Life in the Minors

By Brendan Sagara

Sunday, July 28, 2002

Laughter best remedy
for pitching slump

AS a pitching coach in the minor leagues, the decision process is a dramatically different enterprise from being at the college or high school level. A struggling pitcher does not simply get relegated to the back of the bullpen here. And we surely can't redshirt a pitcher who has forgotten how to steer his breaking pitch over the plate.

With an 84-game schedule and games virtually everyday, we really don't have room for any mop-up, or inning-eater guys in our bullpen.

So when one of my favorite pitchers on our ballclub over the past two years, Cody Fisher, seemed to forget how to get people out, it was a cause for concern for me.

It all started innocently enough. With four or five really strong outings early in first half of the season, Cody looked exactly like the college kid we signed last year, sneaking his 83-87 mph, tailing fastballs under, over and off the handles and ends of opponents' bats. Not a flame thrower by any means, Cody could deal. He could spot his fastballs on a dime on each side of the plate, throw his curveball for strikes at will, and instinctively pull the string on his dipping changeup on demand.

Not only had our left-hander from Olney, Ill., succeeded in giving us a chance to win in each of his starts, but he had done well enough to earn a spot in the Frontier League All-Star game and even draw some attention from the Florida Marlins.

But as the All-Star break approached, Cody began to struggle. A giggler of a guy, Cody had become one of the most popular characters in the clubhouse. Always a rascal smile for a passer-by in the stadium, Cody was always scheming on a prank, or working on making the dugout erupt with laughter. His laughter alone seemed contagious, especially at about 3 a.m. during one of the movies on the team bus. You just couldn't hear his laugh without breaking into laughter yourself.

But the bounce in his step and the tickle in his laugh began to disappear as his ERA began to skyrocket. First to 3.50 ... and then to 4.00 ... and then 5.00 ... and 6.00 ... and even 7.00. Cody's character never changed, though. And neither did his pleasant disposition. Rough outing after rough outing, he just kept working and hoping ... and listening.

So our manager Greg Tagert -- a "pitching guy" himself -- and I began to experiment. First, we hit the mechanics. Cody's velocity had been a little down of late, so we tweaked. We changed his arm action after he broke his hands. We had him more upright in his windup. Then I changed his grip on the fastball, and then our skipper had him move to the other side of the pitcher's rubber.

I sat and talked about tactics, and game strategy. How I wanted him to use his fastball more aggressively the first couple of times through the order. Cody had been getting the 0-2, and 1-2, and 2-2 counts, but was not able to deliver the knockout blow. I hoped that by having him use his fastball to get ahead, he could use his solid curve and top-notch changeup to finish the batter, just as he had last year when he finished 10th in the entire Frontier League in ERA.

Cody knew that his time was running out. Most teams would not stick with a starting pitcher who had only pitched a total of eight innings over his last three starts, giving up 15 runs during those contests. But, besides the fact that he had given us many solid outings in the past, we liked him. Simple as that. But as we approached our six-game homestand last week, we all knew that a decision was looming. We had three new hard-throwing pitchers coming to join the club, and someone had to go.

To add to the drama, Cody's next start was to be on just three days of rest (as opposed to his customary four days off) against the Richmond Roosters. The defending Frontier League champ, Richmond is stacked offensively once again this year. With more than half of its starters batting over .300, the Roosters came into the game topping the circuit with a team batting average over .295.

So come game day, as Cody tossed his final few warm-up pitches, I got a little nostalgic. I glimpsed back to last year's spring training, when this little country boy stepped onto the mound for the first time in an intersquad. Like everyone else, he arrived with an impressive resume. This little guy, all 5-foot-8 of him, started attacking our hitters with his darting fastball, and did not stop until the season was over and he was 6-3 with a 3.30 ERA. His contagious laugh, his ever present rascal grin.

And as he flipped me the ball after he had thrown his last warm-up pitch, as he departed for the dugout to grab a drink of water before he ran out to the mound for the first pitch, I smiled, and he gave me his rascal wink. As I started to wish him well, and give him my last few words of how to work the game plan, he just kinda winked at me and shrugged his shoulders.

I exhaled hard as Cody jogged out and picked up the ball. Well, the first pitch was a fastball away and at the knees for a strike. Then came another, and another, and yet another. Strikeout after strikeout after strikeout. Cody had just struck-out the side.

And then he went back out in the second, and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth and did it some more. We pulled Cody out after the sixth with a 5-1 lead, after watching him space just four hits and strike out six with no walks.

Cody was back. I still can't figure out who was more nervous for Cody that night, the pitcher or the pitching coach. After our manager had informed him that his night was over after a job well done, I stepped in to give him my congratulatory handshake. As I extended my right arm out to Cody's, he grasped my hand and laughed a bit ... and then he laughed a lot. It had all come back ... and the pitching coach had sweaty palms. And then we both laughed. He got me again.

Brendan Sagara, a former University of Hawaii-Hilo
pitcher, is in his second year as pitching coach for
the Dubois County (Ind.) Dragons.

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