CHARLESTON — West Virginia Power Manager Rick Sofield sat in his office Wednesday night following his team’s 13-2 win over the Lakewood BlueClaws, happy that starter Zack Von Rosenberg threw six solid innings with four strikeouts and just one walk.
“We don’t get them very often, quality starts around here,” he said.
He’d go without one the very next night.
Nick Kingham would allow six earned runs on nine hits in five innings Thursday versus Lakewood, leading to an 11-4 loss and the Power resuming its quest for consistency on the mound. That’s not always easy to find with a staff of barely-twenty-somethings just coming out of the blocks in their baseball careers. Yet that’s the mission of Sofield and Power pitching coach Willie Glen — to help the pitchers grow and advance, despite the early bumps in the road they may face.
And the Power’s pitchers have felt plenty of bumps this season. West Virginia is next to last in the South Atlantic League in team ERA (5.21) and third to last in both walks allowed (338) and strikeouts (586). The 83 home runs they’ve given up in 88 games this year are the most in the league.
Last week was a prime example of West Virginia’s pitching inconsistency. After Kingham struggled, Power starters put together back-to-back solid outings. Zach Dodson didn’t get the decision, but gave up just three runs on six hits in six innings in the Power’s 4-3 win Friday. Then Robby Rowland threw six scoreless innings in an 8-1 win Saturday.
Yet, on Sunday, Ryan Hafner allowed five runs on six hits in 4 1/3 innings, including a grand slam in the fifth, in West Virginia’s 7-5 loss.
Glen said much of the work he puts in with his pitchers is mental. He wants them to build trust — in themselves and in the work they do before they ever take the mound. Different pitchers have different issues. Some are pitching their first full season. Some are pitching in front of crowds for the first time. Some are suffering through their first bit of adversity in their careers after blowing batters away in high school.
It can be tricky, Glen said, since what works for one pitcher one day may not work the next.
“There’s an art form to it,” he said. “If it was a science, it would be really easy, but it’s not. There’s a lot of art involved, trying to paint the picture and figure out how everything needs to go and how to get the most out of these kids.”
For Von Rosenberg, the issue had been moving too fast, both mentally and physically. That not only led to fatigue, but also had him thinking several hitters ahead rather than focusing on the one in front of him.
“It’s so simple — deep breaths,” Von Rosenberg said of his solution. “I used to get going so quick, pitch after pitch after pitch, I’d get out of breath. So it’s deep breaths, taking my time, not fast paced, walking around the mound, collecting myself, gathering information from the hitter and attacking.”
And success breeds success, Hafner said. When a pitcher sees his numbers improve, or sees his teammate break through, it helps build the trust that Glen tries to instill in his staff. It’s an ongoing process, but one that can get results.
“As you start doing better and better, you begin to trust yourself more and more and trust in your stuff,” Hafner said. “You have to know that your stuff is better than the hitter and just know that my stuff’s good enough and I can get it there.”
Failure also helps, Sofield said. By allowing young pitchers to take their lumps, as frustrating as it may some times be, it builds experience. Young pitchers now have something to fall back on, and when faced with a tough situation, they know firsthand what worked and what didn’t in digging themselves out of that hole.
This is when that should happen, Sofield said, tucked in the minors where pitchers can experiment, tinker and take chances, and away from the bright lights of the big leagues.
“That’s what this league is built about — the Florida State League, this league, the Carolina League, the Gulf Coast League,” Sofield said. “That’s what these leagues are is to get guys out there and let them fail and figure out what’s going on and the game gets sped up.”
Despite this season’s up-and-down numbers, Glen has sensed the pitchers turning a corner in the last month. Von Rosenberg agrees, saying his teammates have let the bad innings roll of their backs and have kept plugging away at solutions.
“As soon as you let the outings you have consume you, everything goes downhill even worse,” he said. “Guys are still going out there and competing and pitching and sticking to the plan and not giving up. Yeah, the numbers aren’t there, but we’re on the right path to getting there.”
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712.
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