Jerry Sullivan and Rob Kral are still trying to settle a score. Opponents in the old Iron Hills Conference, they briefly shared the El Paso Chihuahuas’ clubhouse this season. As expected when two baseball guys from Jersey get together, they’ll have to reminisce about their glory days.
Kral, a former Randolph catcher, claims he hit a home run off Sullivan when they were both in high school. Sullivan, a Mount Olive starter turned minor-league middle reliever, doesn’t recall that game.
The Triple-A batterymates have agreed to disagree – and learned to root for each other over the years.
Drafted by San Diego in the third round out of Oral Roberts in ’09, Sullivan is in his sixth minor-league season, but his first full year at AAA. A year younger than Sullivan at 26, Kral was picked in the 10th round from the College of Charleston in 2011 and has bounced around the Padres’ system.
“Jerry’s great to work with,” said Kral, who will miss the rest of the season after surgery to repair the third and fourth fingers on his throwing hand, broken by a foul tip.
“He keeps a very calm demeanor. He’s very sure of himself, confident, but not in a way where I can’t make a suggestion. … I think that’s why he’s so successful. He’s confident in his stuff, but he’s very good at adapting to each hitter.”
A starter in high school and college, Sullivan was converted to a relief role with Class-A Lake Elsinore (Calif.) in 2012. Pitching coach Bronswell Patrick also helped Sullivan master the split-fingered fastball, giving him a fourth pitch in his arsenal.
Being able to throw all four for strikes gives Sullivan an extra dimension as a reliever. His fastball and splitter have improved this year, along with his slider.
“Jerry is not intimidated by any of the batters that step in,” said Patrick, now the El Paso pitching coach. “He goes out and pitches aggressively, (and) he’s able to get his secondary pitches over for strikes more consistently than he has in the past.”
A closer when he first transitioned to the bullpen, Sullivan has mainly appeared in middle relief this season. He admitted “I’m not going to get (San Diego closer Craig) Kimbral’s job,” but versatility may help him find a spot in the majors. Sullivan pitched alongside current Padres reliever Kevin Quackenbush earlier in his career. In fact, Patrick was trying to teach Quackenbush the splitter when Sullivan picked it up.
Sullivan has a 5-1 record with one save, and a 2.31 ERA in 23.1 innings this season, two full runs lower than his career average. He has struck out 24 while walking just five.
“It works better for me mentally,” Sullivan said of coming out of the bullpen. “Sometimes if you mess up in a game, I like being able to gout the next day and correct it. … I like the quick turnaround, to be able to get back in game action and move forward.”
Sullivan was more eager to talk about his first professional at-bat – his first since junior year at Mount Olive – in a 5-3 El Paso victory over Albuquerque. Noting “it’s a different game” from the plate rather than the mound, he hit a check-swing “sharp ground ball” back to the pitcher off a 2-2 count in the sixth inning.
Sullivan even more proud of his son, Weston, “ a 22-month-old little stud.” College sweethearts, Jerry and Tiffany Sullivan have been married for 5 ½ years, and being a family man has given him much needed perspective. On top of the usual letters, numbers and colors, Weston likes to grab a baseball and pitch to his dad.
“It brings some balance,” Sullivan said. “It’s not all baseball, baseball, baseball. I can focus on baseball when I should be focused on baseball. I don’t have to carry it home and let it weigh on my shoulders. I try to be a good dad, a good husband, raise him the right way.”