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When pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in mid-February, Diamondbacks right-hander Kevin Ginkel was one of roughly 25 relievers competing for an Opening Day roster spot.
Ginkel had a leg up on most of his competitors, to be sure. After spending most of the 2022 season in Triple-A Reno, he performed admirably in a late-season stint in the majors. From Aug. 1 through the end of the year, he posted a 3.38 ERA and 1.30 WHIP with 30 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings.
Even so, when spring training began, he was assured nothing. As a former 22nd-round pick, he rarely ever has.
The Diamondbacks drafted Ginkel in 2016 out of the University of Arizona. A San Diego native, Ginkel did not get any Division I scholarship offers in high school. His collegiate career began at Southwestern College, a JuCo close to home.
Ginkel was drafted twice while pitching for Southwestern, first by the San Francisco Giants in the 16th round in 2014, then by the Boston Red Sox in the 26th round in 2015. He did not sign with either team, instead setting his sights on an opportunity to pitch in D1.
In 2016, he got exactly that at the University of Arizona. Not only did Ginkel play D1 baseball, but he was a key contributor on a Wildcats team that went all the way to the College World Series. During the regular season, he went 5-1 with a 2.80 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 25 appearances (seven starts), covering 64 1/3 innings.
Ginkel was still not viewed as a top draft prospect, however. Hence, he was available to the Diamondbacks in the 22nd round — six rounds later than the Giants had selected him two years prior.
After a relatively smooth ascension through the minors, Ginkel burst on the scene in 2019 with a 1.48 ERA in 24 1/3 innings in his first taste of the majors. That success did not last, though. From 2020-21, he tallied a 6.50 ERA over 51 appearances.
Two years later, Ginkel assembled one of the better seasons ever by a Diamondbacks reliever. In 65 1/3 innings in 2023, he tallied a 2.48 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and .179 opponent batting average.
Even more impressive than his regular season performance was how he pitched in the postseason. As the setup man for closer Paul Sewald, he pitched 11 2/3 scoreless innings with 15 strikeouts.
“There were a few times in that postseason,” Ginkel said Thursday on the PHNX D-backs Podcast, “where it could have gotten a little hairy. But, for the most part, just tried to control my emotions and not get too far deep and just really stay focused and locked in pitch to pitch.
“With my stuff, I can get a lot of guys out … I was locating as best as I ever have really throughout my career. I was getting some good swings and misses, weak contact. I just felt like, whoever was up there, I just felt confident enough to get him out.”
While Ginkel seemed to succeed in holding his emotions in check on the mound, he had no issue showing the world how he felt in some of his biggest moments.
In Game 1 of the Wild Card Series in Milwaukee, for example, Ginkel tossed two scoreless innings with four strikeouts, helping the Diamondbacks to an impressive comeback win. His roar coming off the mound in the eighth was plenty loud enough for the ESPN broadcast to pick up.
Ginkel’s end-of-outing celebration was perhaps even more spirited in Game 7 of the NLCS, when he retired the Phillies’ No. 2 through No. 6 hitters consecutively. In so doing, he brought the Diamondbacks within three outs of the World Series.
“That was special,” Ginkel said. “I think any big leaguer or any ball player wants to be in that role, right? They want to have the ball in a tight game. I just kind of accepted it and was like, you know, I control what happens here.
“If I execute my pitches, I’m going to make them look silly because they were behind. It was Game 7. I feel like they had the pressure on them.”
After getting Trea Turner and Bryce Harper to fly out to end the seventh, Ginkel did, in fact, make Phillies hitters look silly in the eighth. The first hitter of the inning, Alec Bohm, whiffed at a down-and-away slider for strike three. He slammed his bat in disgust, slicing it in two pieces.
“The Bohm at-bat, I felt like, set the tone,” Ginkel said. “He slammed his bat and I was like, ‘I got him right where I want him.’
“It developed some confidence.”
