A's Young Pitchers Spark Turnaround
RICH HARDEN, who has returned from a stint on the disabled list as sharp as he was before, allowing only one hit in Sunday’s whopping 16-0 win over the Giants:
“At the start of the season, Rich’s goal was to be the best right-handed pitcher in the league,” Young said. “He has a great fast ball, of course, but I really think it’s his changeup which sets up the fast ball, not the other way around. Hitters are never able to get comfortable because they can’t look for one pitch.”
Last season, Harden had a tendency to lose emotional control when the on-field situation took a turn for the worse, but he seems to have conquered that.
“He’s still very hard on himself when he’s throwing on the sidelines,” Young said, “but he doesn’t take that negative energy into the game any more. He’s very calm out there.”
DAN HAREN, who improved his record to 6-7 with a 3.98 ERA with a complete game win over the Giants on Saturday.
“The big thing with Haren is that he’s able to change speeds on his fast ball,” Young said. “That’s something you hope to see in a veteran pitcher, but it’s just unheard of in a young pitcher. So, instead of throwing his fast ball at 91-92 all the time, he messes with the hitters’ timing by coming in a few miles slower, but with what looks like the same pitch.”
Early in the season, Haren would look great the first two times through the order but then get hit hard the third time through. That’s not happening now. “I think it was just a matter of confidence,” Young said. “This is a young man who hasn’t yet pitched a full season in the majors, and he wasn’t sure of what he was doing. Now, he feels like he’s in command.”
JOE BLANTON, who had a mostly rocky road early but has looked solid lately, including an eight-inning effort against the Giants on Saturday that netted him a win.
With Blanton, Young cited two factors: Changing his mechanics and experience.
“He’s one of our fastest pitchers out of the stretch, just 1.1, 1.2 seconds,” Young said, “but he’d go into this long, slow windup when there were no runners on base. We worked with him to speed up his delivery and I think that improved his command.”
Blanton, Young said, has a variety of pitches. “He’s not a power pitcher, with a 90-91 fast ball, but he has a slider which comes in looking just like his fast ball, which throws the hitter’s timing off.
“He’s been through everything this year. He’s had some decent starts, some bad ones and one horrendous one (two-thirds of an inning against Tampa Bay.) So, whatever happens, he’s ready. If he struggles, he knows he can get out of it.”
KIRK SAARLOOS, who threw a complete game shutout against Seattle in his last outing. Saarloos will be skipped in the rotation this time because of the A’s day off today, but that may work to his benefit because he threw 125 pitches in that game. A study for Keith Wolner and Rany Jazayerli for “Baseball Prospectus”, based on 2003-2004 data, showed that pitchers who have thrown more than 120 pitches in a start have fallen off in their next starts.
“Kirk knows the realities of the situation,” Young said. “Fifth starters often get bumped if there’s an off-day. It happened to me when I was pitching.
“He was up in the majors within a year of being drafted (by Houston, which later traded Saarloos to the A’s for Chad Harville), so you know he has ability. Kirk has so much movement on his pitches that hitters are always hitting the ball into the ground. You know he’s going to get at least a couple of double plays a game.”
HUSTON STREET: “When you think that a year ago, he was pitching in the College World Series, it just blows your mind,” said Young of Street, who became the A’s closer when Octavio Dotel went on the disabled list. “We knew he had the ability, but the idea was supposed to be that he’d be a setup man. But when we had to use him as a closer, he just said, ‘Fine.’ Nothing fazes him. He’s got the ideal emotional makeup for a closer.
BEFORE THE A’s turnaround, Young and manager Ken Macha held a meeting with the entire staff.
“We basically told them that they needed to throw strikes,” Young said. “We’d scouted all these guys so we knew they could do it. When you throw strikes, it keeps the defenders on their toes, too, because they’re not just standing around. Good pitching and good defense go together.”
The pitch counts have gone down dramatically for the starters – Harden threw 76 in seven innings Sunday, Blanton 85 in eight innings on Friday night, Haren 109 in his complete game win Sunday. As the pitch counts have gone down, the A’s defense has picked up and the wins have followed.
The A’s have done one other thing with their young pitchers: They’ve shown patience and given them time to work through their problems. In contrast, the Giants have shown no patience with young pitchers and relied on veterans has-beens. More on that tomorrow.
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