Thursday, March 14, 2013

Help Wanted: Major League Lefty Starting Pitcher

Help Wanted: Major League Lefty Starting Pitcher. Some experience preferred but not required. Must thrive on competition.

GM Jeff Luhnow might as well have posted a help wanted sign on the front door of the Astros major league clubhouse at Osceola Stadium when the players arrived back in February. After signing lefty starter Erik Bedard to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training this winter, 40-man roster lefties Dallas Keuchel, Brett Oberholtzer and Rudy Owens all knew they had to work just that much harder to make an impression at Spring Training.

I was able to talk with Dallas Keuchel in person on Sunday before I left Spring Training to head back to Houston and I caught up with Oberholtzer by phone the next day. I wanted to hear a little about their Spring Training preparation, experiences and expectations.

Dallas Keuchel - March 2013
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Of his off-season, Keuchel noted, "I beefed up a little bit. I put on about 13 pounds which was my main goal because last year I dropped weight. I got tired." He wants to get to the 200-innings pitched mark this season and be as fresh and strong in September as he was in April so he put on some pounds, lifted more and worked on flexibility with an eye towards maintaining.

In talking about this Spring Training experience, he says, "It's kind of funny. This is my first big league camp and I'm also fighting for a spot so I had to try to balance getting myself ready in the off-season and figuring out what I needed to do to get myself in shape and get my arm in shape because I'm used to coming in a month later."

What is he working on in Spring Training? "I just focus on location. Speed doesn't matter here. It's all about location. If you can keep guys off-balance and locate two to three pitches, that just makes you more tough to hit."

Keuchel is also working on his curveball, "My curveball has been on and off. It's been like a 50/50 pitch for me. One day it will be good and the next day it will be kind of iffy. So this year I got kind of a slurve. That's the pitch I struck out Corey Brown with the other day. It's more of a slow slider, but it's got sharp movement and that's really what I'm going to feature this year. Maybe the straight over-the-top curve for an early pitch, but (for) the later pitch, I want to do that slurve."

What I really wanted to know was what kind of mindset Keuchel had as he approached Spring Training, knowing that the competition had increased with the Bedard signing, "It's nothing new. Coming out of high school, I was a pretty big recruit for Arkansas and I thought at the time that my poop didn't stink. Coming into a quality program in college, it was like 'Whoa, everybody's good!' So that's when I first got into the competition mode. Ever since it's just been the same. Good competition is healthy. That's what drives a lot of guys. Every day you've got to come out and prove yourself. The task at hand is just to go out there and prove myself and do my job."

Brett Oberholtzer talked about his off-season a little as well, "This off-season I worked hard, continued to push myself even further beyond what I have in the past."

The competition aspect of Spring Training was a little different for Oberholtzer since he hasn't made his major league debut yet. He knew it would be even harder for him to crack the rotation so he didn't really think about the competition too much coming into Spring Training, "I don't look at that. I take it day by day. When I wake up in the morning, I approach every day (on) it's own and I hold myself accountable to get better and take my career in the right direction and focus on what I can control and not what I can't.

"I know that I will be able to pitch in the big leagues for a long, long time if I continue to do what I'm doing on and off the field. I can't get bummed on the opportunity or the role I'm given in Spring Training. Once the season gets started, all hands are on deck and hopefully I'll be the first guy to come out of OKC and be ready to get going."

Brett left me with a final thought. I think it's safe to say that Dallas feels the same way. "All I want is an opportunity to win a job. If I lose it, that's (on me)." As far as I'm concerned, if Bedard wins the job out of Spring Training, he'd better not get too comfortable. There is talent, drive and desire waiting in the wings.

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