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Bierbrodt shelved as Rays dig for answers

Coaches will work with left-hander, who's confident he'll overcome sudden bout of wildness.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002

CLEARWATER -- The Rays will take Nick Bierbrodt off the mound indefinitely to focus on rebuilding his basic mechanics and confidence in an attempt to overcome his recent stunning loss of control.

That makes it extremely unlikely Bierbrodt will open the season in the big leagues, but the 23-year-old left-hander is confident the problem will be solved and he'll be back soon.

"I'm not worried," Bierbrodt said Saturday. "Right now I just want to get back to throwing strikes, and if I have to go down to the minor leagues for however long until I'm ready, then that's what I have to do. ... You go from throwing good to bad in a week, you can come back in a week, too."

The Rays aren't sure exactly what is wrong with Bierbrodt, how to correct it or how long it will take. Their plan is to have him spend at least the next week, starting today, working in every-other-day bullpen sessions, focusing on basic drills designed to correct small flaws in his delivery that may be contributing to his wildness.

"That's one reason we have kind of shut it down and are doing what we're doing; we don't want it get any further," pitching coach Jackie Brown said. "We're going to do three or four sideline (sessions), but we don't know exactly how many. 'Three or four' sounds good, so we said 'three or four.' We're hoping that will be enough."

The Rays decided to act quickly clearly to try to get Bierbrodt straightened out, but also to prevent the issue from developing into a major distraction and/or sideshow, as with incidents of unexplained wildness involving pitchers Rick Ankiel and Mark Wohlers.

"This is a little unique because it came up so suddenly and has not gone on for a prolonged period of time," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "Because there are mechanical adjustments we think he can make and we think there is some confidence that needs to be regained, slowing that process down and not continuing to throw at the major-league level will help to build up that confidence.

"We totally expect that within the next couple weeks he'll be back in game situations and hopefully progressing."

The Rays also want to do what they can to keep any doubts or issues from crawling inside Bierbrodt's head.

"Without a doubt," Brown said, "and that's why we're going back to the basics, going back to grammar school with the delivery, starting all over and going through it."

Bierbrodt seemed in good spirits talking about the situation early Saturday morning and said he is confident the problem is in his arm and not his head.

He said that he has never thrown as much in spring training as he has this year because he usually has some type of minor injury, and that his arm had felt tired before the March 8 game when he first had his problems.

"I know I'm doing things wrong mechanically and I've got a tired arm right now, and I think that's the biggest part of it," Bierbrodt said. "All of a sudden I went from throwing the best I've ever thrown to the worst, and my arm in that little time is sore and tired. I think that's a lot of it."

Brown said review of old and current video images of Bierbrodt did reveal several mechanical differences: He isn't picking up his target as quickly, and he isn't lifting his leg as high. But Brown also said such flaws are common among pitchers and may not be the cause of Bierbrodt's severe problems.

"These two little-bitty things will get you out of the strike zone maybe, but they won't get you where he's been," Brown said.

And what would?

"I don't have an answer for that," Brown said.

For now, Brown will focus on having Bierbrodt get his hand in the proper throwing position and improving his hand-foot coordination.

Bierbrodt said he is willing to go along with whatever the Rays think is best. It's the unsolicited advice that friends and family and assorted others are trying to offer that he can do without.

"I'm just trying to not read the papers," Bierbrodt said. "I've got people calling me at home and I'm just not answering the phone. I know they just want to talk about it, and that's the last thing I need.

"They want to know what's going on because they only know what they're reading in the papers and they want to know if it's as bad or even worse than they've been reading. I'll call them back when it's all over; I'm on back order with all my calls. ... My agent said he has all kinds of gurus calling and I told him to throw all the numbers away."

Though Bierbrodt is confident he can get back, manager Hal McRae stressed that the Rays are not going to rush him, even though he was penciled in as the No. 4 starter. "There's no target, no nothing," McRae said. "We're going to go slow and see what happens."

They can only hope it's better than it has been. Since a 1-2-3 first inning against Texas on March 8, Bierbrodt has walked 12 and hit three of the past 17 batters he faced while throwing five wild pitches. Fifty-nine of his past 80 pitches were called balls.

"I just need to throw," Bierbrodt said. "I think that's what will be best for me. The only way I'll get better is by working through it."

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