BRADENTON, Fla. — His eyes pierce batters from between a low-stationed cap and a scowl.
He breathes in and out, filling and emptying his cheeks rapidly before each pitch. His glove presses firmly to his temple as his eyes flicker toward baserunners, freezing them with his gaze. His face tenses, his jaw tightens, he delivers. He eyes the return throw, kicks at the mound and does it again.
If you’ve watched the Pirates any time since 2011, you’ve already guessed I’m referring to Jared Hughes. His on-field persona is distinguishable amongst all others who take the mound in black and gold, and it’s a persona that’s been a staple in one of baseball’s best bullpens since his arrival.
I don’t remember if it was 2011 or 2012, the latter Hughes’ breakout campaign, when I first saw that routine, but I do remember being with my dad — and being afraid to bat against the tall righty.
“I would literally be scared to swing,” I said then.
In the years since, I’ve seen Hughes grow into a formidable option for the Pirates. No. 48 boasts a 2.83 career ERA in the majors, including a career-best 1.96 in 2014.
So, yeah, the guy is scary on the mound in a couple of ways.
I mentioned this to our Matt Gajtka last season while we worked the Pirates beat together.
“Jared?” he’d reply. “He’s the nicest guy in the world.”
I’m not sure I really believed that until I got to Bradenton, Fla. for my first spring training, but I certainly do now. Jared is the guy who greets everyone with a smile, knows everyone’s name, remembers and fulfills autograph promises and plays ambassador to the new kids in town.
Need another example? He also welcomed my camera for a day, allowing DKPittsburghSports.com readers to see a day in the life of Jared Hughes: Pirates reliever, classic gamer and eater of protein.
We kicked the day off in a way I never do, with a leisurely 6 a.m. stroll.
Hughes rents a condo away from Pirate City, so I met up with him dark-and-early to join him and Tilly (short for Matilda) on their morning walk. It was pitch black outside, and I was surveying for streetlights and lamp posts to steal light from when we came across this ‘bright’ fence.
Almost as if the moment was meant to be, Jared randomly looked back at me just as a distant car lit the road and grass providing depth to what could have been a ‘flat’ scene.
We got back to the Hughes house and Jared wanted to make some eggs. Breakfast is provided at the clubhouse cafeteria, but it seemed like Jared enjoys eating at home, making the clubhouse a business environment for the reliever.
There was also bacon, and it smelled good.
Hughes ate his plate of protein and … kick-started (I crack myself up) his day with a Mt. Dew Kickstart from the fridge.
For what it’s worth, Jared confessed to being a two-dimensional cook. There is bacon and eggs, and there is chicken and rice. You see the bacon and eggs, and I can’t promise you won’t see the chicken and rice.
Apparently all that makes for an Energizer breakfast, because Hughes shows no lack of energy when he gets to the facility and onto the grass.
Like all athletes at any level, professional ballplayers joke around, keeping things light and fun while maintaining a professional work ethic and serious training routine. I couldn’t do it. It’s one or the other for me, and I continue to choose the route of the jester in most cases.
Hughes is a freak specimen in this regard. He trains hard, finishing an alleged third in the fitness test behind Tyler Glasnow, who has like 42 abs, and Edgar Santana.
Hughes laughs, he jogs with his tongue out and collects bunted balls with playful enthusiasm. And, he completes the trifecta by taking every drill with his fullest ability, sincerity and intensity.
I asked Hughes about a couple of drills in particular, because I noticed something about his routine that is different than some of the others, and I was curious why.
The drills that stood out to me so obviously involved anything with a fake delivery from the mound. For example, the pitchers would fake a throw to the plate and have to field a bunt or a ground ball hit within a typical hurler’s range.
A lot of the guys take the fielding part of these drills seriously. I’d say most do. But, Jared goes into his full windup, ‘game face’ and all, delivering a clenched fist toward a coach at home.
Hughes says it gets him prepared for real game situations because it creates muscle memory from a real delivery. I believe him because he makes the angry face during these drills, and … well … it still scares me.
Hughes isn’t alone. Friend of No. 48 and Pirates Triple-A pitcher John Kuchno has bought in and goes through the motions in 100 percent agreement with Jared. More on Kuchno later.
Though he might not get the at-bat opportunities of a starter, Hughes also takes his bunting practice as seriously as possible. In fact, of the sessions I watched on Wednesday, I didn’t see Hughes bunt more than a ball or two foul, and I didn’t see him whiff on any.
I’d say 100 percent contact is pretty dang good for a guy who’s only gotten a chance to lay one down in his Pirates career, and it’s definitely owed to the practice effort.
So, yeah, spring training is a chance to reconnect with rarely-called-upon skills, but it’s also a chance for these guys to reconnect with the fans.
Those who come out to the Pirate City portion of spring training know nothing less than the full name of the most unlikely camp player to make the roster, so you can imagine the requests a five-year bullpen regular like Hughes receives throughout the day.
While going through drills, though, Jared politely turns the requests down, promising to return when practice has finished.
Like a seventh-inning call to the ‘pen, Hughes delivers. Except, instead of sprinting from the outfield to the mound, Hughes packs a smile and exits through the hole in the outfield fence toward the fans.
Professional seekers of signature and casual fans alike call for each player to sign the ‘sweet spot’ of newly opened baseballs or across the middle of a favorite baseball card.
When the requests have been signed, it’s back to the clubhouse, to a meeting if necessary, and then back to the home away from home.
Back at home, it’s more protein followed by relaxation (read: video games). Sometimes that’s an evening alone for Jared, sometimes he’s accompanied by teammates. This weekend, Hughes will have his wife and son down. That may cut into the Super Nintendo time, but I’m guessing he will make that trade to have the family around.
On this day, though, Jared was joined by Kuchno. Yes, they ate dinner together. And, yes, this is where you see Iron Chef Hughes’ chicken and rice.
The chicken pictured was marinated in teriyaki sauce before falling victim to the grill’s surface. Notice how Jared located the breasts for optimum grill marks. Get it? Locate? Like … @LocateJared!?
Chicken and rice, ladies and gentlemen. As promised, a second protein-packed meal from the right-handed reliever.
Quite the Bradenton view is reflected into the windows of Hughes’ rental home as he sets the table for he and ‘Kuch.’ Two salads, two chicken breasts each, rice and a speaker for some music.
After all, these guys are used to having soundtracks back their lives after going through the pitchers and catchers portion of spring training.
Kuchno tells Jared a couple of stories from his winter ball experiences playing in Venezuela this past offseason. I’ll stay on track here, but if you run into ‘Kuch’ at a game this year, ask him, and laugh with him.
About this time, Jared also informs me that John is his “sleeper pick for ‘The Show’ ” this season. If he’s right, it would be an even better story for the denied Wake Forest walk-on who found a home at Ohio State and now in the Pirates’ system.
Tilly makes another appearance at dinner, but doesn’t stray far from the protection of her father’s legs.
I’m an animal lover, so I can’t help but feel bad for scaring the pup with my shutter clicks.
Jared found a Joker-like grin when the
relaxation competition resumed. Apparently an expert Goldeneye 64 player, Hughes demanded a match with John using proximity mines in the famed ‘Complex’ map.
There is no way to sugarcoat this: Jared Hughes knows his Goldeneye. I repeat, do not challenge this man at this game.
Even in defeat, Kuchno did get a good laugh in, though. Come on, Jared. If you’re going to play with proximity mines, remember where you put them … and try not to step on your own devices of video game death.
Things only look up from there, though, Jared: Your family comes in tomorrow. All you have to do is build that crib for the baby …
See you guys in the comments.