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Pitcher's potential sits above shoulders
The Rays' would-be closer takes a slower approach to finishing.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 4, 2007
DUNEDIN - Seth McClung is talking a good game.
He speaks of a newfound maturity, a learned professionalism, an improved sense of priority and keener focus, of establishing himself as a smarter, wiser, grown-up major-leaguer. "There's a misconception that I am not intelligent or mature," he said. "I don't know if that's fueled mediawise or what."
The Rays, though, don't know yet how much he has grown.
McClung, 26, has all the physical tools to be a dominating closer - a blazing fastball clocked regularly in the mid to upper 90s, a knee-buckling curveball, a good-enough slider to be a potential third pitch, enough wildness to put fear in a hitter's mind, and an intimidating oversized presence, capped by the long red hair flowing from the top of his 6-foot-6, 286-pound frame.
But before the Rays will commit to regularly putting the ball in his large right hand with games on the line, they have to determine whether he can handle the head games that come with the job, specifically pressure and responsibility.
"It's all about maturity," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're talking to him constantly. I know he's attempting to make those adjustments.
"But a good closer to me has to be one of the most accountable players on your team. It's always easy to look good when things are going well. But when things are going poorly, I like the guys who look good under those circumstances, too. The best closers I've been around are the guys that after the bad day can stand up and give you guys some straight answers and be accountable. That to me is a big part of that role, beyond the physical ability. ... Anybody we would ever consider for that situation would be a combination of physical and the mind because it is a tough spot."
Catcher Josh Paul - who called out McClung last season for not being "focused" for a start - isn't sure McClung is ready. "It's yet to be seen," he said. "He needs to prove himself. I'm not saying I don't think he can do it; I think he can do it. But he has to prove himself."
Focus is again a concern. "For him, I think it comes down to - and he got better at it last year so I will compliment him on that - instead of looking at the overall picture when he was starting, of winning this game or as the closer of 'Hey, I saved this game,' it's 'I need to make this pitch, and get this guy out,' " Paul said. "That's how you do it, working one hitter at a time."
Thought process is another issue. Veteran reliever Dan Miceli said McClung's success may depend on his approach. "It's as much mental as he puts on himself," Miceli said. "It depends on what pressure he puts on himself."
Veteran Brian Meadows, a Ray last season, said McClung has potential but at times would make things more difficult on himself and needs someone to show him the way. "The thing about him is his mentality," said Meadows, now with the Reds. "He just outthinks his own self sometimes."
McClung doesn't necessarily disagree with the assessments. He'll be on the elliptical machine when his mind starts to wander to what he calls "future success," and he has bring himself back to the moment, reinforcing that it's his workout then that matters most.
"I'll tend to get too far ahead sometimes, and I'll admit that," he said. "I have to slow my mind down and focus on the now as opposed to focusing on the future."
Using much the same logic, he tells anyone who asks that he is not concerned or consumed by competing for the closer's job, that he merely wants to be part of the team and be considered a major-leaguer. "Deferring the distraction of what my responsibility could be in the upcoming months helps me deal with what I need to do today," he said.
He had some success closing at the end of last season (after a brutal 2-10, 6.81 stretch as a starter and a trip to the minors), going 4-2 with a 4.43 ERA while converting six of seven saves. He said he has learned much, and continues to learn more, about how to be a major-leaguer and how to succeed in the major leagues. Some came from self-realization, some from extensive and ongoing conversations with Miceli and veteran Al Reyes, and coaches Dick Bosman, Xavier Hernandez and Jim Hickey.
"The whole learning lesson from the last three years is that I cannot control what I want, I can only control what I do," McClung said. "So if you take away the want, the more you're able to do what you need to do."