Q&A: Bobby Bell

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Perhaps unabated sentimentality is at the root of my fondness for all things Class of 2005. My first season covering Rice baseball coincided with the introduction of arguably the most talent-laden group of freshmen ever signed by The OG. As that class laid the foundation for successive College World Series appearances in 2006-08, I grew into the role of a writer. I charted their progress in lockstep with my own, and I still privately root for Savery, Henley, Lehman, Friday, Bramhall, CSC, Zornes and Bell to reap abundant professional success.

Bobby Bell was - and remains - one of my favorite Owls. He wasn't as ballyhooed as Savery, as gregarious as CSC, or as affable as Bramhall. Instead, he emitted a reserved confidence supported by fabulous statistics as a freshman (4-0, 2.77 ERA, 1 save, .191 BAA, 0.94 WHIP). While three-quarters of his 2005 appearances came as a reliever, Bell started 11 games (in 18 appearances) as a sophomore and was once again outstanding (8-0, 4.17 ERA, 3 saves, .269 BAA, 1.34 WHIP). His lone loss in a Rice uniform came in his only appearance of 2007, a dreary moment washed away by his triumphant return from Tommy John surgery 13 months later. The ovation Bell received from The Reck crowd still rings in my ears, for that was one of those truly special evenings I will never forget. Bell, as it turns out, holds that memory close.

Plenty of you have kept tabs on Bell as he climbs the ranks of the Blue Jays' farm system, but when I bumped into him on campus earlier this week, I figured an update on his progress was warranted. Bell is engaged to strength and conditioning coordinator Kristi Lobpries, and the couple is scheduled to exchange nuptials next month in Sugar Land. One month later, Bell will open spring training aiming for a spot in the rotation of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

Q: You've enjoyed rousing success during your two seasons in the Blue Jays' system. What has been the key behind the pinpoint control that has become your most notable attribute?

A: The thing that's helped me is I've really worked on getting ahead of hitters early and putting the hitter in the hole instead of the pitcher being behind (in the count). It does two things: it helps you set up your other pitches, and it also helps keep your pitch count low. As a starter late in the game, you've got more juice in the tank from throwing a lot less pitches and being more efficient. In our organization we work really hard on forcing early contact - putting pitches in the zone, keeping it low in the zone, put a little movement on it and try to get an early ground ball. That has more to do with my success than anything right now.

Q: You split time between Auburn (Short-Season A) and Lansing (Class A) during your first pro summer, and over 30 1/3 innings you did not issue a walk. What was the fallout from that statistical accomplishment?

A: When I got there the pitching coach (Antonio Caceres) in Auburn told me they wanted me to pound the zone, throw strikes and get ahead of hitters, and I started doing that. Also as a closer, I'd come in and a lot of teams would take first-pitch strikes or wait on their pitch. You throw the first pitch in there and they're taking and you're 0-1, and it makes everything a lot easier and forces them to swing at pitches they might not normally swing at.

Some of the guys teased me about (the string of innings without issuing a walk). I'd get three balls on a batter and apparently everyone would be like, 'Here it comes!' That summer I had really, really good command of my change-up and that allowed me, if I got three balls on a guy, the confidence that I could throw two of my pitches, which keeps the hitter guessing.

Q: Given the success you enjoyed during your abbreviated junior season, how difficult was the decision to sign that professional contract with the Blue Jays and leave Rice University?

A: It was very tough because I enjoyed all four years I was here, even the year I was hurt. I enjoyed being around the guys, being with the team and watching their successes. It was a point where my age (was a factor). If I was in the next draft I think I would have been 23 about to turn 24 and a fifth-year senior. Most drafted guys go into rookie ball or short-season, and that age is the point where you need to be moving on up instead of just starting your career. That, combined with the Blue Jays helping me out with what I needed financially, made the decision. It was tough, but I'm glad that I made it and I feel like it's been the best decision for my career.

Q: You started 10 games at Dunedin (Class A Advanced) late last season. How excited are you over the prospects of competing for a spot in the rotation at New Hampshire (Class AA)?

A: Being able to start gives me a lot more depth as a pitcher. I feel like I've demonstrated that I can always relieve if by chance down the road they need a reliever instead of a starter. It gives me more options as far as being able to move up if I can do both. I can fill whatever role they need at the time instead of only going up if they need a reliever.

Q: Mike Ojala is coming off Tommy John surgery and may be called on to fill a role similar to the one you excelled at following your return from the same procedure. What advice would you share with Ojala in terms of how to approach the challenge of pitching off the same injury?

A: My best advice would be listen to your arm. Don't try to do too much, don't try to push it or rush it. In my rehab I came back and my arm was feeling good. When it is feeling good and you are ready to go out there, don't have any reservations or worry about if your elbow is going to give out again. You've got to pitch and give it your all, and that mentality got my arm strength back quicker. When you're out there you don't want to be worrying about your arm or any physical ailments; you want to be worried about getting that batter out. That should be the focus.

Q: What memories from your Rice career resonate most vividly in your mind?

A: It's tough to pick one moment. I enjoyed pitching in Omaha. I thought it was amazing and a feeling like nothing else. I really have to say my first game back from Tommy John really stuck out the most. The response I received from the fans when I came back ... it's something special here at Rice. You go to a big university and there are so many fans and so many things where you get lost in the mix, but that's what is special about Rice. It's smaller, the fan base is smaller, but in a sense more personal. You get to know the fans a little better (and) they follow you in pro ball, which is awesome. My whole experience at Rice I wouldn't trade for anything.

As a junior, Bell went 1-0 with a 1.31 ERA and three saves in 14 appearances. He posted a 0.87 WHIP and opponents batted .139 against him, facilitating the Blue Jays' selecting him in the 18th round of the amateur draft. Bell still features that devastating change, but has worked diligently on his cutter and sinker, and has resumed using the knuckle-curve he threw in 2006.

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Does Bobby have any kind of timing on when he might make it up to the big leagues? Are we talking a couple years' time? Has the team communicated anything like this to him?

wheredidmypantsgo: Baby steps. Bell needs to secure a spot at Class AA before he can give serious thought to his debut in The Show. Very few players make the leap from High-A to the bigs, and in most cases performance at Class AA is crucial. - MK

For those of us with feeble minds, who is CSC and what do the initials OG mean?

Jim: CSC = Cole St.Clair; The OG (The Original Graham) = Wayne Graham. - MK

Nice article, MK. It is great to know that members of that fabulous class are doing so well. Please pass along updates if you come across others.

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