Rich Rundles, who spent his entire big league career with the Cleveland Indians in 2008 and 2009, died on December 16 from natural causes. He was only 38.
The left-handed Rundles was a LOOGY in manager Eric Wedge’s bullpen for a handful of games over two seasons in Cleveland after spending the first nine years of his professional career bouncing around the minor league landscape. A third round pick by the Boston Red Sox in 1999 out of Jefferson County High School in Dandridge, Tennessee, Rundles worked for the club for two years before he was dealt to the Montreal Expos with pitcher Tomo Ohka for reliever Ugueth Urbina. He signed with the St. Louis Cardinals following the 2005 season and was dealt the next June to the New York Mets, but became a free agent after the season and signed with the Indians just ahead of 2007’s spring training festivities.
Rundles was sent to the minors and split time between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Buffalo, posting strong numbers overall with a 5-4 record in 40 games (two starts) with a 2.21 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP in his first season of action working primarily as a reliever. He followed the season with eight games of play in the Arizona Fall League, allowing just one run and two hits in eight and two-thirds innings of work.
Rundles was back in camp at the start of the 2008 season, but the team had already bookmarked him based on his splits. “He’s strictly a left-on-left guy, but sometimes there’s a need for that,” said then assistant general manager John Mirabelli in a story in the Plain Dealer on March 16, 2008. “A couple of years ago he had a traditional three-quarters delivery, but since he’s dropped down, it’s made his fastball better.”
In his tenth year of professional baseball, he got off to a strong start for the Bisons and was named to the International League All-Star team. He finished the minor league season with a 5-4 record in 55 appearances with four saves, a 2.91 ERA, and a 1.22 WHIP with a career-best 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
In September, he got the call by the Indians and was one of six players added to the big league roster when his contract was purchased from Buffalo. He worked in eight games down the stretch, giving up a run on five hits with six strikeouts and three walks over five innings. His debut outing likely did not go as planned, but it was memorable for the hurler nonetheless as he entered with two outs in the ninth inning on September 3 against the Chicago White Sox for a left-on-left matchup against former Tribe legend and future Hall of Famer Jim Thome. All four offerings to the masher missed the plate and Thome drew a free pass before Wedge was on his way back to the mound to retrieve his rookie southpaw.
“No, it definitely wasn’t what I wanted, but it was fun to be out there,” said Rundles of that first big league in the September 4 edition of the Plain Dealer. “I definitely won’t forget it. I just wanted to go right at him. Unfortunately, a walk happened.”
Rundles was in the mix for a bullpen spot in 2009, joined by Ohka, Greg Aquino, Vinnie Chulk, Matt Herges, Jon Meloan, Adam Miller, Edward Mujica, and Juan Salas in spring camp. The team was satisfied with the likes of Kerry Wood, Rafael Betancourt, Masahide Kobayashi, Jensen Lewis, Rafael Perez, and Joe Smith already in the bullpen, but Rundles was unable to crack that group and was optioned to new minor league home Columbus midway through March. He got a quick call-up at the end of April to replace an injured Travis Hafner, but he did not appear until a second call at the end of May. He came in during the fourth inning of a sloppy 11-10 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, allowing two inherited runners to score while giving up a double and a walk and hitting a batter. A thinned out starting rotation led to his departure back to Columbus a couple of days later, but it proved to be the last appearance for him at the big league level. He concluded the year at Triple-A and went 2-2 with a 4.75 ERA and a 1.70 WHIP over 45 total appearances.
He was outrighted off of the roster by the Indians at the end of September and became a free agent. He returned to the St. Louis organization in the offseason and spent two seasons working for the Cardinals at the Triple-A level and he later made four more appearances for Baltimore’s Triple-A Norfolk affiliate in 2012, in between two stints with the independent Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League. Knee issues in 2012 and 2013 limited his time on the mound.
Rundles did not leave Lancaster far behind after hanging up the cleats following the 2013 season. He worked as the club’s pitching coach from 2014 to 2016 (while also acting as interim manager for two months of the 2016 season) before heading to The University of West Alabama. There, he was a volunteer assistant coach, an operations manager, and pitching coach for the Tigers while serving under his father, Gary Rundles, who is the team’s head coach.
Rundles is survived by his father Gary and mother Joan, as well as a pair of sisters. A memorial service took place on Friday, December 20, and funeral services followed on Sunday, December 22. The family asked, in lieu of flowers, that donations be made to The University of West Alabama Baseball Program, The University of West Alabama College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, or the Carson-Newman University Baseball Program.
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