‘One of our MVPs': Blue Jays reliever Tim Mayza thriving after long rehab

TORONTO –- Tim Mayza is leaned up against the soft blue railing of the Blue Jays dugout, about two hours before the first pitch of what will be an 8-1 thrashing of the Tampa Bay Rays.

© Mary Altaffer/AP mayza_tim1280

The 29-year-old lefty doesn’t know how the game will go just yet, obviously, but he posted up on this railing with a big smile on his face. “It’s so fun to be part of a late-season push,” Mayza says. “We’re a resilient group. We’re a team that continues to claw back and to never give up.”

That last bit sure sounds a heck of a lot like Mayza himself. On Sept. 13, 2019, the reliever that manager Charlie Montoyo calls “one of our MVPs” endured the most awful moment of his career. He threw a pitch against the New York Yankees and then crumbled to the ground with a burning sensation in his arm. It turned out to be not just a torn tendon that required Tommy John surgery, but also a complete flexor tendon tear that added five months to his recovery.

But Mayza has since clawed his way back. “A lot has changed since then,” as he puts it, and that’s a big understatement. “Being a father, I went after my degree. And I’m healthy.”

In January, Mayza became a dad to a little guy named Everett. Earlier this year, he got his Masters degree in sports administration from Ohio University. And, on that last point, the biggest one as the Jays head down the stretch with an eye on a wild-card berth, Mayza is fully recovered from the injury that shelved him for all of 2020.

Everyone in the Blue Jays organization knew Mayza had the talent to become Toronto’s reliable eighth-inning keep-us-going or get-us-out-of-this-jam guy, but nobody knew whether he’d be physically ready to take on the role.

“If he was healthy, there was always a chance he could get there because his movement on his fastball, it’s pretty good when he’s healthy,” Montoyo says. “But to do what he’s done? Oh yeah that’s tough to do what he’s done this year.”

“I don’t think anybody expected him to be so well rehabbed and competitive in spring (training),” adds bullpen coach Matt Buschmann. “I think if you told me he was healthy and himself, yeah I would’ve expected this. But I think that was a question mark. It wasn’t, would he be integral. It was, physically, would he be able to be integral?”

Mayza has proven to be integral, and to be the team’s “most consistent” bullpen arm, if you ask Buschmann. He attacks both left- and right-handed bats, he gets that last out in an inning when the Jays are in a jam, then goes out for another out or two, setting the table for the finish.

“He’s been going 18 months straight,” Buschmann says. “I don’t think you can say enough about what that says about him and his ability to be resilient and go through adversity, and oh, by the way, he also got his Masters degree and had a kid. It’s awesome. You root for people like that.”

Mayza is well-liked around these parts, to be sure. “I love the guy,” Montoyo says. Catcher Reese McGuire says Mayza is among the team’s best chirpers, with a unique brand of subtlety and sarcasm. “He doesn’t fire off too much, but when he does, guys listen because he’s so hilarious,” McGuire says. Often, Mayza will get on teammates for being a minute late, or even a minute early for, say, a bullpen session. “I tend to go after Jordan Romano the most,” Mayza says, grinning. “I pick on him a little bit.”

Buschmann says the back-and-forth in the bullpen is non-stop, and a lot of it is driven by Mayza. “You gotta be careful where you step, because he’s gonna let you have it. The running joke with him is he’s the crotchety chaperone that is keeping everyone in line. It’s kind of tongue and cheek, but also, yeah, it’s good to have someone paying attention to details and holding everyone accountable.”

A stickler for the rules, and a fun guy — it’s a rarity. “That’s what makes Tim special,” Buschmann says. “He’s an enigma and a paradox. It’s his ability to say, ‘Hey, we gotta do this,’ but also be light-hearted about it when people give it back to him.”

That light-heartedness around baseball is even easier to come by, Mayza says, since he became a dad. “It gives me perspective. You leave the field and now there’s a little one that I’m taking care of that is counting on me to help him out along the way,” he says, giving a big hand to his wife, Darian, who has done most of the heavy lifting.

“I’ve been lucky to have them by my side most of the season,” he adds, since Everett and Darian were there for spring training, then moved to Buffalo, and are now splitting time between Toronto and Denver, Pa.

Mayza grew up in Allentown, Pa., and he comes from an athletic family: His dad played college basketball, his mom played soccer and his sister played pro basketball in Denmark and Lithuania. There’s pride in his voice when he talks about his family, the fact his sister is now a basketball coach. He, too, was quite the basketball player, but the college baseball recruitment letters started to outnumber the basketball recruitment letters while he was a sophomore in high school (the same year he threw a no-hitter.) “That’s why I figured this was the path I wanted to choose,” he says.

It was a long road to make the major leagues, but Mayza never doubted himself, because he kept working on his delivery and improving. The guy is constantly working on himself, and not just when it comes to pitching. After he got his Masters, in April, that gave him more time to devour books about his favourite topics: leadership and winning cultures. Right now he’s reading The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel your Life, Work and Team with Positive Energy. A recent favourite was Legacy, What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life.

The Jays’ culture, Mayza says, is top shelf. “We play loose, we play with a lot of fun and a lot of energy,” he says. “In the bullpen, you expect each and every guy to be prepared and to have one another’s back. There’s accountability and that’s great, and it’s what keeps us together through the ebbs and flows of the season.”

McGuire has watched Mayza emerge as a leader this season, and has seen a fair number of changes to his approach to baseball since his return.

“He really took ownership of his recovery, he took ownership of his preparation,” McGuire says. “Whether he’s pitching that day or not, he’s always doing something for arm care. I’ve watched him a lot this year dissect how he wants to attack certain lineups. I watch him watching video of hitters, looking at numbers, stuff like that to prepare him for when he gets in the game, who he might face. He’s an all-around professional teammate, he’s a leader out of that bullpen, and we’re leaning on him heavy here down the stretch.”

McGuire can’t choose a favourite Mayza weapon. “He’s got 97 with the sinker and he’s got 91 with the slider. You can’t pick one,” the catcher says, with a laugh, after a session in the cage. “His stuff’s too good, it moves too much.”

In 57 games this season, Mayza has a 3.28 ERA with more strikeouts (50) than innings pitched (49.1), but those numbers undersell how well he’s pitched lately. After some early-season struggles, he has posted a 1.51 ERA since June 1 while becoming one of the team’s most trusted relievers.

Mayza says the time away gave him a chance to step back and make small adjustments to his mechanics, to help with repeatability in his delivery. “I think I’m seeing the best swings, and the results have been there,” he says. “It’s a testament to the staff and what we’ve changed over the past two years to get me to this point. It’s never a guarantee that your velo is going to come back, that the sharpness or consistency of the breaking ball is going to be there. I’ve been one of the fortunate ones where I think a lot of things have come back to normal.”

Or better than normal, even.

“You make it through what he’s made it through, what’s pitching in an eighth inning in a game?” Buschmann says. “I think that’s the difference. He’s got the confidence in himself, he believes in what he can do. Since 2019, he’s gotten better in a lot of different ways. You can see that in the way he carries himself.”

Mayza’s still grinning, still leaned up against the dugout. He’s excited for this game to get started.

“I feel great, I feel healthy,” he says. “Obviously some exciting stuff happening around here, right?”

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