Oakland A’s closer Blake Treinen doesn’t believe in having a pregame routine. “Some people get hung up on them,” he says, “and then it can throw them completely off.” Treinen doesn’t want to give himself any excuse to underperform. This season, however, he certainly doesn’t need an excuse. Through 67 games, with a 9-2 record, 37 saves and a 0.79 ERA, he is having a breakout year and has become one of the best relievers in the league.
At the end of the 2017 regular season, the A’s were in last place in the AL West. But on September 6th of that year, the A's began a late run, winning 17 out of their final 24 games. It was too late to make a difference, but in hindsight, it was a taste of what was to come. This year, the A’s are 95–63, and they have just clinched a playoff spot in the highly contested American League.
I recently visited Oakland Coliseum and spoke with Treinen about the reasons for his team’s success, as well as his personal achievements. It was a sunny Saturday in September, and the A’s were about to face the Minnesota Twins. Treinen and I spoke in a stairwell behind the dugout due to noise from preparations for the fireworks planned for later that evening. He was in uniform, and at 6’5”, he was a towering presence.
Both Treinen and his teammates were friendly and relaxed in the hours before the game. Their camaraderie showed in their good-humored jokes, and in the games of hacky sack and football that broke out on the field. In fact, Treinen attributes much of this year’s success to the unity and mutual respect that his teammates show for one another.
Treinen has been one of the instrumental pieces in the A’s unexpected season. And yet, he is exceptionally humble, constantly giving credit to his teammates and mentors. In fact, when I asked him which of his teammates were making an impact, he listed almost every fellow pitcher and position player and gave examples of their specific accomplishments. This year, the A’s “have a lot of good guys who don’t have egos,” he says. Moreover, his teammates “genuinely want the guy next to us to do better than ourselves. And if you have a team-first mentality, your results will be where you want them to be at the end of the year.” Sometimes, he says, that even means sacrificing personal stats for the good of the team.
As I asked him to name his role models, reliever Shawn Kelley happened to be walking down the stairs. Kelley quickly answered for him: “#31, Shawn Kelley.” After he finished laughing, Treinen agreed, but he added “I’ve just been very blessed.” Among the people he called out as important are coaches Tyler Oakes and Jake Angier from South Dakota State, where Treinen went to school, and Paul Menhart from the Nationals, who helped him to improve both mentally and physically. Treinen also stressed the influence of his father, with whom he remains close with.
Although Treinen was drafted by the A’s out of college in 2011, he was traded to the Nationals in 2013 before he got called up to the major leagues. During his time in Washington, Treinen was solid but inconsistent. In 2016, his ERA was 2.28, but the year before that it was 3.86. After more than four seasons in the Nationals organization, he was traded back to the A’s as part of an exchange that sent two key players, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, to Washington. This was difficult in some ways: “It was hard to say goodbye to friends and relations that I established in D.C.,” he says.
But Treinen was already comfortable with the A’s staff, and once in Oakland, he quickly grew excited about “the young, stand-out talent this team has.” Even so, he acknowledges that it was hard to come to a team that was in last place in their division, basically giving up his World Series chances that year. And for the A’s, “it was tough to part with guys like Doolittle and Madson, who were so important to this organization. They were really good, and the team felt confident having them in the back of the bullpen.” But Treinen turns challenges into opportunities, and he was determined to make a contribution: “I remember praying and saying, I really want to be what this team envisions me being and then some. I want to be a consistent role to fill a void that they lost.”
Treinen’s fastball has improved almost every year since high school. He frequently cracks 100 mph with both his fastball and his sinker. This year, he was an All-Star for the first time. This was an unexpected dream: “You look back at things, and there’s no way I could have ever said that I was going to go to an All-Star game with the team that drafted me at the stadium of the team that gave me my first big league opportunity,” he says.
Treinen attributes much of his personal success to two things: hard work and his deep faith. “I work extremely hard for what I’m doing,” he acknowledged, “but at the same time, God has opened up a door and created opportunities for me.” And as for the team as a whole, he points to manager Bob Melvin’s determination and positive mindset as a decisive advantage.
Although Treinen praises aspects of every other World Series contender this season, the A’s may be the scariest of them all. With clutch late-game hitting and a deep bullpen led by Treinen, they have proven that they can seize and keep a lead, even when things look hopeless. The game following my interview is a good example of the team’s confident late-game play. When Treinen came in for the ninth inning, the A’s and the Twins were tied at 2-2. He shut out the Twins during his only inning, giving up one hit and getting the win after the outfielder Stephen Piscotty scored on a wild pitch in the bottom of the inning.
Few people thought that the A’s would be relevant in 2018— except for the A’s themselves. Although the team is often characterized as an underdog, Treinen maintains that they don’t see themselves in that light. Rather, they know that they can win even when they’re down late in the game: “We’ve got a scrappy mentality, we’ve got a strong bullpen, we’ve got good young arms and young players,” he says. :We have potential to be dog-piling and shaking hands at the end of the season and playing October baseball.”