically I should be throwing harder this year. We'll see what happens. I don't know if it was a combination of the mechanical adjustments or if it was just the adrenaline of pitching at home in Sacramento and being able to play the game of baseball some more because I really didn't know if I was ever going to be able to play again going into January of last year.

OC: Were there any lingering effects from being hit in the head? Was that something that Brad Ziegler was able to help you overcome or was it something that you had to face yourself the first time you were on the mound?

BK: I kind of just got back on the mound and got rid of the fear. Me and Ziegler talked a little bit about it and he said that you have to have no fear and you have to get back out there and do what you have to do and make your pitches and think that it was a freak accident and hope that it won't happen again. I took a couple of shots back up the middle where the balls avoided me. Actually, in that same outing where I struck out Griffey, Adrian Beltre hit a ball back up the middle. My parents and my brother taped all of the games and so I had a chance to go back and watch it and I was definitely way behind. If it had hit me, I probably would have been done. But you just have to block it out and hope it doesn't happen again and make your pitches and hope that good things happen.

OC: When you look back to draft day [when he was taken in the 29th round in 2005], could you ever have imagined that your career arc would have taken you to the big leagues as quickly as it did having been a lower round pick like that?

BK: I have always believed in myself and my ability to play. In my eyes, I was probably drafted 10 rounds lower than I should have been. I always thought maybe I could make it to the big leagues. When I was drafted, I looked and I knew that Stockton was the High-A team and I knew that Sacramento was the Triple-A team [for Oakland]. From day one, I told myself that my goal was to get to the big leagues. Every time I climbed a level, my confidence just kept growing and growing.

Like I said, I've always believed in my ability. I have always wanted to prove people wrong. When I got drafted in the 29th round, I was thinking, ‘oh, they thought that 880 players – I think was number 881 – they thought 880 players this year were better than me.' I was pretty much ready at that point to prove every single person who doubted me wrong. When you get drafted that low and your numbers indicate that maybe you should have been drafted higher, it kind of makes you work harder. It just makes you believe in yourself a little bit more when you have that success.

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