Royals pitcher Bruce Chen will never be confused with retired Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
Chen’s a lefty starter; Rivera was a righty reliever and closer. Chen’s a crafty off-speed pitcher who gets hitters out with his guile. Rivera threw a nasty cut fastball that was so unhittable, he’ll be in the Hall of Fame in five years.
But Chen, a native of Panama, shares a place alongside Rivera in the record books that he takes particularly pride in.
Chen, who starts on Friday night when the Royals open a three-game series at Minnesota, leads all Panamanian-born pitchers in major-league starts with 219 and in innings with 1,483 2/3. And with 80 career victories and 1,107 strikeouts, Chen needs three wins and 67 strikeouts to overtake Rivera for the top spot in both categories.
“Mariano Rivera, here in the United States is known as the best closer of all time,” said Chen, “but in Panama, he’s known as the best pitcher ever. People look up to Mariano my family, everyone.
“When I was younger and Mariano was in the big leagues, I used to train with him, and all the professional baseball players trained together. So for me to be able to surpass a guy so big even though he was a closer, I feel like this is a big accomplishment.”
In fact, only Rivera, with 1,115 appearances, and former Royal reliever Juan Berenguer with 490, have pitched in more big-league games among natives of Panama than Chen’s 386. Rivera, of course, also posted a major-league record 652 saves — or 651 more than Chen.
Chen, 36, hopes younger Panamanian pitchers follow his lead.
“Records are made to be broken,” Chen said, “and obviously the save record is going to be hard to break. But you want other Panamanians to push that. You want to have a Panamanian who strikes out 3,000 batters or maybe somebody who gets 250 wins.
But as long as we keep building it up, there’s going to be someone, maybe this kid Randall Delgado with the Diamondbacks or maybe there’s a kid in Panama watching me or Delgado pitch and says, ‘I want to play,’ and maybe that’s the new kid who is going to break all the records.”
Though he came away with no decision, Chen is coming off a strong first start of the season in the Royals’ 4-3 win over the White Sox last Saturday. He pitched 6 1/3 innings and left with a 3-1 lead after allowing six hits, and an unearned run while striking out seven with no walks.
“I was throwing all my pitches for strikes, and Salvador Perez did a really good job of calling the game, making sure we changed speeds,” Chen said. “And my defense, also. I really pounded that strike zone because I trusted my defense the guys behind me were making really good plays.”
A year ago this time, Chen, the Royals’ pitcher of the year in 2010, was the odd man out of the rotation after the club acquired James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana. Chen, who initially lost a battle with Luis Mendoza for the fifth spot in the rotation, began the season in the bullpen and would often go more than a week between appearances.
Chen would come to the ballpark never knowing whether he’d work that day. Now he knows he’ll be handed the ball every fifth day.
“I always wanted to help this team win,” he said of 2013. “Last year was kind of different. There were times I went 12 days without pitching, then I would pitch and go another seven days without pitching it was tough. But the way I saw it, I’m trying to help the bullpen. If they gave me their innings, I’m taking innings away from other guys who needed to stay sharp.”
Chen went 3-0 with a 2.41 ERA over 33 2/3 innings in the first half of the season before moving to the rotation in July. In his first six starts, he led the majors with a 0.93 ERA and .144 opponents’ batting average from July 12 to Aug. 13.
“We felt we’d put Brice in the pen, and if we needed him at the halfway point, he’d be strong and ready to finish the season strong, and that’s exactly what happened,” manager Ned Yost said.
It wasn’t as easy as it looked.
“The fact I didn’t throw that many innings, people said, ‘Yeah, you’re fresh,’ but actually it takes a toll on your arm,” said Chen, who would finished the season with an overall mark of 9-4 and a 3.27 ERA. “I didn’t go into the rotation for three months when you’re used to throwing one inning, maybe two innings, and you go over to start and throw five, six innings, and then five days later you have to throw five, six, seven innings, and 100 pitches, those first three starts, my arm was in shock.
“My arm had to get stronger as the season went along. I didn’t feel better until the last month of the season when my arm got adjusted.”
Chen was a free agent at the end of 2013, and when was assured of a shot at remaining in the rotation, he signed a $4.25 million contract for a sixth season with the Royals.
“We didn’t sign him to be a pen guy,” Yost said.
Chen had other offers, but he likes Kansas City. His wife, Mary is from the area, and he believes in the direction the club is heading.
“Now that I know I’m going to be starting,” Chen said, “I can help this team win from the starting rotation.”