David Murphy: Better mentality aids Phillies reliever Aumont

Posted: March 01, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The call came last offseason. Minor league pitching coordinator Gorman Heimueller was on the other end. Phillippe Aumont liked what he heard, and later that winter, he was on his way to La Crosse, Wis., where the Phillies had set up a meeting with Dr. Jack Curtis, a renowned author and motivational speaker who specializes in the mental side of athletic performance.

Coming off one of the most frustrating seasons of his career, Aumont was at something of a crossroads. The previous year, in December 2009, he had been the centerpiece of the package of prospects that had prompted the Phillies to trade star lefthander Cliff Lee to the Mariners. But by the end of 2010, he was back at Class A Clearwater, having been demoted from Double A after a horrendous, 11-start performance.

"You want to please everybody," Aumont said. "You want to show what you've got. You want to impress your teammates. You are trying to put a good word out there. This is why I came over. You try to be that guy. I think it was just trying too much."

The Phillies never doubted Aumont's talent. With a 6-7, 255-pound frame and hands the size of black holes, the hard-throwing righty has the type of potential that can snap a scout's pencil in half. But it is easy to overlook the fact that even the most talented of major league prospects can struggle with the same insecurities as any young person.

Aumont was only 20 when the Phillies acquired him from Seattle along with centerfielder Tyson Gillies and righthander J.C. Ramirez. In hindsight, inviting those three players to the following spring training only increased the pressure that all of them felt. It didn't take long for that pressure to manifest itself in ugly fashion. In Aumont's first appearance in a Phillies uniform, against Florida State, he walked more batters (three) than he retired (two) and allowed five runs, three of which came on a home run.

As he trudged off the mound that night, he heard a fan yell at him, "We want Cliff Lee back."

"I can't imagine it," said catcher Erik Kratz, a veteran who caught Aumont last season at Triple A Lehigh Valley. "At 20 years old, I was still in college. I don't think they would trade me for Cliff Lee. They still wouldn't trade me for him. That's a lot to ask of a kid, to say, hey, we just traded away a guy that helped us get to the World Series."

To make matters worse, the Phillies moved Aumont from the bullpen back into the rotation. The move was grounded in logic - the organization wanted its new, young prospect to refine his curveball and split-fingered-fastball and the consistent routine of a starter seemed like the best place to accomplish that goal. But the Mariners already had moved him from the rotation to the bullpen, meaning he would have to adjust yet again to a new role. For a young pitcher desperate to prove himself, the inability to get comfortable in a role only served to compound the psychological pressure that pulsed in his head.

That's what led Aumont to Curtis. Like many organizations, the Phillies have increased the value they place on the mental side of performance. Righthander Roy Halladay credits the late sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman with helping him through a similar phase in his career. If Aumont one day fulfills his potential, he might pay similar testament to Curtis, who has written more than 10 books that draw partly on his experience working with professional and Olympic athletes. The hulking righthander loved his first experience with the guru.

"He was with the Mariners in 2007, 2008, 2009," Aumont said. "But I was young, and I didn't think I really needed that . . . You just overpower guys. That's normal. But once you get to Double A and Triple A, a lot of these guys have big-league time and they look at you as just another guy."

Curtis makes several trips per season to the various levels of the Phillies' organization. Aumont continued to meet with him throughout last season, focusing on the goals they had discussed and the methods they used to concentrate on the thoughts that matter most to a pitcher.

"It's just organizing, and not letting everything get out of control," Aumont said. "When you are on the mound, you've got nobody to help you. You've got your catcher that can come out for a few seconds and you've got your pitching coach who can come out for 45 seconds. But other than that, you are on your own in the middle of the field."

Last year, it was opposing hitters who dreaded that feeling. In 25 games at Double A Reading, Aumont posted a 2.32 ERA while striking out 11.9 batters and issuing 3.2 walks per nine innings. Late in the season he was promoted to Triple A, where he finished with a 3.18 ERA, 14.7 K/9 and 5.6 BB/9 in 18 appearances.

For the first time, the Phillies began to talk about Aumont in the present tense. He had transformed from a project back into a prospect.

"I think he's familiar with his surroundings," pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "When you are a traded player, there is that added pressure on you. He's come over here and he's comfortable with our people here. He's more relaxed."

Kratz already knew about Aumont's stuff, having faced him as a minor leaguer and in international play. Last year, he worked with him on attacking hitters instead of nibbling, work that has continued this spring.

"He's a bulldog," Kratz said. "A 6-foot-8 bulldog."

Yesterday, Kratz was behind the plate when Aumont trotted out from the bullpen for his first action of the spring. The opponent was a familiar one: Florida State. This time around, Aumont pitched like a 22-year-old, near-major-league-ready power arm, striking out one in a scoreless frame, his only baserunner coming on a single.

Afterward, he stood at his locker and reflected on the strides he has made over the last two seasons.

"It was different this time," he said. "Let's put it that way."


Send email to dmurphy@phillynews.com. Read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/HighCheese.

 

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