Lefty Josh Spence aims for spot in Miami Marlins bullpen
03/04/2014 12:01 AM
07/31/2014 5:15 PM
A shipment of Vegemite is on its way to Jupiter, and Josh Spence can’t wait to get his hands on the food spread, a favorite among his fellow Australians and an item found in the lyrics of a popular Men at Work song from the 1980s.
“I left it in the fridge at home and forgot to pack it on the last day,” Spence said. “It’ll be here soon.”
Should the left-hander win a bullpen spot with the Marlins, he said he’ll share some with his teammates, just as he did a couple of years ago when he was a rookie with the San Diego Padres. Just don’t expect any of them to take a liking to it.
“I haven’t found an American yet who likes it,” Spence said.
Spence wouldn’t be the first Australian to play for the Marlins. That distinction belongs to Graeme Lloyd, another left-handed reliever who was with the team the first half of the 2002 season before being traded.
But Spence, who is nicknamed “Mate,” would give the Marlins another crafty lefty in the Randy Choate mold, a soft-throwing reliever who throws from the side and is especially difficult against left-handed bats. In 51 games over two seasons (2011-12) with the Padres, he held left-handers to a .158 average.
Though he doesn’t bring the heat, his slurve ball is tough to hit.
ESPN baseball analyst Keith Law once wrote that Spence is adept at “keeping hitters so off balance that some of them end up swinging like they’re trying to cut through underbrush with scythes.”
For Spence, 26, his baseball odyssey began in Australia when he failed at traditional sports there — cricket and Australian football — and saw a flyer about playing T-ball when he was in first grade. He fell in love with baseball and became so good at it that he was put in men’s leagues when he was 14.
But it was on a trip to the U.S. — “a graduation gift from my parents” — when he caught his big break. He auditioned at a pitcher/catcher camp at Arizona State.
“It just so happened there was a junior college coach in the stands, John Wente at Central Arizona,” Spence said. “He saw me throw a pen and asked if I was interested in playing. He offered me a scholarship, and I ended up playing two years there before going to Arizona State.”
The Padres drafted Spence in the ninth round in 2010 and he worked his way up to the big-league club the following year, appearing in 40 games and going 0-2 with a 2.73 ERA. The Padres lost him after the 2012 season to the New York Yankees, who claimed him off waivers.
Spence spent last season at the Yankees’ Triple A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The Marlins signed him over the winter as a non-roster player and invited him to major league camp.
In his spring debut on Saturday against the Mets, Spence pitched two scoreless innings and worked out of a jam in one of them when — after walking two Mets hitters — induced an inning-ending double-play grounder.
Marlins general manager Dan Jennings said Spence is among a handful of candidates competing for the second lefty spot in the bullpen. Unlike the others, though, Spence doesn’t have a fastball that dazzles.
“We view it one of two ways,” Jennings said. “You either throw above the hitting speed. Or you throw below the hitting speed. He falls into the latter. But he commands it. That’s the key.”
Said Spence in a soft, Aussie accent: “I think I kind of put my ego aside a little bit and understood that throwing 90 or 92 mile an hour fastballs wasn’t in my fortunes. I just went with what my strengths and developed.”
Jennings said that if it was up to the radar gun to decide, Spence wouldn’t catch many eyes.
“There’s something to be said for not measuring guys like him,” Jennings said. “Evaluate them. If you measure them, they’re going to fail the test. If you evaluate them, they have a chance to pass. Everybody likes the guy who throws hard. But the most important thing for a pitcher is to get outs.”
If Spence records enough of them this spring and finds himself in the Marlins’ bullpen, he’ll be treating everyone to Vegemite.
“I actually have a shirt that says ‘I Love Vegemite,’” he said. “But I haven’t worn it yet.”
Jacob Turner made his spring training debut Monday, allowing a run in two innings of a 4-0 loss to the Houston Astros. The Marlins are counting on Turner to have a better spring than the one he had last year, when he struggled and ended up starting the season in the minors.
Turner gave up a first-inning home run Monday to the Astros' Matt Krauss. But manager Mike Redmond said Turner looked “crisp,” otherwise. It was a lack of offense that ended up costing the Marlins, who mustered only four hits all game.
COMING UP• Tuesday — Marlins RHP Tom Koehler vs. Minnesota Twins RHP Phil Hughes, 1:05 p.m., Jupiter.
• Wednesday — Marlins RHP Jose Fernandez at New York Mets (pitcher to be announced), 1:10 p.m., Port St. Lucie.
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