September a real challenge for young pitchers

For many young pitchers, September is different than any other month in the regular season. Infinitely different.

Originally Published: September 7, 2006
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

For the first 130 games or so of the baseball season, one month blends seamlessly into another, without much fanfare. When April turns to May, or June becomes July, it's hardly noted.

Justin Verlander
Matthew Mitchell/WireImage.comTigers rookie Justin Verlander is fourth in the American League with a 3.27 ERA.
But the arrival of September is different, particularly for young pitchers. September is the great unknown, unchartered territory.

For pitchers, that last step from August to September is a doozy.

"September," warns a longtime advance scout, "is totally different. It's a whole new ball game and there's no preparing for it the first time around. For pitchers, if you make 100 pitches in a game [during the rest of the season], there's always an inning that's the equivalent of two innings. Well, September is like that times 10 because of the pressures of the pennant race. It's infinitely different than the rest of the season."

In September, the games become bigger, the margin for error becomes smaller and the spotlight shines brighter.

"To me," Curt Schilling said, "September is the month when a lot of new things get put on your plate for the first time. It's a litmus test for being in the big leagues. Everything you want to know about a pitcher can be found out in September."

"It's hard," a major league general manager adds, "because by definition, you're pitching in an environment that you've never pitched in before and you're pitching later into the season [minor league seasons end by Labor Day]. You're dealing with so many variables."

This October, there will be more test cases than usual, thanks to the plethora of standout first-year pitchers sprinkled among the contenders. Detroit has one in the rotation (Justin Verlander) and another in the bullpen (Joel Zumaya). The Los Angeles Angels have Jered Weaver, the Los Angeles Dodgers have Chad Billingsley. The New York Mets feature John Maine and the Minnesota Twins hope to have Francisco Liriano, perhaps the most dominant rookie pitcher of all, back for the final two weeks.

ROOKIE WORKLOADS
The innings pitched among rookie pitchers on contending teams, including their previous season high and their total in 2006. Thirds of an inning are rounded off to the nearest full inning:
PITCHER PREV. HIGH 2006
Anibal Sanchez, FLA 136 *173
Jered Weaver, LAA 76 *173
Justin Verlander, DET 130 165
Matt Garza, MIN 76 *162
Cole Hamels, PHI 101 *157
Scott Olsen, FLA 136 *156
Boof Bonser, MIN 161 *155
Anthony Reyes, STL 142 *155
Chad Billingsley, LAD 146 *151
Josh Johnson, FLA 152 *147
John Maine, NYM 168 *130
Ricky Nolasco, FLA 162 *121
Francisco Liriano, MIN 192 *119
#Jonathan Broxton, LAD 225 *75
#Joel Zumaya, DET 151 *72
* -- includes minor-league innings
# -- only used as relief pitcher
And make no mistake -- it's far different to pitch with a playoff spot on the line than it is to be playing out the string in Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay.

Regardless of the standings, the final month can be physically demanding. Pitchers who have never topped 140 professional innings before can find themselves quickly approaching the 200-inning workload.

But for those fortunate enough to be pitching for a chance at the postseason, the mental demands can be overwhelming.

"For some of these guys," another general manager says, "they're going to wake up one day and say, 'We're in a pennant race.' The national media is there, the whole world is watching. There are more people in the clubhouse, more people on the field before games. Everything gets magnified. Some guys can process that and some can't.

"Some guys aren't fazed by anything. They're few and far between, but they're out there."

Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace, who previously served as pitching coach with the Mets and Dodgers, recalls the magical rookie season of Fernando Valenzuela, who won 13 games in the strike-shortened 1981 season, then went on to post a 3-1 mark in the postseason as the Dodgers won the World Series.

"He was unique," Wallace says. "He thrived in that environment, fed off it. But there aren't many like that. By the time that part of the season arrives, the stress of major league innings is much different than what you experience in the minor leagues. The intensity level is much greater."

Getting rookie pitchers over the September hump actually begins much earlier in the season. Smart organizations monitor pitch counts and look for signs of wear and tear earlier in the season.

An ounce of June and July prevention is worth a pound of September cure.

"You've got to monitor them every day," Wallace says. "Sometimes, you've got to limit side sessions, maybe skip a start here and there, and yet keep them sharp. You have to start in spring training and gear for a yearlong monitor."

"When you're dealing with fatigue," warns a general manager, "one of the things you have to watch out for is pitchers changing their mechanics to compensate [for being tired]. When you do that, you risk injury. Sometimes, the real toll doesn't show until the following season."

Beyond the workload and the fatigue, pitchers must deal with the mental stress and strain, where every at-bat can mean the game and every game can determine -- or derail -- a spot in the postseason.

"You have to be able to pitch," the scout says. "You have to make a two-strike pitch, make a pitch to get ahead, not be tentative and always be aggressive. Those are the keys. And you'd better be mentally tough to do all of that."

It helps to have a rookie surrounded by veterans, who can set an example, offer a helpful tip and simply take some of the pressure off. Billingsley, for example, can rely on 300-game winner Greg Maddux and 2004 postseason star Derek Lowe.

"That helps," the scout agrees. "You try to get guys who've been through the war before. They're like the combat sergeant who's seen what the enemy can do. If you're the young guy, you don't know what it's like, so it's huge to have someone who does."

"I don't believe there's a better teacher than being on the mound by yourself. That's where you become your own mentor."
-- Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace

In stark contrast, the Florida Marlins find themselves improbably in the middle of the NL wild-card chase with a starting rotation that features an astonishing four rookies -- Scott Olsen, Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez, the latter of whom authored the first no-hitter of the 2006 season Wednesday night. With a $15 million payroll, and a division that features powerhouses in Atlanta and New York, the Marlins hardly expected to contend this season as they focused their attention on finding a new ballpark (or a new city) while overturning their roster almost entirely.

But the success of their four young starters has them in the middle of the wild-card pursuit, pushing their development and force-feeding September pressure upon them sooner than they could have imagined.

Still, there's no substitute for experience.

"I don't believe there's a better teacher," Wallace says, "than being on the mound by yourself. That's where you become your own mentor."

The September mound is where reputations can be burnished or burned. Succeed and you establish yourself; fail and you may get pigeonholed as someone who can't handle the pressure. That challenge alone can be daunting.

"If you fail once, you can chalk it up to inexperience," the scout says. "If it becomes a one- or two-year thing, then you start to wonder."

"You can enhance your résumé," Schilling says. "You can make a name for yourself as one of the best big-game pitchers. That opportunity is exciting, but a lot of guys have a hard time. [September baseball] is the pressure cooker of all pressure cookers."

While reputations can be made for first-year pitchers, they're not always everlasting. For every Valenzuela or Bret Saberhagen, who made good on his first pennant race promise, there's a Jaret Wright, who sparkled for Cleveland in 1997 but since then has spent his career trying to get healthy.

"It's difficult," one GM says, "because you can plan all you want, but you never really know until the time comes. It's definitely an inexact science."

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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