Double-A Binghamton pitcher Collin McHugh, an 18th-round pick in 2008 who hails from Atlanta, chronicles his life as a Mets minor leaguer on his personal blog, "A Day Older, A Day Wiser." He will periodically have those entries carried on ESPNNewYork.com as well.Courtesy of Binghamton Mets
It should have been just another day. Nothing was particularly special about it. For the last five years I have been throwing bullpens (defined as a session of throwing from the mound to a catcher in between starts) regularly. By regularly I mean once every five days during the season and about 10-12 during the offseason. Let's say 40 per year, for five years ... that's a total of roughly 200 bullpens. It should be easy by now, right? Wrong.
I warmed up like I always do. Playing catch out to about 100 feet and working my way back in, throwing changeups and sinkers as I work the ball down to my partner's knees. Once my arm felt warm (a term that is very relative in the Binghamton cold) I headed to the bullpen mound. There are always a couple relievers that like to throw a few pitches off the mound every day, so I let them go first. Sitting behind them and watching intently just in case I can pick up, I felt good. There was absolutely nothing special about this particular side session. It was now my turn to throw. I toed the rubber and began.
With the catcher up in front of home plate I threw a few fastballs away to get the feel of the decline. It's a different sensation than throwing on flat ground and at times it can be tough to get your timing correct when you add the slope. I didn't skip any up there nor throw any to the backstop, but I also didn't hit the mitt once. I motioned for the catcher to head back behind the dish. As always, he did as he was told. Now the week before, I was having trouble with throwing the ball to my glove side (in to a lefty, away from a righty), so my pitching coach decided a little visual tool might help my concentration and execution. He told the catcher to set up a tiny cone on the outside corner of the plate. The catcher, again, did as he was told. My goal was to throw the ball right above that cone and repeat the feel of doing it consistently. My first three or four pitches were close, but not quite where I wanted. I'm a perfectionist. I demand more of myself than most. The next couple pitches were even further off target. I pulled a fastball way outside and then left one right over the heart of the plate.
The pendulum of adjustments were swinging to both extremes. I could feel my blood pressure begin to rise. I stepped off the rubber, took a deep breath and tried my best to regain concentration. Deciding that throwing glove side wasn't working, I moved the catcher to the other side of the plate. He did as he was told. I threw a good sinker. It had depth. It was firm. It felt right. All I had to do was repeat that same pitch and build some muscle memory. I bounced the next one 55 feet. It hit the catcher in the chest and shot some dirt into his mask. He wiped down his face, looked at the ball to see if it had any scuffs and threw it back. Why was this so hard today?
I figured at the very least I could throw a few offspeed pitches to get a feel for the ball, then I would go back to the fastball. Changeup ... ball. Cutter ... backstop. Curve ... bounced. The catcher stood up and took his mask off. He motioned to me to calm down a bit. Tossing me the ball, I speared it with my glove in disgust. There were five more pitches in my bullpen. I knew that with just five good strikes I could right my world and feel completely prepared for my next outing. It was time to concentrate. Time for the focus that got my where I am today. For goodness sake, I'm a professional athlete. This shouldn't be so hard.
As any reader could probably guess, the next five pitches were progressively worse. The last pitch skipped up to the already worn out catcher. He snagged it and tossed it back, thankful that the monstrosity of a bullpen was over. Fuming and ready to make a scene, I caught the ball and proceeded to hurl it about 100 feet over the fence. I shook my catcher's hand and walked away without a word. No one said anything. The other pitchers who were watching just stared, wide-eyed. I was usually the calm one. The one that doesn't get rattled. The "professor." Not so that day. I did my running and my workout and hoped that the memory of that side would quickly fade. It didn't.
I stewed over it for the next hour. Beating myself up over the lack of focus and poor execution. I would define it as sulking, but that would be an understatement. My pitching coach, the witness to the day's tragedy, saw me by my locker and came by for a word.
"We all have days like this, Mac. Don't beat yourself up about it. Gotta have short memory. Real Short."
Good advice from a man with years of experience with anxiety-ridden pitchers like myself. I took it to heart and acted as if it literally never happened. Easier said than done, but I was determined to leave it where I left it ... 100 feet over the fence.
Silver lining: I threw six innings two days later. I was sharp. The bad bullpen was far behind me and the road ahead was clear. For such a heady game, baseball is a sport where a short memory is an undervalued asset. Some days you learn from mistakes, take in a lesson and build on it for the next time around. Some days, however, you just need to throw out. They aren't you and they aren't productive. You just have to throw them out and start fresh the next day.
The lesson for the day is to categorize which ones to learn from and which ones to toss over the fence.