MESA, Ariz. — In just one season at High Point University, Indians reliever Cody Allen felt what mental toughness means.
His coach, Craig Cozart, put the Panthers through brutal conditioning drills. Allen still recalls the first day of fall workouts, when Cozart made them run 1½ miles in less than 10 minutes.
“I’m not exactly the most fleet afoot, so that was pretty tough,” Allen said. “I did make it, barely, crawling across the line.
“When he tells you what you’re doing, your first thought is, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do this.’ But he pushes you to where you do it. His whole thing was, ‘You can’t let your mind limit what your body can do.’”
Those grueling days, which sometimes ended with Cozart “smoking” his players in whatever maniacal test he devised, served Allen well. Last season, he became the Indians’ primary seventh-inning reliever in the second half of the season. In the last two months, he compiled an ERA of 2.05.
Allen’s numbers were so impressive that he finished tied for sixth in the American League rookie of the year voting. Allen ranked second in the AL in games pitched (77), fifth in relief strikeouts (88), tied for 13th in relief innings (70.1), 16th in relief ERA (2.43) and tied for fourth in relief victories (four). His strikeout total was the most by a member of the Tribe bullpen since Paul Shuey notched 103 in 1999.
Last month, Allen, 25, came to spring training knowing he didn’t have to worry about making the team. Indians manager Terry Francona trusts Allen, likely the Indians’ closer in waiting.
“Cody knows when the game is on the line in a leverage situation, we want him to have the ball,” Francona said recently.
In December, the Indians signed John Axford to a one-year, $4.5 million contract to fill the closer’s role this season after Chris Perez was released. But the Indians have big plans for Allen.
“It’s a good feeling when your manager has confidence in you,” Allen said Sunday at the team’s Goodyear complex.
A few hours later he pitched a scoreless seventh inning in the Indians’ 3-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs at Cubs Park in Mesa.
“Even if you’re not a key guy, you know he believes in you, you know he has your back 100 percent of the time no matter what happens,” Allen added.
Allen said he learned valuable lessons last year when he compiled a 1.88 ERA in 15 games in August and a 2.25 ERA in 16 games in September and October.
“I pitched in quite a few games in September where every game was a must-win game,” Allen said. “When you’re in a playoff push, every out matters. I felt like I was pretty ready, had a lot of appearances in those tight spots to help catapult me into this year.”
The Indians probably want to wait to install a young, up-and-coming pitcher as a closer, especially one who is pre-arbitration eligible because saves cause a pitcher’s salary to skyrocket. That’s a philosophy first adopted by the Tampa Bay Rays, who instead began signing veteran closers as the Tribe did with Axford. Allen is not arbitration-eligible until 2016.
But Francona shows how much he thinks of Allen with his constant comparisons to Daniel Bard, now with the Texas Rangers after surgery limited him to two appearances last season. Bard compiled a 3.67 ERA in 211 appearances with the Boston Red Sox from 2009-13, three of those years under Francona.
Bard was the 28th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Allen was a 23rd-round selection (698th overall) by the Indians in 2011.
“Daniel Bard was a young kid that at an early age took an awesome amount of responsibility, and he not only made our bullpen better, but made everybody else around him better because he got outs,” Francona said.
When Allen finds himself in tough situations this season, he’ll draw from what he learned last September, from watching the game’s greats and from Cozart.
“Through everything we did, he’s trying to push you to your mental breaking point,” Allen said of the college coach he still keeps in touch with. “He wants everyone’s breaking point to get further and further. Don’t let your mind hold you back.”