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Drafted as a starter, the 26-year-old Pope spent three and a half seasons where he started all across A-ball from the Penn league to the Midwest League to Tampa where he achieved notable success as a starter posting a 20-20 record, but more noticeably a 2.64 ERA in that time.
Even with a .500 record, Pope’s knack for not letting too many runs cross the plate earned him a midseason promotion to Double-A Trenton in the middle of 2004. During his stay, Pope received his first extended time out of the bullpen. Such a transition for starters can be difficult because of the change in routine and some may view it as a demotion.
However, took the switch in stride, earning a season-long spot at Trenton in 2005 where he proved to be invaluable as the team’s closer. Pope was lights out as the Thunder’s All-Star closer, ranking second in the Eastern League in saves (29) and games pitched (57). The 29 saves is current a Thunder record.
In his first year in Columbus and his second full season in the bullpen, Pope welcomes promotion but understands the difference of middle relief as opposed to closing games. Pope has yet to find his comfort zone in Clippers' pen but still remains confident.
“I was in the [bull]pen last year so I got used to being the guy getting called on late in games," Pope told us Monday night. "But this year, it could be anytime, so I’ve got to stay prepared and get locked in earlier."
Not by his own admission, but the reasoning behind Pope’s slow start to 2006 may be attributed to his middle relief position. Inheriting runners, as opposed to starting an inning, can create unforeseen problems for a pitchers psyche, yet Pope remains unraveled.
Pope carries a positive attitude about his new role, learning off of last year’s success.
”I like pitching out of the bullpen," Pope admitted. "I get a chance to pitch everyday, if I get a bad outing, the next day I go right back out there and do it again. If I have a good outing, I get the chance to keep rolling. If I go home and dwell on it and bring that back to the park the next day, everything could go downhill from there.”
To have consistent success out of the bullpen, a strong arm and a wide repertoire is essential. Positivism will carry Pope only so far. To reach the Majors for the first time in his five-year career, the right-hander must develop his stuff even further.
Currently, Pope possesses three pitches in the cupboard: fastball, slider and changeup. However, Pope’s fastball is routinely clocked only in the upper 80's, forcing him to rely on his other pitches.
As he attests, his slider is his out pitch and he commands a tricky changeup that spins in the upper 70's. To get “the call”, it is imperative that Pope develop that fourth, breaking pitch. For a pitcher with a medium grade fastball, the addition of a sinking pitch may be his ticket to the Majors.
Pope proved in 2005 that he is a steady arm in the bullpen, but that lacking dimension is holding him back. For right now, however, Pope remains focused on harnessing his current inventory.
”I just got to keep throwing strikes," Pope listed as his top priority. "My arm angle and mechanics are where I want them. I’m not the hardest throwing guy, so I’ve got to rely on my out pitches and mix in my fastball in an off-count to keep hitters guessing.”
Without that fourth pitch, Pope will need to be the Grand Inquisitor if he expects to reach the Majors at his pace.
It has been a testing career for Justin Pope. Even the mention of his first round draft status causes him to smirk in a reserved disbelief. The stigma of being a first round can retard a player’s development as seen by popular first round busts Rick Ankiel and Josh Hamilton.
Pope admitted when he was drafted he got wind of the stress and felt the Cardinals, the team that drafted him, were quick to judge his performance.
”When I first signed, I felt the pressure, it was hard not to," Pope revealed. "But 2001 is a long time ago. People, I suppose have forgotten about it. The guys you play with don’t think about it anymore,” said Pope, “but the scouts and all, had the belief ‘this guy is a first rounder, he’s got to throw 95-plus’, but that’s not me, that’s not my way. I don’t throw 95-plus and that may have been the trigger for them to draft me."
Officials within the organization have not forgotten his draft status which is why they saw potential in a younger Pope when they acquired him in a deal for Sterling Hitchcock in 2003. Three years later, Pope continues to improve but not to the level of a former first-rounder.
Pope’s excellence at different slots in the roster is not what will get him to the Majors. Although 2006 has been rocky for the right-hander so far, Pope has historically proven he can get outs, keep his ERA down, and close games.
What may determine his future is simply learning to expand his number of pitches. Until then, Pope will fulfill any need the Clippers desire whether it is in the bullpen or potentially spot starting.
”Whatever role they want me to succeed at, I’m ready. I’ve just go to stay strong, consistent and keep getting guys out and they’ll find a spot for me,” said Pope.
As a pitcher who has filled all spots on the roster, it is a hope of the organization that his first-round branding will one day pan out.
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