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being blake hawksworth

when i talked to blake hawksworth last year, he was just re-emerging as a prospect after nearly two years on the shelf. in that interview, he told me "I'm just trying to learn the mental side right now . . . . mental adjustments, being confident, trusting your stuff --- all of that seems way more important than getting your side work in." i found that an interesting perspective, coming from a guy who'd lost the physical ability to throw a baseball and needed surgery (and 15+ months of rehab) to regain it. nearly one year later, hawksworth has passed all the physical tests --- he made every start last season (split between class A and double A) without breaking down, averaging better than 6 innings a start, and he has made 11 starts this season at triple A with just shy of 6 inn per start. while he's not overpowering triple A hitters --- his strikeout rate is just 4.6 per 9 innings, and opponents have batted .275 againt him --- hawksworth is excelling in the mental game: ie, he's avoiding mistakes. his walk rate is below 2 per 9 innings, and he has yielded only 4 homers in 62 innings.

those are jeff suppan-like numbers --- by which i mean, hawksworth appears to be cut from pitch-to-contact cloth. while scouts generally like him and other organizations reportedly show interest, PECOTA is not all that impressed; it lists nondescript pitchers like ryan glynn and vinnie chulk and former memphis redbird chris gissell among hawksworth's 20 most comparable players. josh hancock is also high on hawksworth list of comps, ranking 4th . . . . the best pitcher on the comp list might be brian bannister, the one-time new york met prospect now pitching for kansas city.

we might get to see hawksworth pitch for the cardinals at some point this year --- but probably not until september, and then only if the cards are out of the race. my thanks to memphis media-relations coordinator kyle parkinson for facilitating the interview.

The first thing I want to ask you about is your health. You're a year further removed from should surgery (in 2004); how's your shoulder feeling?
So far, so good. You know, there's always a few aches and pains, but on the fifth day it feels great.

Was there anything you had to do in the off-season or in the spring in that regard to get ready for the season, or are you on a pretty standard workout and maintenance program?
This off-season was the first really healthy off-season I've had, so I was able to do a little more weights, but the main thing for me is just to get my throwing in. It takes me a while to get into good throwing shape. It took me a little while to do that, but after the spring it started to feel pretty good.

When I talked to you last year, you said that you were getting some of your old velocity back. How hard are you throwing these days, and are you satisfied with where you are in that regard?
Yeah; I feel strong. As long as I can throw in the 90s, I really don't care where it's at. Just get me out of those 80s and I'm happy with it. This year's been good; I've been in the low 90s. So I feel strong.

You started out 0-4 at Memphis and had kind of a rough month of April, but then the month of May was outstanding for you. Was there a particular adjustment that you made, or did you just round into shape and pitch better?
I think it was more of a mental adjustment. The first few starts, I felt a little tentative out there; I wasn't being really aggressive. Once I got over that, kinda detached the brain in a sense and just went out and focused on competing, good results followed. So I'm trying to keep that train going.

Was that related to being at a higher level of competition? What accounted for being tentative, do you think?
You know what, I can't honestly tell you. Pitching is such a confidence thing, and for the first few starts, for some reason I just didn't really feel confident going out there. Maybe there was a little sense of trying to prove something; I'm not quite sure what it was. Once I tricked my mind into getting almost upset when I go out there --- getting into a real aggressive mind-set, getting in that attack mode --- it definitely seemed to help me. I've learned that that's something I need to do every start.

When you pitched against the Cardinals in that exhibition game right before the season, you pitched really well --- there it didn't seem like you were tentative at all, at least judging by the line you put up.
Yeah. They put a lot of balls in play on me, but fortunately I kept the ball down that night, threw a lot of strikes. It was a good outing.

Was there any tension facing the big-league team, pitching in front of Duncan and La Russa?
Yeah, there was a little bit. I definitely wanted to prove that I could compete against those guys. I knew most of them from the spring, so I guess that helped with the initial nervousness of it. It was fun --- it was a sellout crowd, and I was definitely excited.

