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Chen embodies team mentality with move to 'pen

Former starter makes transition to reliever without complaint for Royals

Chen embodies team mentality with move to 'pen play video for Chen embodies team mentality with move to 'pen

BOSTON -- The thing about Bruce Chen is that he's agreeable. Very agreeable.

A starting pitcher for the past three years, Chen led the Royals' staff in victories each year. His combined record was 35-29 for losing teams. Chen made 82 starts and had a 4.40 ERA. Pretty good resume.

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Thanks, Bruce, and now you're in the bullpen.

"I'm just here to do anything I can to help the team win," Chen said. "If they need me to be a long guy, I'll be a long guy. If they want me to face one batter, I'll face one batter. If they want to go one inning or give some guys some rest, I'll do whatever it takes."

Now that might sound like some scripted cliche from "Bull Durham," but if you know Chen, it's pure honesty.

"He embraced the challenge of it all and whatever he could do to help the team," pitching coach Dave Eiland said.

Oh, sure, virtually every pitcher who's established as a starter wants to stay in that job, but Chen was swept up in the tide of incoming starters that the front office brought in this winter. Then he lost a Spring Training battle for the fifth spot in the rotation.

So it was off to the bullpen, without complaint.

"Ever since I've know Bruce Chen, it's always team first. Always," manager Ned Yost said. "There's never been an exception where he's thought of himself in a selfish way. It's always, 'I want to win and I want to help the team win.'"

So far, it's worked just that way. Chen has been in two games and the Royals have won both; in fact, Chen was rewarded with a victory himself at Philadelphia. He's pitched four innings without giving up a run.

Although his starting background hints at a long-relief role for Chen, that's not necessarily the case.

"I'm not going to pigeon-hole Bruce as a long guy, because I think it'd be more beneficial to use him in other capacities," Yost said.

Chen has pitched in relief before. In fact, 150 of his 353 career games have been out of the bullpen. But Chen hasn't done it much in his five years with the Royals and not at all in the previous two seasons, so it's taken some getting used to.

For one thing, Chen has to prepare differently.

"I can't work out as much, I can't run as much, because you want to be ready. Maybe do some workouts after the game, because you don't want to wear yourself out before you pitch," Chen said. "You can't throw as many [bullpen sessions]. Sometimes you have to warm up quick, sometimes you know you've got the next inning. So it's a challenge. 

"You try to adapt, but all these guys do it, so it's not impossible. I don't think I'm doing anything extraordinary; I'm just doing what everybody else is doing."

At 35, the time-polished left-hander finds himself learning from younger teammates that populate what is considered a very strong bullpen.

"I try to talk to [Aaron] Crow, to [Kelvin] Herrera, to [J.C.] Gutierrez -- all these guys -- to see if they have anything for me," Chen said. "Or [bullpen coach] Doug Henry -- 'Hey, am I throwing too many? Am I not throwing too much? Is that good?' Just get feedback and see how I'm doing."

"And they're learning from him, so it's a two-way street," Eiland said.

Chen has been accustomed to watching games from the dugout. Now, it's a different view. At Kauffman Stadium, it's a seat behind a wire fence in left field.

"Not as good as the dugout and it's definitely not as comfortable, but there's the camaraderie in the bullpen; we know that we're the only ones out there. We're trying to make it as nice as we can," Chen said. "We have some coolers so we have our drinks and there's a bathroom, but there's no replay there, we can't see any of that stuff."

As a relative newcomer, Chen doesn't try to be dominant despite his seniority. There's not the renowned "Bruce Chen Joke of the Day." So with seven relievers, a couple of catchers and a coach, what do they talk about down there?

"The first three or five innings, depending on how the game is going, is pretty laid back," Chen said. "We can talk about anything -- how we're doing, what we did yesterday, when we're leaving on the trip. Things like that; very laid back.

"The closer it gets to the time when relievers are going to start pitching, everyone starts looking at the hitter, what he did, where was that pitch and all those things. It's hard to keep up that all that intensity from the beginning, because by the time you pitch, you might be worn out."

Everyone, Chen has noticed, sits in the same spot every night. He's between Luke Hochevar and Gutierrez.

"And the candy bag is right next to me, and I like that very much," Chen said.

Around the fifth inning or so, the relievers start to move around and stretch, really hone in on the hitters, think about possible matchups, check the number of pitches thrown by the starter, ponder how they might fit into the game.

Usually, though, by the late innings, the options narrow.

"The eighth and ninth innings, that's Herrera and [Greg] Holland territory, so we just go back and sit down," Chen said.

So Chen is settling in nicely.

"He made the transition quickly, quicker than we thought he would," Eiland said.

What makes life anywhere with the Royals easier this year is the early success of the team.

"We're strong on every single side," Chen said, then broke into a grin. "I think the strongest point right now is the bullpen. So I'm there."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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