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Thursday, September 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Just throw it in there’ – exploring the dynamics of the pitcher, catcher relationship

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

On a Friday night at Blue Bell Park in College Station, Texas, Alek Jacob stood alone on the mound, waiting for Brandon Harmon to join him.

The Gonzaga pitcher had just put two men on base – one by a single, the second on a walk after a nine-pitch at-bat – and his pitching coach was on his way out to settle him down. No outs, a two-run lead, bottom of the ninth.

“There were about 5,000 fans there. I couldn’t hear my teammates,” Jacob said. “A crazy situation. I’d never really been in that situation before.”

Harmon came out and, in Jacob’s memory, said to the sophomore pitcher, “This reminds you a bit of the Battle of the Boulevard, huh?” referring to the Shadle Park versus North Central rivalry Jacob had been a part of for four years with NC.

It took his mind off of everything that had happened, Jacobs said, and for that moment, he was convinced that there was nothing different that March night against Texas A&M.

The ball didn’t leave the infield after that, and the Bulldogs held on for a 6-4 victory. Jacobs earned the three-inning save, despite giving up two runs and six hits and issuing a walk.

“I told him after the game it was way different,” Jacobs said, “but (the message) really worked.”

On a baseball field, the pitcher’s mound is a lonely place. Its occupant has become more isolated the last two years, as rules makers have tightened restrictions on how many times players and coaches can visit the mound, in one of the sport’s efforts to speed up the pace at which the game is played.

After starting with a limit of six in 2018, Major League Baseball trimmed one visit from the maximum this year. Other levels of baseball have their own limitations on how many coaches or position players can make, varying by league, tournament and federation.

At every level, the core messages delivered by coaches and teammates are often the same: Calm down. Let’s get out of this jam. Here’s how we’ll do it.

But the manner in which those messages are communicated is nuanced, personalized and unique to those involved in the situation at hand.

Some players need a stern message, coaches said. Others want reassurance. Some don’t want to talk about baseball at all.

“On a typical college staff, you have 14 pitchers, so I probably have to have 14 different messages, for each guy, each time,” Harmon said.

In just about every situation, the stakes are high, and no one wants to waste what could become a precious asset late in a game when a visit might just make the difference – as it is so often employed to make – between a victory or a defeat.

“You control the game and everything, and I really like that aspect of (pitching), so there’s that,” Jacob said. “But if you’re struggling, it’s like you’re out there by yourself, and there’s nothing you can do.

“Honestly, (it’s nice) just to have another person there with you rather than feeling alone. When you’re on the mound, you have the eight guys backing you up, but it still feels so alone and on your own. It’s a weird feeling.”

Hollywood gets it right

Perhaps the most famous depiction of a mound visit doesn’t come from a real game, but from the fictionalized account of the minor league Durham Bulls in the 1988 film, “Bull Durham.”

“I love it. I love the movie,” said Anthony Claggett, the pitching coach for Washington State University’s baseball team. “That scene, it’s a fine line of true baseball and movies, right? It’s theatrical, but in a great way.”

In the scene, catcher “Crash” Davis, played by Kevin Costner, goes to the mound to check on “Nuke” LaLoosh, portrayed by Tim Robbins, who says he is nervous because his dad is at the game. Player by player, the whole infield joins, bringing their own topics to the discussion, some of which are far from baseball related.

Eventually, the pitching coach comes out, gets up to speed on the discussion and simply says, “OK, let’s get two,” and returns to the dugout. The convention takes about 2 minutes.

“The whole premise behind that scene is we’re trying to get his mind off what’s right in front of him,” Harmon said. “There’s a lot of stuff in that movie that’s blown out of proportion, but a lot that is true.”

Other films capture the moments, too. In “Angels in the Outfield,” manager George Knox (and a stadium of arm-waving fans) convinces Mel Clark that he has one strike left in him. In “Rookie of the Year,” coach Chet Steadman tries to help kid pitcher Henry Rowengartner overcome his fear by talking about “The Have To,” a nebulous concept to both parties involved.

In one particular way, the films are accurate: Few mound visits, fictional or otherwise, involve discussions about arm angles, leg movements or pitch grips.

“If we start talking mechanics out there (midgame), that’s trouble for me,” Harmon said. “That’s a midweek fix. We talk about that three days after the outing.”

So, in the moment on the mound, it’s all mental, just as portrayed in the movies.

“A lot of my visits now are, ‘Hey, let’s take a deep breath, reset on our plan here and get back to what we’ve done a million times,’ ” Mt. Spokane High coach Alex Schuerman said. “Then it morphs into knowing what kind of pitcher you have, their reactions to criticism. Sometimes I tell a joke just to get them to relax, to get them to relax but not tell them to relax.”

It starts with the catcher

Ideally, though, Schuerman would rather not make all the trips.

Schuerman has coached at Mt. Spokane for more than two decades, but before that he was a catcher at Mead High School and Whitworth University. At Mt. Spokane, he would rather see his catchers go out and talk to the pitchers, but it’s not something that comes naturally to all of them, he said.

