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Pursuing the perfect pitch

Success is mostly a mind game for baseball's men on the mound

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Keeping hitters guessing is critical to good pitching, says Goldeyes starter Matt Rusch, a nine-year pro.

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Keeping hitters guessing is critical to good pitching, says Goldeyes starter Matt Rusch, a nine-year pro. Photo Store

Freeze-frame the exact moment when the pitch flies from the pitcher, right at the point when fingertips lose the feel of firm white leather.

In this instant, before the baseball's flight path is unveiled, Goldeyes starting pitcher Matt Rusch already knows how the pitch is going to go. It feels almost like a sixth sense, a premonition, though it's really muscle memory born of tens of thousands of repetitions. The path of the arm as it pulls back and away from the shoulder; the flick of the wrist just so. These are the neural messengers that pitchers come to know.

"When you throw a pitch and everything just feels all in sync, your arm is at the same speed as your body, and your foot lands at the same spot every time," Rusch says. "It's a good feeling. You know it's exactly what you wanted to do with it. Success comes from that... it's what we all try to get to, but sometimes it doesn't work out so well."

For Rusch, it has worked out, for the most part. He grew up in Schenectady, N.Y., in a sort of summery sandlot boyhood with a baseball field smack dab in his backyard, where the neighbourhood kids would throw balls until the sky grew dark. When the grown-ups shooed them off the diamond, they'd scamper across parking lots instead. He mostly played shortstop then, but made the switch to pitching when he realized his hitting wasn't far enough along.

Now, at 30, Rusch is in his ninth professional season, having hurled his way as high as AAA with the Detroit Tigers organization. He has an American Association championship ring, the crowning glory of a 2012 season where he posted a sparkling 2.40 ERA. His body is shaped by this, by a lower back muscle that bulges out more on the left, where he swivels, than on the right, but it's his mind that has steeled the most: Goldeyes pitching coach Jamie Vermilyea says Rusch "has his head on straight," which comes across as the most glowing praise.

Over time, that mental discipline became second nature, a switch against frustration. "Sometimes, when I'm caught in a traffic jam, I have to be like, 'okay, pretend you're pitching,'" Rusch laughs, sitting in the shade of the Shaw Park dugout on a sweltering July day.

So, from a man who has made a career of this thing, a question: is there such a thing as a perfect pitch? "Maybe not a perfect pitch, but a perfect approach," Rusch muses. "I could throw 100 fastballs on the outside corner, and some people would say 'oh, you had a great day.' But probably not, because the batters would start to figure that out."

 

As he says this, a baseball dances idly in his hands, pressing against calluses worn along the pads of his palm. Sometimes, pitchers find their profession pays dividends on the billiard table: they have focus, their hands are trained to find balance at the crossroads of power and control.

As the ball dances, Rusch runs through his grips: his fingers trace the baseball's seams to set up for a fastball, for a slider. A third finger slides on and the thumb arcs around to brace the ball for a changeup, that sneaky slow pitch that tempts batters to swing early, and miss. "I think that's the best pitch in baseball," Rusch says. "It just really dies off at the end, and they can't really hit it that hard."

Oh, and when the batters whiff on the swing, or when they miss, there's that surge of feeling in a pitcher's chest. Not too much, for the veterans, they need to keep an even keel. But pitching is like poker, pitching is like chess, and staring at a batter in disarray is what keeps a pitcher on the field.

"That's the best feeling in the world," Rusch says. "It's tough to describe. It's almost like a dominance: you own that hitter. Sometimes, when you're really feeling good, you almost feel bad for the hitter, because you know if you throw this pitch -- and I can do that same pitch again on the next one -- he's going to have no chance. It can go to your head a little bit, sometimes."

But that's when a pitcher has to be the most careful, because they aren't boys playing in the backyard field anymore, and that hapless hitter can and often will learn. When pitchers talk about the throws that failed, they speak about it almost personally: batters don't just hit, in their vernacular. They hit you, they hurt you, they burn.

"Sometimes you sit back and say, 'okay, why did this guy hurt me?'" Rusch says. "I can tell you exactly why this guy hit me that hard. It's because I left the ball up in the zone, or maybe he was sitting on a certain pitch and I failed to recognize it. You have to stay one step ahead."

And if a pitcher doesn't stay that step ahead, if they start to fight against repetition and feel the weight of expectations weighing on their shoulders instead? "As soon as you do too much, you're going to get into trouble," Rusch says, quietly, the morning after getting torched for seven runs in a 9-8 extra-inning heartbreaker against the visiting St. Paul Saints. "Which is what I did last night."

Like all athletes in positions where the game unwinds longer in the mind than the body-- a football kicker, say, or any goaltender -- pitchers are whispered to be eccentric. They famously hoard their secrets, and raise a suspicious eyebrow when a green reporter trips into a question that pries too deep. The best of them are perfectionistic, nearly obsessive. And they often love routines.

"Watching Roy Halladay pitching, he did the same thing every day," Vermilyea says. He is thinking back to his short 2007 stint with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he worked alongside the two-time Cy Young Award winner. "You could check your watch, and you'd know exactly where he was and what he was doing. So I'm big on having a routine and sticking to it. Pitching-wise, it's about repetition, and a routine keeps that mindset out there."

In his pro pitching days, Vermilyea cultivated his own streak of curious routines: on his start days, he'd eat lunch only in a certain place, only throw with specific teammates, stretch and shower exactly at a certain time.

"I'd kick the pole all the time in the bullpen, and if I didn't end on the right foot, I'd have to do it again," he says, and breaks into a self-effacing laugh. "I never really thought I was OCD until I really started pitching, but those little things stuck out to me."

In 2011, after making his last stop in pro ball as the Goldeyes' closer, he elected to retire. At 31, he doesn't miss the mound, he says, although in his first season coaching in Hawaii he sometimes ached to get out and try to win games himself. Now, though, he's happy just to pass on what he's learned, to help other hurlers find the elusive perfect sequence.

So how does he suggest they do that? First lesson: be aggressive, he says, and points to Goldeyes starter Mark Hardy, who pounds sinkers and sliders and is "not afraid of anybody." He tells them to embrace the type of pitcher they are -- Vermilyea himself was never very technical, he says, he always pitched by feel -- and to let go of impossible expectations.

Because maybe there is no perfect pitch, but there is something to be learned from the imperfection of it all. "You can strive to be perfect, but this is a game of failure," he says. "And you're going to fail a lot. I mean, there's been perfect games, but there's been instances throughout those games where they either get lucky, or balls find guys. If you strive to be perfect, you're going to struggle."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 C4

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