Sam Donnellon: Pitchers reluctant to play fatigue factor

Michael Stutes doesn't believe fatigue was to blame for his late-season struggles; in the offseason he discovered a glitch in his stride that allowed hitters to pick up pitches earlier.
Michael Stutes doesn't believe fatigue was to blame for his late-season struggles; in the offseason he discovered a glitch in his stride that allowed hitters to pick up pitches earlier. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: February 27, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - There is this perception, a conclusion really, that Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo wore out last season. Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee believes it, so does manager Charlie Manuel.

The grind of a big-league pennant race got to the two young relievers, or so it goes, which may be one reason the Phillies have a slew of bullpen arms around this spring with major league resumès.

Jose Contreras is throwing again and Dontrelle Willis looks pretty good, too. Chad Qualls, a veteran, durable, seventh-inning guy, is new, and journeymen lefties like Jeremy Horst and Pat Misch are here as well. The Phillies may take only 11 pitchers north with them, which is another way of saying the two big contributors to last summer's success are in no position to rest on theirs.

Each has options. Each finished with an air of doubt about his long-term effectiveness. Because he's lefthanded, Bastardo will have to pitch himself off the team this spring. Stutes? He will need to show more of the guy who pitched before August than the one who scuffled mightily once inside it. He will need to convince the brass that he was seasoned by the experience, not undone by it.

But here's the thing: Stutes doesn't believe he ever tired. He believes it was a mechanical problem that ballooned his earned run average from 2.89 in May to 5.34 in August, not fatigue.

"My velocity didn't really dip at all," he said. "Usually when you're tired that's the first thing to go. You lose velocity on your fastball."

But is that true? Always true? Stutes rebounded with a 3.00 ERA in 10 September appearances, but at least some of those were in a less pressure-filled role. Qualls, who has built his reputation on durability, said relievers can lose velocity based on the proximity of appearances, but still should be capable of grinding through it.

"You can give a reliever 1 day off, 2 days off, he should be back to 100 percent," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's August, September, October - we can refuel."

Fatigue is a tricky word, too, because it manifests in several ways. Bastardo, using the economy of words necessary as he continues to learn English, said yesterday: "There was a little bit in my mechanics, and a little bit in my focus," when talking about his late-season struggles.

Stutes looked at video over the winter and realized his stride had lengthened just a bit, flattening out his pitches and allowing hitters a longer look at the ball as it was delivered.

"Earlier in the season I was staying back over the mound and angling the ball down," he said. "And I was staying out over the top of it and driving it down. It makes it a lot tougher for the hitters to pick it up and a lot tougher to put a good swing on the ball."

"I think it was a combination of both, with both kids," Dubee said. "One, it's a longer year. And it's a different level of baseball. Pitching at the Triple A level, you might face a couple of hitters. Pitching at the major league level, they're all hitters. Every time you're out there, it's a little tougher grind."

Now 33, Qualls knows this all to well. He has made at least 70 appearances in six of the last seven seasons.

"As an athlete, you're trying to train yourself to never allow yourself to say you're tired, or say you want to quit. So you're never going to say that, 'Yeah, I got tired.' You're always going to come up with some other reason that will somehow make sense in your head.

"Say you're sitting on the bench and a teammate says, 'Man, I am tired.' Coach comes up and says, 'How do you feel?' I feel fine. You don't ever want to take yourself out of the situation. You want to go out there and help your team do good. It's a matter of pride."

Which is probably why you will never get Stutes to admit he was tired then, or at any time this season. Whatever level he lands.

"Even looking back on it, at no point was I going into the game thinking, 'Oh God my arm's sore,' " he said. "Or, 'I'm tired.' I felt strong the whole season. That was the worst stretch I've had in my career. But it could have happened in April as easily as August."


Send email to donnels@phillynews.com

 

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