In an era of specialized bullpens, Clemson’s Firth carves out an unusual role

While Clemson pitcher Scott Firth is the team’s No. 1 relief option, he is not the designated closer, a role usually reserved for a team’s top relief pitcher.

CLEMSON — The discovery of Scott Firth as Clemson’s relief ace came by accident.

There was no defined role for Firth in early March as the Tigers tried to avoid being swept by rival South Carolina. Clemson trailed the Gamecocks 4-2 after five innings in the series finale when Clemson coach Jack Leggett removed starter Kevin Pohle and turned to a bullpen that had combined to throw 11 innings on Friday and Saturday. Firth, who had yet to pitch in the series, received the call.

The junior right-hander had struggled in his opportunities to start games as a freshman and sophomore. Leggett thought Firth tended to think too much about his upcoming starts and was better-suited for the bullpen, where pitchers are on call, not on appointment. With Clemson experimenting with a number of young power pitchers in late innings, Firth was left with the least glamorous of bullpen assignments — middle relief.

These variables created the environment for Firth to become a relief ace on March 4 against the defending national champions. Firth allowed one run over the final four innings against South Carolina, allowing Clemson to rally for a win. The appearance marked the start of 231/3 consecutive scoreless innings by Firth.

While Firth is the team’s No. 1 relief option, he is not the designated closer, a role usually reserved for a team’s top relief pitcher. Rather, Firth is a relief ace, called upon to enter games at crucial moments, extinguish fires and pitch multiple innings. It is an unusual role in today’s specialized bullpens.

“I’ve tried to look at my role as more of a stopper,” Firth said. “Be pretty much ready for any situation at any point in the game.”

The “save” statistic effectively ended the era of the relief ace.

Saves became an official statistic in Major League Baseball in 1969, 10 years after Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman suggested the statistic as a way to measure the value of relief pitchers.

The most common way to earn a save is to enter a game in the ninth inning with a lead of no more than three runs and secure the win.

The save has influenced baseball strategy ever since its creation. The best relievers evolved into one-inning specialists summoned not for critical mid-to-late inning jams, but to pitch in the final inning when ahead. Many of baseball’s analytical followers have called for managers to use their best relievers in the most critical moments of the game, whether it’s the fifth inning or the eighth, and to use those pitchers for multiple innings.

They have sought more players like Firth, and for more coaches willing to employ them.

“If you have a tight situation you have to go after it with your best guy,” said Leggett, who has used closers and relief aces.

Said pitching coach Dan Pepicelli of Firth’s role: “It just kind of happened. You get so much confidence when the game gets sticky and you’re looking for that guy, and it turns out that guy has been Scott.”

One element that makes Firth a perfect relief ace is his ability to maintain his velocity for multiple innings.

At Duke earlier this month, Firth pitched the final five innings to secure Clemson’s 11-inning, one-run win.

The following weekend against N.C. State, Firth allowed one earned run in the final 61/3 innings to earn another win. He threw 110 pitches and his last fastball had more zip – 94 mph — than his first.

“What we have seen from Scotty is once he is in the game he can get the big out and he can extend a little bit,” Pepicelli said. “He doesn’t burn out.”

Firth’s previous experience as a starter has aided him in his transformation to relief pitcher. He has not only the experience of throwing multiple innings, but the four-pitch arsenal of a starter.

Said Firth: “When guys get to see you a couple times through the order it helps to have those other pitches.”

Perhaps what makes Firth an effective relief pitcher is his ability to always be ready.

“Duke was one of those deals where it was a one-run game the whole time, where one base hit and a bunt and you need your reliever now,” Pepicelli said.

It is emotional and mental growth that Pepicelli credits as changing Firth from being the erratic starter into Clemson’s relief ace.

“The stuff has always there,” Pepicelli said. “Now he has absolute confidence and calm.”