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Pitchers have a ball with mind games

Hitter giving the evil eye? The crowd's not friendly? Behind on the count? Don't sweat it, because a mentally tough pitcher can take control.

By KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003


All eyes are on Luke Czerwinski as he winds up. The Citrus senior pitcher spots his fastball early, hoping to put the pressure on.

"If I can get the hitter 0-1, if I can throw that first pitch for a strike, I've pretty much got 'em," Czerwinski said. "It's mind games."

Czerwinski knows if the batter starts thinking too much about where and how the next pitch will be thrown, chances are in the pitcher's favor, that the mental aspect of pitching is nearly equal to the physical.

Crystal River senior Zac Cole, arguably the top pitcher in the county, said there definitely is a correlation.

"Pretty much the mind game is you striking out the batter and you getting inside his head, not the other way around," Cole said. "You're in control of the game as a pitcher because nobody can do anything unless you pitch the ball. ...

"The way I look at it, a batter can do anything he wants to. He may think he's inside your head. But then when you make the third strike and he's out and he's walking back to the dugout, who's ahead?"

Let 'em know who's boss

Lecanto hurler Denver Keene is a freshman, but even he knows not to smile and wave at a batter. It comes down to a cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and hitter, and he acts accordingly.

"When he's coming up there, I'll try to intimidate him by looking at him right in the eyes to let him know I'm not going to be scared of him," Keene said. "It doesn't matter how good of a batter he is, I'm just going to stare him in the eyes."

The proverbial stare-down is just one tactic pitchers use to gain a mental edge over their opponent. However, it can be returned by a hitter with a combative attitude at the plate.

"It's definitely not good when a batter looks at a pitcher like that, because they have the ball, so it could get ugly," Cole said. "When I was younger it affected me more. But now that I'm older I realize that hitting somebody or walking somebody is not going to benefit you as a pitcher. It's going to benefit the other team, so you have to stay focused at your job.

"Your job is to pitch and get people out and not give up runs or baserunners."

That is why it is important for a pitcher to keep a level head. Keene said he is in his own little world out there and focused on the task at hand.

"I just try to tune out the fans and don't listen to anything," he said. "I'm just focusing on the batter, and I'm thinking 'Where should I throw this pitch where this guy won't be able to do too much damage with it?' "

Cole, whose father, Chet, pitched at Florida State, said there is more to it than just throwing strikes. Part of Cole's physical and mental preparation involves deep breaths and making sure he is not rushing. But there are always going to be times when a pitcher does not have his best stuff.

If he falls behind in the count, Czerwinski knows he has to battle back without losing his cool.

"If you make a mistake, don't worry about it," Czerwinski said. "Shake it off and go out there and get it done. I gotta go out there and give my team a chance to win."

Cole said he has pitched long enough to realize that sometimes things aren't going to go his way. He thinks how a pitcher handles himself in that situation determines what kind of player he will be.

Confidence counts

"If you give up a hit and put your head down and ... your next pitch is a ball, then you're beat," Cole said. "If you go out there and your next pitch is a strike, then you're going to be a successful pitcher. You're not going to get everybody out and you're not going to not give up any hits. How many times do people throw no-hitters?"

While it definitely hurts the ego to give up a hit deeper in the order, every batter is important. Cole said you have to pitch to every batter as hard as you can, because each is an out or a hit.

"You have to battle everyone the same as if they were the best hitter that you're ever going to face your whole life," he said. "Everybody's Barry Bonds to me."

Without confidence in his ability to retire the opposing batter, a pitcher will not last long. Although he stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 155 pounds, Czerwinski's pitches have been clocked at 84-85 mph, and he feels prepared.

"I'm not like a big overpowering guy, but I know how to spot the ball and get the job done," Czerwinski said.

It might be the toughest position in the game, but being a pitcher is simple, Cole said. The mental as well as physical aspects do not change.

"Every time you come to pitch at the baseball park it's a new game," Cole said. "It's a different lineup, it's a different team, but your job is always the same. To get people out."

-- Kristen Leigh Porter can be reached at porter@sptimes.com or 564-3628.

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