Euclides Rojas walked into the tunnel at PNC Park after watching the Pirates take batting practice, set his equipment bag down near a dimly lit stairway and pointed out towards the sunlight.
"Being young is an advantage for them," Rojas, the Pirates' bullpen coach, said, referring to his relievers. "I wish I was young again."
Rojas, 51, is about to complete his eighth season in his current role, and this may have been his most challenging assignment yet. His bullpen arms are electrifying but inexperienced. The oldest member of the group, Richard Rodriguez, 28, had only 5 2/3 career big-league innings prior to this season and didn't make the opening day roster.
Prior to the acquisition of Keone Kela, the only reliever with playoff experience was George Kontos, who was released by the team in May. Even the All-Star closer, Felipe Vazquez, had spent less than one season in a high-leverage role. It was among the worst bullpens, statistically, in the National League for the first two months of the season.
However, a man who is uniquely qualified to tutor young pitchers has helped the Pirates' young bullpen ascend to among the league's best. Rojas began pitching professionally in Cuba at 16 years old and became a closer only one year later. He pitched the national team to championship wins across the globe and was once Cuba's all-time saves leader, all under the watchful eye of a ruthless dictator.
"He’s talked to me about handling pressure a lot," Vazquez, 27, told DKPittsburghSports.com. "It’s something I struggled with earlier this season and he told me, ‘Do you know what it’s like pitching for Team Cuba when Fidel Castro is the owner?’ He’s been a closer, so he knows exactly what I go through. I mean, can you imagine doing that?"