Pitching in: Position players take mound

Pitching in: Position players take mound

Taking the mound wasn't exactly Paul Janish's dream assignment, at least not once he'd reached the Major Leagues as a shortstop. While it wasn't Dusty Baker's greatest baseball nightmare, it's in the same ballpark.

Position players like to play positions. Managers like their pitchers to pitch. It's that simple.

But occasionally -- or as has been the case so far this season, frequently -- the two worlds collide, and a position player takes to the mound. It has happened five times this season, which is well on its way to more times than any season in decades.

The Reds' Janish was one of those making the strange walk up the hill recently, joining the Yankees' Nick Swisher, the Marlins' Cody Ross, the Red Sox's Jonathan Van Every and the D-backs' Josh Wilson as mound interlopers. None of the five came to the ballpark the day they pitched thinking they'd end up on the mound, that much is certain.

Janish was called upon in the ninth inning of the Reds' May 7 game against the Brewers. He gave up five runs in a 15-3 loss, but Baker said later that his outing was key to the Reds being able to get through a tough stretch of long games behind and no days off ahead.

"Believe it or not, Janish helped put us in sync that game. I didn't have to use more bullpen guys," Baker said. "It put us in stronger position to play St. Louis and (Arizona). I thanked him. I said 'Hey, man, you saved us.'"

That's generally the idea: The game's out of reach, so even if a reliever is available, why use him? Go with Janish -- or whoever.

That doesn't mean Baker wants to hurry up and try pitching Janish -- or any other position player -- any time soon.

"Hopefully not," Baker said. "I don't like taking that risk of injury. Plus, that means we're getting killed and way, way behind."

Janish, who was recruited to attend Rice as a pitcher, became the first Reds position player to pitch since Lenny Harris did it on June 1, 1998, at San Francisco. Baker didn't realize Janish's pitching past until his former Braves teammate and current scout Ralph Garr told him last month, and it didn't take long to give it a try.

Sticking mainly with fastballs between 88-91 mph, and topping out at 92 mph, Janish struck out the first batter he faced, J.J. Hardy, before the Brewers wound up reeling off the hits.

"I tried to run it across the plate. Unfortunately, that's what they were looking for," Janish said.

It's lines like that that are expected when a position player takes the ball and tries to make others miss what he usually tries to hit.

Swisher, who led off the recent fad with a shutout inning against the Rays on April 13, didn't allow a run while throwing 22 pitches, maxing out at 80 mph on the last pitch he threw.

"I'm walking out of my professional career with a 0.00 ERA," Swisher said.

A total of 107 position players have taken the mound since 1979, and roughly half of them (55) can boast the same thing. Then there's Janish's 45.00 ERA, among many that were more as expected.

The list of position players who have taken the mound includes Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, current managers Terry Francona of Boston and John Russell of Pittsburgh, and a host of names otherwise with otherwise unremarkable accomplishments. The current leader in appearances is Aaron Miles, infielder for the Cubs who got in three outings with the Cardinals the last two seasons.

With five instances already, this season's first six weeks have seen more position players pitching than most full seasons. While versatility is big these days, this isn't exactly what players or managers have in mind.

"I think it's just coincidental," Ross said this week, reflecting on his April 27 outing against the Phillies. "I don't think any manager wants to be put in that situation to have his position players have to go out there."

To Baker's point about injury, there's always the Jose Canseco example. In 1993, after asking Rangers manager Kevin Kennedy for months to pitch, he did -- and was out the remaining three months of the season with an elbow injury.

Recalls Rangers president Nolan Ryan, who was on that club: "I just remember how he had been politicking to pitch since Spring Training. He threw in the bullpen a few times and for some reason they wanted to get him on the hill. When he got out there, I think he was trying to overthrow. He was out there in front of everybody trying to show off his arm. He wanted to resemble a pitcher rather than do what we needed him to do and that was get us through the game."

And that's exactly the mission: Just get the team through the game. Damage most likely already has been done. Take one for the team.

"Bullpens are putting up a lot of innings. You have to save your bullets when you can. Those relief innings are precious," said new D-backs manager A.J. Hinch, who might have set some sort of record by going to the position player in his sixth game as manager.

Not that he intended to do it. And he admits it did have the added benefit of taking a little sting off a big loss. Wilson, who incidentally was designated for assignment after regular shortstop Stephen Drew returned from the DL two days later, had pitched an inning two years earlier for Tampa Bay and gave the D-backs a scoreless inning and a few chuckles at the end of a long game Monday.

"[It] is nothing to be proud of," Hinch said. "But it does get the bench to relax a little, have some fun. I guess there were a few more smiles at the end of the game."

Ross, for one, had fun. It was something he'd been targeting for some time now.

"I always said that I wanted to try it, just to see what I could do," Ross said. "I pitched in high school, but after (pitching in the Major League game) was over, I was like, 'All right, I'm good.' If the team needed me to do it, I would sacrifice and step up and do it, but maybe we could see if we could run someone else out there."

And how did his "fellow relievers" for the day feel about him working their side of the street?

"They were impressed," Ross said. "I was spotting my fastball a little bit (in the bullpen), threw some pretty good curveballs, a few good changeups. We were just having fun with it."

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. Reporters Tom Singer, Mark Sheldon, T.R. Sullivan and contributor J.R. Radcliffe contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.