What about spring training? This was your first one with the major-league team --- did you get a chance to work with Duncan? Did you pick anything up from him?
Yeah. We talked about starting to throw a cut fastball, which he wanted me to throw. I got in a couple of bullpen sessions with him, but he had his hands full --- especially this spring. There were 7 guys competing for 5 spots. Whenever I could get him, I tried to be a sponge, in a sense, and pick up whatever I could. I just tried to follow the veteran guys, just keep my mouth shut, be seen and not heard.

Have you continued to work on that cutter since the spring?
Yeah, I've been playing catch with it. I haven't thrown it too much in the games here, but I keep throwing it in my bullpen sessions, try to keep it sharp. It's something that me and the catchers are working on --- if he calls it, I'll try to throw it in. But so far we haven't really worked it into the games yet.

The catching situation at Memphis has been kind of a revolving door, hasn't it --- between injuries and callups. Is that disruptive? You're talking about trying to fine-tune your game, but I would imagine that it might be more difficult to establish a rhythm when you're throwing to a new catcher every night.
Yeah, it can be hard. Esposito's been catching me --- every start this month [ie, May]. We definitely had a good rhythm; we're on the same page. I was talking to Christianson yesterday, and he was asking me, `What have you guys been doing?' So your minds tells you there's gonna be a little adjustment time, but I'm trying not to think about it. I know what's been working, and ultimately the pitcher has the final say. I don't think it'll be a problem. [Don't know whether or not the catcher had anything to do with it, but Hawksworth had a rocky outing pitching to Christianson --- 10 hits in 5 innings --- on Saturday night. --- LB]

When you guys were out in Colorado Springs, I was talking to Dyar Miller on the day you guys flew in. He told me, "The plane landed at 2:30, we dumped our stuff at the hotel, we got to the ballpark at 3:30 for a 5 p.m. game." He was eating a bag of trail mix that he'd bought out of a vending machine in the lobby; that was his lunch. And Troy Cate had to go out there and pitch, compete, in those kind of conditions. Have you run into that type of situation so far this year, where the circumstances are less than ideal and you have to go out there and perform anyway?
This league's definitely a grind --- early wake-up calls and stuff like that. You're a little short on rest. But for me, I kind of get excited to be in those situations. You kind of show what you're made of, in a sense. It's a mental game. If you can tell your mind that you're prepared and you're rested, your body is gonna follow your mind's lead. If you tell yourself you're tired and you haven't eaten enough, then you're not gonna feel too good. That's some of the little stuff I'm learning, and I think that's what separates the minor leagues from the big leagues. The big league guys are so mentally strong that they can persevere through a lot of that stuff.

You've referenced the mental side a number of times here since we've been talking. I'm just curious, is working on the mental stuff as important as the physical stuff? Do you think perfecting those mental skills is as important as perfecting your pitches?
To me, that's all of it. You'll see a lot of guys in the minor leagues that have better talent, better stuff, than some big-league guys, but the big-league guys can execute more consistently. Throwing off-speed pitches for strikes in hitter's counts --- that's a mental thing. Obviously there's a physical part, but they're confident. Watching guys like Carp --- they're humble guys, but once they get on that mound you can just see it: They don't believe anyone can hit them. And that's a big part of it.

So then is it good to be on a team with guys like Ankiel and Kiesler and John Rodriguez, who have spent some time in the big leagues? Can you learn about how to cultivate the mental skills from them?
Yeah, I try to follow those guys. Like Ank --- he's a guy who works extremely hard off the field, too, in the weight room and so forth. Him, J-Rod --- they're professionals. They work hard, on and off the field. So I try to draw off their experience as much as I can.

* * * * * * *

a lot of hawksworth's comments --- about executing off-speed pitches, maintaining confidence, staying in attack mode, persevering through adverse circumstances --- put me in mind of anthony reyes and adam wainwright. both are trying to acquire these skills and make them stick, a chore that nearly every young pitcher labors with. wainwright seems to be turning the corner; reyes still isn't there yet.

hawksworth's remarks about the mental side of the game also made me think of tony and dave, whose approach to pitching is so strategic and cerebral --- and whose thinking is so much riper (maybe too much so, in some respects) than that of the average 23-year-old. depending on the player, that wealth of evolved knowledge could be either a blessing or a curse.