A Pitcher Finds His Way

A Pitcher Finds His Way
May 20, 2013, 11:15 am
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The morning after yet another maddening start where his pitches wandered around the strike zone, Florida pitcher Jonathon Crawford sunk into a chair in coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s office and poured out a season of frustration. His mechanics were flawed, Crawford told his coach, and he could not get comfortable on the mound. He said he let expectations on him become a burden because the Gators were counting on him so much. Crawford, a junior, also admitted looking ahead to June and Major League Baseball’s draft. What were the scouts thinking? Were they going to forget his terrific sophomore season and peg him as a reliever who could only be trusted with an inning or two, not a full-fledged starter?

The Irish coach listened with the countenance of an Irish priest, as if the player were kneeling not sitting. O’Sullivan has not become one of the most respected nurturers of young pitchers in college baseball by pounding his fist on his desk and insisting the hurler get himself together, or else. He kept it simple with the 21-year old Crawford. 

Pitch like you are loved, the team will back you up, O’Sullivan told him. “I told him he means a lot to us,” O’Sullivan said. There was something else the coach said. “Pitch to the mitt,” Crawford said. “He said pitch to the mitt.” 

In his next start five days later, Crawford found the light at the end of the tunnel he had been stumbling through all spring. In 6 2/3 innings at Georgia last Thursday night, the 6-foot-1 right-hander did not walk a batter and gave up just one earned run in the Gators’ 3-2 victory. He pitched to the mitt. 

There was no baffling one-inning vanishing of command. No walks were a renewal for Crawford. All the alarms were turned off. 

Standing outside the Florida dugout following the game, Crawford had this reaction to his line score of 5 strikeouts, 0 walks, 5 hits, 1 earned run. He smiled broadly. 

Florida’s ace did not wobble with the scouts’ radar guns pointed in his face. When he hit 3-ball counts against a hitter in the second inning and another hitter in the third, Crawford turned to steel and threw strikes. He did not have to imagine scouts’ frowning at his disappearing command because he refused to think about it. He threw 95-96 miles per hour with a fastball and 91 with his slider. The only thing that wandered was the umpire’s strike zone, but Crawford was so confident he didn’t let that bother him either. 

“You saw tonight what everyone expected to see all season,” O’Sullivan said. 

The game was a breakthrough because Crawford, considered a sure first-round draft pick entering the 2013 season, had subjected himself to scorn for mysterious one-inning dysfunction throughout the spring. He was averaging 4.6 walks per nine innings unable to completely command his power pitches. 

It happened over and over. Five or six good innings of work would be undone by one puzzling inning of lost focus and the bullpen door would have to open. One scout said Crawford would have been a sure first-round pick after the 2012 season, but now it is not certain if he is first-round or second round. 

“It’s been difficult,” Crawford said. “We had some injuries on the pitching staff and I wanted to perform at a high level and I didn’t. 

“There was always that one inning where I would completely just lose it. Things start getting really fast and spiraling out of control. That’s what I’ve got to work on and prevent from happening.” 

Florida (29-25, 14-14 SEC) is reloading after three straight appearances in the College World Series. The Gators do not score enough runs to survive a bad inning by their pitchers, particularly Crawford (Florida is 8th in the SEC in runs scored). One of the reasons he is 3-6 going into the SEC Tournament is lack of run support. Among the 10 pitchers who have started games for Florida, Crawford has the least run support (3.4). Part of that is having to face the opponent’s Friday night ace, but Crawford has also started four Saturday games. 

Crawford said he became distracted by talk that he could be a first-round pick in Major League Baseball’s draft this summer. The demons that rest on a phenom’s shoulder demand he perform and build his draft stock, and it intruded on his mound presence. 

Then came the Saturday morning meeting with O’Sullivan, which followed a start where he lasted four innings. A door was unlocked with that meeting, which is not surprising given that O’Sullivan has had 20 pitchers in five years at Florida improve their draft stock after high school. 

“Tonight I made a point not to think of outside things, not think of this, not think of that, and just look at the mitt,” Crawford said. “Throw the ball to the mitt, throw the ball to the mitt. 

“You can’t let those things eat at you and affect you on the mound. It’s probably affected me this year and I shouldn’t have let it do that.” 

Crawford had not pitched into the seventh inning since an April 11 game against South Carolina. He had walked 20 batters in his previous 25 2/3 innings before his start with Georgia. 

Crawford painted the black of the plate with his slider and maintained 93-96 velocity throughout his stint with six scouts studying him behind the plate with radar guns raised to record every pitch. The Bulldogs (19-32, 5-20) are a struggling team and it would have looked bad for Crawford if they had put together a big inning. They didn’t. Georgia managed five singles and that lone earned run and the Gators won 3-2. 

Innings pitched are the thickener for a hurler, the boil that turns a pitcher into prospect or suspect. The more innings the more exposure. The same questions always come up. How does a pitcher handle success and failure? When so many pitchers these days can throw in the mid-90s mental makeup is vital. 

One scout last Thursday night wondered about Crawford’s command and the lapses. Could Crawford stay focused and be a solid starter, or was he a reliever who should only be trusted with an inning or two? As he warmed up, a scout looked at Crawford’s head and how his head snapped to the side as he put something extra on a pitch, a pitch that went wide of the strike zone. Was he trying too hard? He couldn’t keep his head straight to the plate. 

Scouts always ask, “What’s inside his head?” 

Paco Rodriguez, who pitched for Florida in 2012 and is already with the Los Angeles Dodgers, would give Crawford a pat when he came to the dugout in 2012 and say, “Stay focused.” Crawford went 6-2 with a 3.13 ERA, including a no-hitter in the NCAA Regional’s because there were no lapses in focus. 

“We’ve talked about it,” Rodriguez said. “He’s got so much talent, but he is little things distract him. He needs to let those go and just pitch.” 

Last Thursday night, his last start before this week’s SEC Tournament in Hoover, Crawford just pitched. He looked like an ace again, which is terrific news for the Gators because they are likely to be on the road for the NCAA Regional’s. Not coincidentally, the mentor Rodriguez gave Crawford encouragement before the game and reminded catcher Taylor Gushue to "tell Craw to throw to the glove and worry about nothing else."

“This whole season there were really some down moments and it all accumulated over time,” Crawford said. “He settled me down and told me I was way over-thinking things. I felt comfortable out there and I helped my team win a game.”