Steve Cishek grew up a Red Sox fan in Cape Cod, Mass., modeling his pitching after two of Boston’s aces, Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe. He wanted his wind up to mimic Martinez’s, and his mechanics to be like Lowe’s.
Somewhere along the way, Cishek molded a delivery that was completely different from that of Martinez or Lowe: a sidearm motion that he would use to establish himself as a big league reliever.
But for years, he had no idea his delivery was distinct.
“Somehow I came out the way I am today,” Cishek said. “I've had some pointers here and there, but even in high school people would ask how I throw like that and I had no idea what they were talking about.”
Cishek says he’s a self-taught sidearm pitcher, and doesn’t know how to throw any other way — noting that it actually feels like he’s delivering the ball in the typical, over-the-top fashion when he pitches. It wasn’t until he was in college at Division-II Carson-Newman, watching video of himself pitch for the first time, that he realized how low he actually delivered the ball.
Since entering the majors in September 2010 with the Marlins, Cishek has become one of the game’s most notable sidearm pitchers, using it to record 133 career saves and a 2.92 ERA while bouncing between eight teams. The Nationals, his eighth and current club, have turned to Cishek as one of their more reliable relievers this season. He leads all Washington pitchers in appearances (50), and is second among relievers in innings (49) while also notching a team-best 59 strikeouts.
“He's been awesome. He really has,” manager Davey Martinez said of Cishek. “Especially down there in the bullpen, helping our younger guys out. He's been really, really good. He's had a really good, successful year. I looked up at some of his numbers, he's striking out 10 per nine innings. That tells you that he goes out there, he competes, he's still got great stuff. … This guy, every time I talk to him about how he's doing, he's ready to go, every day. So it's awesome having him.”
As one of the most experienced pitchers in the Nats’ bullpen, Cishek has also become a key mentor figure to younger relievers like Hunter Harvey, who said Cishek has given him pointers on how to approach certain hitters, and has helped keep the clubhouse loose, too.
Over the past few years, Cishek said he’s become more of a vocal presence, helping struggling pitchers by giving them tips that he’s seen former teammates implement into their routines. This season, Cishek has conversed frequently with Erasmo Ramírez and Jordan Weems, the latter of whom spent five years in the minor leagues as a catcher before converting into a relief pitcher.
“We just like talking, pitching and working hard together,” Cishek said. “I think just in general throughout the course of the season you just have opportunities that come up where you can hopefully share some knowledge with some guys and help them try to get better."
Harvey, 27, was 12 years old when he first met Cishek. Harvey’s brother, Kris, was Cishek’s roommate while the two played for high Single-A Jupiter in the Marlins’ organization. It gave Harvey the opportunity to hang around a future MLB mainstay in Cishek, who Harvey said became like a step-brother to him. Back then, the two played volleyball and basketball together, and now, reunited as teammates 15 years later, Cishek and Harvey battle out bumper pool in the Nats’ clubhouse.
“It's crazy to see everything he's done, and knowing him as long as I have and now getting the chance to actually play with him, it's awesome,” Harvey said.
As a fellow reliever, Harvey showed appreciation for Cishek’s longevity and ability to pitch in the big leagues for over a decade.
“It's unbelievable, especially with the way he throws. It's tough to throw the way he does. And for him to be doing it for 11 or 12 years now is awesome,” Harvey said.
Cishek is unsure if the sidearm delivery has helped — or not helped — him stay healthy over the course of his career, noting that his workload (nearly 700 total innings over the last 12 seasons) has been high. He pointed to eating healthy, sleeping well and not drinking or smoking as the things that have helped him stay healthy enough to make appearance after appearance out of MLB bullpens.
Whether or not those appearances would be with the Nats at the tail end of this season was unclear for a while, though. Signed in March to a one-year contract, Cishek figured there was a chance he could be moved before the trade deadline, though Washington ultimately opted to keep him, along with other relievers thought to be trade pieces.
“I was hoping when I signed that we'd be playing a lot better than we are now, (and) if that wasn't the case then I'd hopefully be pitching well enough to be traded at the deadline — I knew that could have been a possibility,” Cishek said. “But regardless, I knew I was gonna be content with whatever happened. Still enjoy being here, as I said, working with the young guys, and playing this game that I'm blessed to play, and if I got moved at the deadline then so be it.”
But for now, Cishek remains with the Nationals, regularly recording innings in relief — like Saturday, when he pitched a scoreless sixth against Juan Soto and the Padres in a 4-3 Nats win — and helping out younger relievers. And despite pitching for an organization in the midst of a rebuild, Cishek is appreciative of the opportunity to regularly hear his name called and continue to fool hitters with his distinctive delivery.
"It means a lot. I mean, I love to work, and I'm getting paid to play, so I might as well be out there, right? I take a lot of pride in what I do, so it means a lot to me,” Cishek said.