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Friday, August 12, 2022

Zach Pop’s journey from big kid in Brampton to Jays bullpen

Joe Ferreira was as happy as anyone from the Brampton Royals baseball organization when Zach Pop was traded to the Blue Jays this past week.

Ferreira remembers Pop as a big, fun-loving kid whose path to the majors began with the Royals, before he moved on to the Toronto Mets, Ontario Blue Jays and then the University of Kentucky. Now that he’s a big-league Jay — Pop was drafted by Toronto in 2014, but didn’t sign — Ferreira hopes his former cleanup hitter will inspire a new generation of local kids.

“With Zach being here again, and kids in the neighbourhood seeing him here, it could get more kids playing baseball,” he said.

Pop is from Brampton and played hockey on defence growing up. While he had the size and natural talent, he learned that hard work in the gym plus an all-out, no-nonsense commitment to understanding the game was the ticket to the big leagues.

It all started with a firm foundation.

Ferreira’s son, Eric, grew up with Pop, playing T-ball and having sleepovers. The teammates were like family, with Pop joining in on chores. He would often line the fields before games, and run across the street from the park after games to get Freezies at the local corner store.

Pop — now six-foot-four and 220 pounds at age 25 — was always one of the biggest kids on the team. As his talent blossomed, he was naturally the centre of attention.

“One year, we played against a team that was a year up, in a tournament in Niagara Falls,” Ferreira said. “They thought they could intimidate us; they had their ace go and throw down in the bullpen before the game. We started laughing, because they hadn’t heard Zach warm up …

“When he started throwing, the sound of it — the sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s glove — you could see the other coaches go, ‘Uh oh, we’re in trouble here.’”

Frank Fascia, president of Brampton Minor Baseball and a member of the Ontario Baseball Association board, also remembers Pop in his teen years as “a big kid … when you think of one of those prototypical WHL defencemen, that’s what Zach looked like. When you shook his hand, it was like shaking a wrestler’s hand, and he was only 15.”

Zach Pop (top left) will have former Brampton Royals teammates cheering him on after a recent trade to his hometown Blue Jays.

Pop started out as a first baseman, but the Royals quickly realized how hard and heavy his throws were. That’s when Sean Travers — part of the coaching staff when Pop joined the Ontario Blue Jays, an elite team that’s also the former home of Jays closer Jordan Romano and Cleveland Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor — decided it was time for a chat.

“I don’t think he liked what I had to say,” Travers said. “The first time in my office, I said: ‘I don’t think you are a hitter. I think you need to get in shape first and learn the game.’ As we progressed, I think he respected that.”

When Pop shifted to pitching, there were growing pains while he tried to separate himself from all the other kids with size and talent. That process didn’t come quite as easily as hitting a ball a country mile, or throwing heat at an early age.

“He wasn’t overly excited about being a pitcher,” Travers recalled. “It was the same thing when Romano played for us. (Romano wanted to be a catcher.) But from what I saw of Zach, he changed his entire life to get to his goal. Now you look at him, you look at how hard he works, and he’s totally transformed … He could be one of the best in-shape players out there.”

The transformation led to becoming a reliable right-hander in the Miami Marlins bullpen, posting a 3.60 ERA through 18 appearances this year in his second MLB season. But he had to put in a lot of work to get to this point.

“At 16, 17, everyone looked at him because he could throw hard. But when he looked in the mirror he wasn’t satisfied, so he had to find himself,” Travers said. “He had this image of being the ‘big guy,’ and he had to protect it. Eventually, he had to get to the point where he didn’t care what anyone else thought of him … If you want to do uncommon stuff, and be great, you can’t do stuff commonly.”

By the time Pop left the Ontario Blue Jays, he was 18 and throwing in the low- to mid-90s. His coaches all agree that something changed at Kentucky. He started to throw a 98-m.p.h. heater with sink, and an equally stout slider that he still uses in the majors.

The tough love to become a pitcher was paying off. While his statistics weren’t where he wanted — Pop had an ERA of 5.21 in his second university season — the evidence was on the radar gun when it flashed triple digits.

“I can imagine there were tough times for the family,” Travers said, recalling that Pop’s parents, Sheldon and Judy, also weren’t enamoured of the suggested change at first. But they helped him through a tough process.

“When Zach wasn’t doing things the way he wanted at Kentucky, his father was on the phone and was helping his son. Now, I think if you look back at those days with Kentucky, Zach wasn’t going the farthest when he was there, but he’s probably gone farther than anyone else on that team now. Zach figured it out.”

Through the pandemic, when most baseball facilities were closed, Pop relied on his Ontario connections. He showed up at several local fields and worked with pitching coach Mike Steed, a Beamsville, Ont. native now with the Atlanta Braves’ A-ball team in Augusta.

When Pop first hit 100 m.p.h. on the speed gun at Kentucky, word spread and his phone lit up with messages from his old Brampton Royals pals.

It was around then that Pop was drafted in the 23rd round by the Jays. Eight years later, after establishing himself as a reliable reliever in the Marlins organization, his hometown team acquired him for a shot at the World Series.

“It’s pretty special to be able to go back home and see my family and to play for the Blue Jays,” Pop told MLB.com after the trade broke. “I’ve got a lot of friends, a lot of people rooting for them right now.”

The Jays’ next homestand starts Friday against the Guardians.

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