In Washington state high school baseball, position players are not limited in their number of trips to the mound, whereas coaches get no more than three for the entire game. Visits when a pitcher is removed do not count.

“This summer, I’ve really had to train them and say, ‘Why haven’t you visited? He’s thrown five balls in a row,’ ” Schuerman said. “ I think it’s more just ignorance. They don’t realize (they are) supposed to do that, but I think it’s a super valuable part of being the catcher. The more they learn, the more they are empowered.”

Scott McQuilkin was Whitworth’s director of athletics for 15 years, and before that he was the school’s baseball coach from 1984 to 1990, a few years before Schuerman played for the Pirates. He is now the university’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement.

McQuilkin called baseball “the greatest game ever conceived” and said he loves that baseball doesn’t have a clock.

But he also has his criticisms of the sport, one of which is the length of games. A 2-hour and 15-minute baseball game would be ideal, he said, so he likes the limits placed on mound visits – though not only in a quest to shorten games.

“At some point our work has to be done as coaches in practice,” McQuilkin said.

McQuilkin is getting at something Schuerman, Claggett and Harmon alluded to: Part of their job as coaches is to get players to the point where they don’t need a mound visit every time they get into a jam.

“Personally, I try not to use them,” said Claggett, who couldn’t recall a time when he ran out of mound visits. “I feel that it’s pretty important for the player to find a way out of a jam, to mentally slow the game down, not only for themselves but for the team. … If things get out of hand, that’s where I’ve gotta step in.”

When he does visit the mound – current NCAA rules allow six nonpitching-change visits per game, up to three of which may include a coach – Claggett said he often wants other infielders there so they also hear his message, and so that in the future they can better manage a difficult situation without Claggett having to come out.

“You gotta teach it and coach it a little differently,” Claggett said. “It’s implemented in the development phase that, ‘Hey man, I can’t come out there 10 times during the game. Understand your breaths, your focal points, so you can get out of this yourself.’ ”

Signs of a good visit

Scott Kapers has said many of those same things to pitchers.

“I was a pitcher, too,” said the short-season Class A Spokane Indians catcher, who started playing behind the plate as a high school sophomore and played three years at Valparaiso. “When I was younger, it would be more like the pitcher is having a tough time or his body language is bad. As I got older, it was on me, and I kinda know when to walk out there.”

Usually, Kapers said, the visits work. He walks out there, breaks up a pitcher’s timing, gets his mind off what just happened, and they go back to it, he said.

“They’re all professional pitchers here,” Kapers said. “They know how to throw strikes. They’ve thrown so many times they know what they’re doing.”

The Indians have two pitching coaches this year, and they alternate who is in the bullpen and who is in the dugout during games. Generally, Henderson Lugo and Cody Aden are splitting the mound visits, and they are looking – not just listening – for signs from the pitcher.

“Body language is huge,” Lugo said. “One of the things we ask them to do – or require to stay on the mound – is make eye contact. We try to coach eye contact with them, put our hand on their shoulder, feel their breathing, and based on that we can approach what’s going on.

“Our thought might change when we get there based on what we see or what they say.”

Claggett pitched seven years in the minor leagues and made three major league appearances – two for the New York Yankees and one for the Pittsburgh Pirates – in 2009. He was on Brian Green’s staff at New Mexico State and followed Green to Pullman this spring.

During Claggett’s time in Double-A and Triple-A, former MLB pitcher Scott Aldred was his pitching coach. Claggett said he approaches the conversations similarly to how Aldred did with him.

“He was very direct in the best way possible. I just remember his being simple, direct and informative,” Claggett said. “I hear some pitching coaches go out and crack a joke at times, and that might work for some guys. Scotty wasn’t like that. For me, I didn’t need the jokes. I wanted the direct information.”

‘Just throw it in there’

Do they work? The clearest evidence is, obviously, what happens right after the visit. Big inning? Maybe it didn’t. A couple of quick outs? It probably did – at least in that it calmed down the pitcher enough for him to make his pitches.

“I can sort of get a sense of whether I did my job there, but we always joke as a staff that we don’t know the effectiveness of the visit until after that first pitch,” Schuerman said. “We’ll yell things like, ‘Good visit!’ if there’s that first strike.”

Still, coaches said, it’s all circumstantial, and that means it’s difficult to measure with certainty.

Kapers has made mound visits for all sorts of reasons. Some were to give the bullpen more time to warm up before sending out a new pitcher. Others he made just because he was tired.

But his most memorable one didn’t come midinning. Rather, it came before the final half-inning of the Illinois state championship game his sophomore year at Mount Carmel High School.

“My biggest memory was walking out there before the last inning and saying (to the pitcher), ‘Listen man, we’ve got this in the bag,’ ” Kapers said. “ ‘Just throw it in there. Who cares what they do?’ ”

Whether it was the conversation that made the difference, Kapers wasn’t sure. But his teammate pitched well. His team won 2-1. The result, in some sense, made the conversation a success.

That was all that mattered.

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