Dustin Antolin considered leaving baseball. After seven years in the minor leagues reaching Double-A New Hampshire for two and half seasons, the right-handed relief pitcher thought maybe it was time to retire.
Boy is he glad he didn’t.
Antolin finally made his Triple A debut on April 8 and picked up his first Triple A win on April 27. Then he got the dream call – the promotion to the Toronto Blue Jays for one appearance in May. Now, he’s a Triple-A All Star, joining three other Buffalo Bisons on the International League team for the mid-season celebration in Charlotte July 13.
“I thought about retiring. I was just over the mental grind,” the 26-year old from Hawaii said. “The mental grind was the worst part of a baseball job.” He pauses, then lets out a big smile and laughs, “But I’m glad I came back.”
Antolin had been an Eastern League All-Star with New Hampshire in 2014. He struggled at the start of that season, but had a stretch from May 27 to July 16 where he gave just three earned runs in 23 innings with a 1.16 ERA in that span.
But after his second full season at Double-A with the Fisher Cats, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay in the game.
“I talked to my loved ones, my whole family and they said to give it one more shot; you never know what’s going to happen,” Antolin said. “I took that in, thought about it and then two weeks before the season I got a call that the Blue Jays were going to give me a job,” in Buffalo “so I was pretty pumped about that. And I gave it one more shot and now I’m here.”
He says “here” with a big smile. While Triple-A can be the most frustrating level for some players – so close to the big league dream but still so far away – Antolin has excelled in his role with the Bisons in large part because of the team’s chemistry.
“We feed off each other,” Antolin said. “It’s probably one of my favorite teams I’ve ever been on. The clubhouse is just unbelievable. Everybody just meshes together. Just everybody we got is just awesome. That’s all I can say. It’s been a good ride so far. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
Antolin hopes to keep his pitching going. Elected as starter for the All-Star Game, he entered Thursday’s game against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with 40 strike outs, the most of any Bisons’ reliever. He has pitched scoreless baseball in 22 of his outings and has converted eight of his 11 saves chances.
His key: “I’m just trying to make a good pitch every time,” Antolin said. “One pitch at a time, good location, pretty much it and just attack. That’s what I’ve been doing just serve it up on the plate. If you can hit it, you can hit. If not, then better for me.”
Antolin’s keys sound similar to Ben Rowan, another Bison reliever who made the All-Star team.
Rowen entered Thursday’s game with a string of 17 straight games without allowing a run. He has allowed only two of 18 inherited runners to score.
“I kinda changed my mentality back in the beginning of May,” Rowen said. “I wanted to get back on the attack. … I think before I was more nitpicky, more nibbling. Trying to get a strikeout instead of being aggressive and throwing strike one and getting ahead of hitters. Strike one’s a big deal to hitters. If they get put in a hole it’s much better for me. I can get my ground ball and get an out real quick and that’s a huge.”
What’s also been huge is the talent and the camaraderie among the Bisons’ pitching staff. The two relievers join starter Drew Hutchison as Triple-A All Stars while designated hitter Jesus Montero carries the offense into the break.
In the bullpen, the competition has made a difference.
“It’s a pretty good competition out there – iron sharpening iron, going out there, you see one guy do well, you want to continue,” Rowen said. “It is pretty fun being out there in the bullpen. We’re still lighthearted but we’re getting the job done, too. We really do feed off each other and the end result lately has been pretty good.”