JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. - Each member of the Miami Marlins bullpen has an important role in the ball club's success, but it's the closer who must get those all important three outs at the end of the game to preserve a victory.
Since the end of the 2012 season, that role in Miami has belonged to a former member of pitching coach John Duffy's Jacksonville Suns bullpen, Steve Cishek. Cishek collected a career-best 34 saves for the Marlins in 2013; a season he admitted was an eye-opener.
"I struggled early on with some command and my slider, I just wasn't locating it and just a lack of confidence," Cishek said. "I finally got it back and this year was the biggest learning experience that I've had. I was trying to learn how to pitch in the key situation when you don't have your best stuff. It was definitely an awesome experience this year."
Cishek, who was attending homecoming festivities at his alma mater Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn., on Thursday, was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round of the 2007 draft after gaining experience and confidence pitching collegiately for the Eagles.
"My very first outing for Carson-Newman I hit 92 miles per hour on the gun out of nowhere," Cishek said. "Surely it was because of the work ethic coaches here instilled in us and I just carried that on my remaining years here."
Cishek rose quickly through the Marlins system, reaching Double-A Jacksonville during the 2010 season after opening the season in High-A Jupiter. He pitched in 22 games for the Suns in 2010, going 3-1 with a 4.31 ERA with a pair of saves on a club that won the Southern League Championship.
"Winning the championship on a walk off home run by our catcher Chris Hatcher, who's now a major league pitcher, easily that was the biggest moment of my baseball career to that point," Cishek said. "Seeing that ball go over the fence and getting a ring on our fingers, it was an awesome experience."
The 2010 season was Duffy's first as Suns pitching coach, but Cishek had worked with him before in Greensboro and credited his coaching as part of the right-hander's success.
"Duff is just a worker," Cishek said. "Any time you need to go out there, any time you need him he's there for you and then-some. He'd make sure you got out there and made sure you threw off the mound and work on your stuff. People like him; they just want to do anything to help you get better. He doesn't care about himself he's just out there to help you out. 'Duff' and all of those pitching coaches I had in the minor leagues I'll never forget."
Cishek was just hours removed from the Suns' champagne celebration in the clubhouse for the Southern League title when he got a phone call that would change his life from Marlins management - getting called up to the major leagues.
"I was on my way back to Massachusetts and sure enough one of the starting pitchers on the Marlins major league team didn't have a solid outing and they pretty much wore everyone out in the bullpen so they needed an extra arm. So I had to make a nice little U-turn in Georgia and drive back down I-95 South. It was the best phone call I've ever had."
After his 2010 cup of coffee and then regular work in 2011 with the Marlins, the 2012 season was the first full year for Cishek in the major leagues. The Marlins signed high-priced free-agent Heath Bell to be the closer for the year, but as the season wore along Cishek found himself pitching more and more in the ninth inning as he eventually took over Bell's role.
"I ended up getting the job when Heath was struggling a little bit," Cishek said. "I just went out there to try and do anything I could to help the team win."
The 2013 season saw Cishek pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, and then after some early struggles he found success on the mound, at one point converting 28 consecutive save opportunities for the Marlins.
While there are several players on the Marlins that Cishek was teammates with in Jacksonville, he was also impressed by some of the 2013 Suns that made their way to Miami's roster such as Christian Yelich, Jake Marisnick, Marcell Ozuna, and Derek Dietrich.
"I felt like Dietrich had some of the biggest hits for us during that stretch in June when we were playing well," Cishek said. "Ozuna looked phenomenal as well and he was great in the outfield; he has a real cannon for an arm. Arquimedes Caminero had a lightning arm in the bullpen; I mean the ball just jumps out of his hand. He's fun to watch in bullpens, I'd never seen him pitch in a game so to see that was awesome and he's also a really good guy.
"Yelich was phenomenal and probably ended up being one of our more consistent hitters near the end of the year. Hopefully he'll have a job with us (in the big leagues) next year. Marisnick too, he can run down some baseballs in the outfield, I know he struggled a bit offensively but there's a lot of future in him. So these young guys, I feel like I'm old and I'm really not that old but they're just a lot of fun to watch and it will be exciting to see what they can do in the years to come."
Cishek is optimistic the Marlins will improve on their 2013 record of 62-100 in 2014, knowing that the ball club has a good core of young talent.
"We had the second-best record in June in the National League, we had a pretty tough schedule at that point too but we were competing with everyone," said Cishek. "It just goes to show you what kind of talent we have, but it's a transition period for us but we're young and it's going to be exciting to see what this team is capable of."
For the latest Suns news this offseason, fans are encouraged to visit www.jaxsuns.com and can keep up with the Jacksonville Suns on the club's Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram social media platforms, as well as the "Tales from Bragan Field" blog: www.sunsradio.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.