Pitcher shakes nagging injury and finds groove


POSTED: Sunday, August 02, 2009

Heading into the final month and a half of our season, we remain in decent shape to make a run at a playoff appearance. Two games out of the league's second wild-card spot and three and a half games out of first place in the Frontier League's West Division with 36 games to play, we knew that our home series against the division-leading River City Rascals would be a big one.

Coming off a decent showing in our road swing through Chicago and St. Louis, we knew that we needed to perform well if we had any hopes of making the postseason.

To do that, we also knew we needed some strong starting pitching performances against the Rascals, who entered our series as the top-hitting team in the league. We sent one of our top arms, Joe Augustine, to the mound in the opener with our fingers crossed.

Joe has done a good job for us all season, but has battled an upper back strain most of the year. It all started during our overnight trip to Cincinnati for an exhibition game during spring training. Joe slept funny or something, as a kink in his upper back developed.

A native of New Brunswick, N.J., Joe is a workout animal and a true professional when it comes to his preparation and work ethic. Of all the pitchers on our staff, I have no doubt that Joe always puts in his work and makes every effort to be ready, every time we hand the ball to him. Joe has his workouts and throwing routine down to a science, down to the second, as he is never far from his trusty stopwatch to keep himself on schedule.

With that said, no one has been more disappointed with his nagging back than Joe himself. Our team doctors determined that pitching would not cause any further harm to Joe, so he has continued to take the mound for us every five days. Fortunately for us, Joey is also a heck of a competitor, and he has found a way to keep us in ballgames all year.

The nagging stiffness just below his neck left Joe with a constant grimace on his face. After a lot of work on his mechanics and countless visits to our chiropractor, Joe finally felt like he shook the strain at the end of the half.

In his previous outing, Joe pitched six strong innings against the Florence Freedom, allowing only an unearned run with four strikeouts and no walks as he picked up a key win for us.

But two days after the start, the discomfort came back. Joe isn't sure if it was the way he slept, or something he did, but the kink was back. With enough arms to skip his turn in the rotation, we bumped him back four days from his scheduled start to give him and our team trainer Chris Stone time to work on his back.

When the lights went on this Wednesday for our series opener with the Rascals, Joe was ready to take the mound.

The first inning went fine, as Joe faced four hitters and got the three outs without allowing a run. In the second inning, Joe ran back out and showed determination and toughness unrivaled in any starting pitching performance we saw all year long.

With the adrenaline of his first inning on the mound in a week and a half now gone, Joe's legs went out from under him, and he couldn't get behind any of his pitches. The result was four walks. Joe walked the leadoff hitter that inning, but got a quick out when the baserunner was gunned down attempting to steal second by our catcher Andrew Sweet.

Even then, Joe just couldn't find a groove, walking two more hitters before I jogged out to the mound to see what was going on. He was gassed, so I tried to buy him some time so he could catch his breath. After yet another walk, Joe willed his way to two more outs.

That proved to be the turning point of our game, and a breakthrough for Joe.

From the third inning until his exit after the seventh, Joe was nearly untouchable, as he worked his way into a rhythm I had never seen from him. His fastball, slider, changeup and breaking ball were on, as Joe had feel and command of all four of his pitches.

It was great to see. This kid with the impeccable work ethic, who had battled nagging pain all season, was on fire. Joe finished the night with seven shutout innings, allowing only three hits while striking out eight over his final five innings, and walking none.

It was the shot in the arm Joe needed, and the pitching performance we needed to have, as we won the series opener 6-2. As he was being interviewed by the local TV and newspaper media after the game, we saw a side of the kid we had not seen much of the year—a smiling Joe Augustine. He had found a way to gut it out for us all year, and now, finally, he was pitching like himself, an all-star in the Kansas City Royals organization for the past two years.

I was happy for us, I was ecstatic for Joey and I think it was just a glimpse of things to come.


Brendan Sagara, who played baseball for Leilehua and Hawaii-Hilo, is pitching coach for the Southern Illinois Miners.