All Spencer Patton wants is a ball and directions to the nearest mound.

Don’t worry about the bullpen car, you can keep it in park. The bearded reliever, who Yokohama BayStars fans affectionately call “Shogun,” was never much for NPB’s in-game Uber service. His preferred mode of transportation from the bullpen to the mound has always been his own two feet.

“I like to use that run in as kind of a way to get the blood going, get my blood pumping a little bit and it just kind of helps me on that jog in,” Patton told The Japan Times.

“I use that time to focus on what I’m about to do and get a little more mentally prepared.” What Patton often did after his mid-game runs this year was strike people out. He fanned 65 in 53 innings in 2020, the most in the Central League and second only to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Livan Moinelo among NPB relievers.

Patton made 56 appearances out of the bullpen for DeNA in 2020, finishing with 19 holds — tied for seventh in the CL — and a 3.83 ERA. He was one of five CL relievers with a strikeout rate over 11. From Aug. 27 to Oct. 13, he went on a run of 19 straight scoreless relief appearances.

Patton had a solid year under strange circumstances as COVID-19 forced NPB players and teams to deal with a lot as they tried to complete a season amid a pandemic.

Now as a free agent, Patton is searching for his next mound in a market that may also be affected by the coronavirus fallout. Playing fewer games in front of reduced crowds (in Japan) or none at all (in MLB) caused a sharp decline in revenues for teams in 2020.

“I think it plays a factor for a lot of players this year,” Patton said. “I mean look at what’s going on in the States. That atmosphere is kind of crazy right now. Nobody knows if they’re going to have a shortened season next year.

For many free agents, the virus fallout raises a lot of questions.

“So it’s like, do you sign with a team, because you may not get the money that you signed for if they have a prorated season again,” Patton said. “Are you going to have a season at all?

“So guys are going to have to make some sacrifices. Teams are going to have to make some sacrifices. It definitely concerns me a little bit. But I just want to play. For me, that’s the main thing.”

Patton is a ballplayer, and that’s the only certainty in these uncertain times.

“I just want an opportunity to continue my career and play,” he said. “I don’t want all that money talk and all that stuff to hinder me from getting a job. I just want to be on the field.”

After four solid years in Yokohama, Patton is reportedly receiving interest from some MLB clubs, including the Texas Rangers, for whom he played in 2014 and 2015. He’s also open to returning to Japan, saying his family enjoyed their time in Yokohama.

“I think we’re looking for the best fit,” Patton said. “We’re not going to shut the door on anything. We welcome any opportunity, whether it be Japan or back here in the States. We’re gonna weigh our options and we’re gonna to find out what’s best suited for our family. I’m open to coming back to Japan, I’m not going to shut the door on that.

“We would love to come back if we had an opportunity to do so. But also, who doesn’t wanna play in the big leagues? So if there’s that opportunity too, I’m open to that as well.”

Patton’s 101 holds in Japan makes him one of four foreign pitchers with at least 100 in NPB history, and he’s 32nd on the career list. He’s racked up 243 strikeouts in 205⅔ innings.

He’s gained experience in Japan and isn’t the same pitcher who arrived in 2017.

“I’ve gotten more confident at being able to throw the ball inside more,” Patton said. “I know that’s something I was missing before I came to Japan. I was able to develop that part of my game, being able to establish the inside part of the plate and continue to throw the ball there.

“Then also I learned I needed a third pitch. So this past year, I started throwing my changeup a lot more and I actually was pretty successful with it for the most part, throwing it and gained a lot more confidence in that. So establishing the third pitch and the confidence with that third pitch is something that I definitely improved on.”

Because of the virus, Patton’s most recent NPB season was certainly the strangest.

“I was very skeptical that we were going to get the entire season in,” Patton said. “When they told us we were going to play 120 games (out of 143), I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s no way.’ “Then once we got underway and once we got through the frustrations of having to do all the little things like temperature checks everyday and social distancing while we eat, not being able to go out to eat on the road and wearing the mask all the time. I think once we got through all of that everybody got comfortable and it was good.

“I think we managed it great, especially the BayStars.”

Patton was pleased with how he performed in 2020, especially after missing time last year following an incident where he landed three punches on the dugout refrigerator after a frustrating outing against the Yomiuri Giants in August.

“I was happy with how I felt after my incident last year,” he said. “My boneheaded incident in the dugout and missing the last part of the season. I felt like I had to come back and prove myself again. And I think that I started off that way.

“I had a really good start to the season. The first part of the season, I pitched really well there. And then I hit a couple of bumps.

“After that, out of the bullpen-wise, after those couple of hiccups I felt like I threw the ball really well. And that was my goal, to have a long stretch of really good bullpen outings and just show that I can still pitch.”

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