- Morty Ain
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Is it true you threw 90 mph as a freshman in high school?
MH: Maybe once or twice, but things started taking off my sophomore year and the summer after. Maybe it was just getting older, filling in my body -- I was a string bean, a lot skinnier than I am now -- but once things started filling out, the speed started ticking up. By my junior and senior year, I was punching the ball into the mid-and-upper 90s.
Your dad played in college and coached you in high school. How did he mold you as a pitcher?
MH: He taught me how to throw. He was always there when I wanted to go in the backyard, working with me and helping my mechanics. My motion is long, and my arm swing is long and loose, and that's something he put in my head. I've found that when I stay loose and calm and relaxed, I have more success and can throw all my pitches and don't have to work as hard. Also, I wasn't allowed to do any funky stuff (curveball, etc.) until 13 or even later. My dad's big thing was being able to last. Success for a year or two doesn't mean anything; the goal is to continue over a career. Even today, he's still a coach at heart, so if things are a little off, I get a phone call about what I did wrong, what he saw or an adjustment I can make. He's great; I couldn't be more thankful for what he's done.
How have you built arm strength?
MH: I do a lot of tubing work and rotator cuff stuff. For as hard as I throw, it's important to keep the small muscles in the shoulder strong. I'm an explosive pitcher, so I might not be as flexible as others, but I try to keep those muscles strong and stretch as much as possible to keep loose. I still do my heavy lifts, but I might look a little girly in the weight room every once in a while with three-pound dumbbells, working on the small muscles in my shoulders.
What do you like about your body?
MH: I take pride in not being injured. I know sometimes you can't control that, but fortunately I've never had issues. Also, I have an athletic build. Looking good with your shirt off doesn't mean anything in the game of baseball, but it's something I take pride in. I've always been interested in my body and my health. I eat healthy; I don't eat gluten. Anything I can do performance-wise and healthwise, I'm definitely doing.
Why no gluten?
MH: I'm Italian, so I grew up on pasta. But I've always had a bad stomach and could never figure out why my stomach was hurting. Maybe two years ago somebody asked, "You ever thought about not eating pasta and staying away from gluten?" Once I did, I stopped having as many problems. I haven't gotten tested for food allergies yet, but for me, staying away from it has helped.
If you could change something about your body, what would it be?
MH: I can't be as big as I want, because I have to throw a baseball and be flexible. My dad was pretty big in his younger days. I'd see his big arms and barrel chest and six-pack, and that was always something I wanted. But I have to pitch and I have to perform, so I can't quite look like Rob Gronkowski.
What is your favorite thing you do to train?
MH: I enjoy the small stuff, the shoulder and scapula work. That helps my job and my sport, and I take pride in making sure everything is in good form for me to succeed and stay healthy. Throwing 100-plus pitches at 90-plus mph is a lot of wear and tear, so those exercises are important. I love what I do; I love being on the mound, and I know that by working those muscles, I'm placing myself in position to succeed. So I do a bunch of workouts that stabilize the shoulder.
What is some unusual training you've done?
MH: Last offseason, my conditioning was running the upper deck of Citi Field with a 20-pound weighted vest on. I did that almost every day for about two months, and that was pretty extreme. Some days it was 20 degrees. It definitely helped build fight and mental toughness, and it was nice because there was no one there. I had the whole ballpark to myself.
How much of pitching is mental versus physical?
MH: The mental part is huge. Why try to perfect your physical ability and not worry about your mental side? Why not try to perfect all aspects of your game? I work with a guy named Don Carman. He taught me things that help on days when you don't feel good or your legs are tired. He taught me to take it in and realize you're out there and still have to battle. No matter what you're bringing to the table, you have to do your job and stay focused like you have your best stuff. He constantly tells me that in a season, say you get 33 starts, 11 of them are going to feel awesome, 11 of them are going to feel OK, and the other 11 you are going to struggle through because your body is not going to feel all that great. When those last 11 starts happen, you can't worry constantly about how bad you feel. You have to block that out and accept it for that day and continue to battle.
What do you think of pitch counts?
MH: I wouldn't suggest throwing 130 to 140 mph pitches every time, but on occasion, if I'm feeling good in the seventh and eighth, you make an exception. I've thrown 157 pitches in a college game and been fine. But as I'm getting more experienced, I'm realizing that if you throw seven or eight innings at 100 pitches, you're going to feel a ton better -- maybe not your next start, but two or three starts later. So I'm starting to believe in pitch counts. But you can't worry about it on the mound. You go out, and if they say you're done, you're done; fight as much as you want, but they have the say. Baseball is a business as much as a game, and if they feel that to help the organization they need to limit your innings, well, anything that can help the team is what matters.
What do you think your limit should be?
MH: Each start is different. I've been taken out with 100 pitches when I felt like I could've thrown 20 more. Then there are times I come off the mound in the seventh having thrown 105, and I'm completely gassed. Some days you have to work harder than others. On those days, you get extra tired, while on the days when you're locked in and things go smoothly, you come out after 110 pitches and know you could've done more.
What would you define as your edge, mentally?
MH: The drive to be the best. From a young age, I wanted to be the best at everything I did. Every time I pitch, it's that edge, that fire that says, "I've got the ball, let me see what you can do." When I'm on the mound, it's me versus you and let's see who wins. When things are going well, I don't remember the pitch I just threw. I take my breath, I see the target, I see the glove, I see the sign, and I just throw.
What's the worst thing your body has been through?
MH: My sophomore year of college, I tried to go the "bigger is better" approach. I crept up to 250 pounds, all muscle. But for my body and pitching, that wasn't what I needed. I quickly learned that for me, bigger is definitely not better. I got big, my muscles were super tight, and I lost the long, loose arm I'd always had. Being big and bulky isn't possible with how I throw.
How do you handle the pressure on you right now?
MH: This is fun. For me, pressure and expectations add to the adrenaline and spark of pitching. It comes with the territory and wanting to be the best; it keeps me going and makes me want to be better. It adds more fuel to the fire, and I enjoy it all. I always wanted to play in New York. Growing up in Connecticut, I knew the media market. My big role model was Derek Jeter; he's Mr. New York. That's the place I want to be.
What about your body would surprise us?
MH: Probably my tattoos. I have one on my chest of a handwritten note from my aunt. It says, "Ain't it a shame that a body can't be where the heart is." She passed away from a brain tumor, so my two cousins, my uncle and I all have the tattoo in the same place. It's meaningful to me, and I'll never regret having it on my body forever.
What do you think when you get into a rough situation on the mound?
MH: The biggest thing for me is going pitch for pitch. Sometimes you get out of that, but in the long run, concentrating on one pitch at a time is the biggest help. I'm not an angry guy in any way, shape or form, but I'm never happy on the mound. It's the edge I hold, to get angry. It's a fight, it's a battle, and you're not going to go into a fight happy and smiley. You're going to have your game face and your game mentality. That's what I bring to the mound.
New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey strips off the uniform for The Mag.