For as good as Ginkel’s 2023 season was when all was said and done, it was not without its hiccups along the way.
On Opening Day at Dodger Stadium — in the first regular-season game in Diamondbacks history with a pitch clock in place — Ginkel was issued a warning for starting his delivery too early.
He made the same mistake on the next pitch, resulting in an automatic ball and the first pitch timer violation in Diamondbacks history.
Ginkel escaped that outing without giving up an earned run, but he allowed three earned runs in an inning of work two days later. He wound up posting a 6.43 ERA in his first eight appearances of the year.
Over a roughly two-month span after that, however, he was lights out. From April 19 through June 11, Ginkel had a 1.61 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .539 OPS. It was then that he learned that he was being sent down. He had a 2.76 ERA at the time.
“It was hard,” Ginkel said. “One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It wasn’t performance-based, they just had to make a move.
“We had won the game I pitched in and it was like, ‘I get it, but I don’t.’ I don’t think I ever will.”
Based purely on numbers, Ginkel should not have been the odd man out. But he had minor league options remaining, and that was the decision that was made.
Ginkel threw five innings in June with Triple-A Reno. He did not allow a run and struck out 11. By June 27, he was back in the majors.
When he returned, he visited Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo’s office. Lovullo had a message for him.
“Sometimes, we make mistakes,” Lovullo said of Ginkel’s demotion earlier that month. “And that was a mistake.”
Before long, Ginkel became one of Lovullo’s most relied-upon backend relievers. On July 18-19, he converted back-to-back saves on the road against the Atlanta Braves.
“That Braves series kind of helped put a stamp on my season,” Ginkel said. “It was a moment for me to kind of be like, ‘Hey, I can pitch in big games for this team, especially against the best team, I think, in baseball.'”
That Braves series did not come and go without incident, though. In the latter of those games, Ginkel entered to protect a 5-2 lead in the ninth. Ronald Acuna Jr. doubled to start the frame and eventually advanced to third with two outs.
Acuña took a hefty lead, and, despite still having a three-run lead, Ginkel walked off the mound and toward Acuña until the eventual NL MVP had returned to third base.
“We’ll get that tightened up,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo told reporters after the game. “Acuña was doing everything he was supposed to do. Kevin shouldn’t have paid any attention to that.”
Ginkel shared more on the incident on Thursday on the PHNX D-backs Podcast.
“I thought he was gonna steal home,” Ginkel said. “No one was really covering third base, and I know we had a 5-2 game … I just didn’t wanna get posterized.
“He was halfway down the line, and I saw him. I just kind of like walk him back to the bag. No words were said, really. But I was just kind of letting him know, ‘Hey, I’m acknowledging you, you’re really good. I don’t want you to run on me.’
“I just felt like we kind of have to stand up. Whether it’s me, if I’m right or wrong, whatever. I just felt like we can’t be afraid.”
Whether Ginkel was in the right or not, Acuña scored shortly thereafter on a passed ball. The Diamondbacks won the game anyway, and Ginkel’s confidence continued to soar.
From that series in Atlanta through the end of the year, Ginkel was a consistent go-to option in high-leverage situations. Ultimately, he was the best reliever on a team that went to the World Series.
For a pitcher drafted in the 22nd round, guaranteed nothing in spring and sent to Reno in June, it was a remarkable season.
“I’ve just never given up on myself,” Ginkel said.
“I didn’t really pay attention to what people were talking about me. I knew I wasn’t the first-round pick. I knew I wasn’t that guy. But I felt like, for me, I just carried a chip on my shoulder. I feel like that propelled me.
“I never got that big signing bonus, but I felt like I had the support and love of my family and my friends. I was doing something I love to do and I kind of just had to keep believing and keep working and not get deterred by what else was going on around me.
“A big-league career is never linear. There’s ups and downs … especially with the bullpen. It can be extremely hard. But I think it’s more just about being grateful and having that quiet confidence.”
Top photo: Rob Schumacher
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