Bruce Chen has a chance to make history Saturday afternoon at Progressive Field.
No, he’s not the first 37-year-old to pitch in a major league baseball game. And no, he’s not the first player to have pitched for 11 teams.
The veteran lefty’s 82 career victories has him tied him with Mariano Rivera for the most by a Panamanian-born pitcher.
“Mariano is the greatest pitcher and player to ever come from Panama,” said Chen, “He’s one of the best and he’s very respected and loved in Panama. And for me to tie him for the most wins, even though as a reliever he has 82, it’s an honor for me. Hopefully one day I’ll have the opportunity to maybe break that record.”
On Saturday the Indians officially purchased Chen’s contract from Triple-A Columbus and tabbed him Saturday’s starter against Minnesota, giving him the opportunity to pass Rivera. If Chen were to do so, he would also give Cleveland’s rotation a much-needed boost.
Cleveland signed Chen to a minor league contract in February with an invite to Spring Training. In the final days of camp, the team told Chen he wasn’t going to make the 40-man roster. However, they did give him a few incentives to stick around. The organization promised Chen a spot in the starting rotation at Columbus and an out clause if another big league team showed interest in him.
Chen decided to stay and made the most of the opportunity, going 2-1 with a 1.74 ERA in five starts with the Clippers this season. In 31 innings, he posted a 0.71 WHIP and only walked three batters.
“We have a very good ball club,” said Chen when asked about his success in Columbus. “Defensively, we’re really, really solid. I feel like my defense has been playing really well behind me and Adam Moore has been calling a great game so there’s not much to complain about here.”
Chen also credits Columbus pitching coach Carl Willis for the success he’s had.
“I have a lot of respect for Carl,” said Chen. “He’s a very good pitching coach. Very knowledgeable. We talk about all these things that are coming into the new era of pitching. He knows the new style and he also knows the old style and how pitchers used to pitch and do things. I’ve experienced both as well and we’re just trying to compare. Hey, what do you think works about this? Should I do this? And should I do that? He knows a lot and has coached a lot of great pitchers. He’s very knowledgeable and a good pitching coach. That’s why we’re doing so well here.”
Chen’s well-traveled career started with the Atlanta Braves organization in 1993, where he got to be teammates with his favorite player growing up, Greg Maddux.
“When I first started watching baseball in Panama it was ’86 and that’s when Dwight Gooden was with the Mets and I really enjoyed watching him pitch,” said Chen. “They didn’t show all the games on TV. We had TBS when we got older and got to watch the Braves and my favorite pitcher was Greg Maddux. He’s still my favorite pitcher. I remember watching and I got to be teammates with him. For me, him and Pedro Martinez are the two greatest pitchers I’ve ever seen in person.”
Chen’s career has included stops in Toronto, Philadelphia, New York (Mets), Montreal, Cincinnati, Houston, Boston, Baltimore, and most recently Kansas City. Chen spent six seasons (2009-2014) with the Royals, his longest tenure with one team, where he saw action in 134 games and tallied a 47-43 record.
A back injury led to his release last September before the team’s postseason run to the World Series. Chen returned to Kansas City this spring to pick up his American League Championship ring. Every player who spent time on Kansas City’s roster last year received one.
Now, eight months later, Chen is back in the majors. Just minutes before the Indians informed Chen that they would be purchasing his contract, I asked him what Tribe fans should expect if he did get the chance.
“First of all I have to say that we do have a very good pitching staff here and whoever they pick is going to help the team,” said Chen. “But if I get picked to go over there and help the team I’m going to do everything I can. I’m a team player. I’ve done this in the past and I want to help the team win. I know that it’s going to be a big responsibility because right now their record is not as good as they are. They are a very good team and hopefully I can go out there and help the team win and get back to the record that team is supposed to have.”
First pitch is slated for 4:10pm ET. Chen will go for the milestone against Minnesota ace Phil Hughes (1-4, 5.82).
Photo credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images North America