An Education In Pitching

GENEVA, IL - The pitchers of the Kane County Cougars meet together before each series to discuss their upcoming opponent. However, the pitching staff's meetings closely resemble kindergarten story time rather than a staff meeting.

Before each series, Kane County Cougars pitching coach Jimmy Escalante gathers his pitching staff into a room near the home clubhouse in Elfstrom Stadium. The pitchers form a circle around their coach and their coach hands them a piece of paper. The paper is not an in-depth scouting report on the opponents. That comes later.

Instead, the paper contains scripts from their coach's book, The Mental ABC's of Pitching, by H.A. Dorfman.

Escalante goes around the circle, and each member of the pitching staff reads an excerpt from the book. Each pitcher takes turns reading pieces of the book. Once they have read together, the pitchers have a discussion. The theme of the discussion is working through struggles together.

"[We ask] guys that have succeeded, what are you thinking during that pitch," Cougars pitching coach Jimmy Escalante said.

"Maybe some of the other guys can get some feedback off of the rest of the guys. Basically, it's just trying to tell them it's not just him who's going through this; it's a lot of guys who are going through this."

The Mental ABC's of Pitching discusses many different issues. Chapters from the book include discussions of such topics as avoiding the big inning, battling with the batter and forgetting about mistakes.

The book is given to each pitching coach and instructor in the Oakland organization, and is a must read, as indicated by the organization. The book emphasizes important mental aspects of pitching, which Escalante strongly values.

Escalante believes that a pitcher has to mentally strong to be successful.

"You got to be a tough warrior when you're out on that mound," Escalante said.

"Nobody is out there helping while you're up on that mound. Obviously you have the defense out there to help you, but nobody is going to make the pitches for you. These guys have to be warriors while they're out there, and that's what we're trying to teach them."

Escalante works with his pitchers on the mental aspects of the game. He works closely with his pitchers to discuss their focus, or lack thereof on the mound.

The members of his pitching staff definitely agree that mental toughness is the key to success on the mound. After pitching seven innings and only surrendering two runs and three hits in his last outing, Cougars pitcher Daniel Straily said he believes in what Escalante preaches.

"The athleticism and what not, it comes into play only so much," Straily, the former standout pitcher at Marshall University, said.

"A lot of [pitching] is dealing with failure and learning how to take what God gave you and turn it into success."

The 21-year-old Straily is currently 4-1 with a 3.55 ERA. He did not factor in the decision in his latest start on Thursday, which ended with a 3-2 Cougars victory. Straily admitted he isn't actively thinking of the reading while on the mound, but believes that it has helped him.

"A lot of stuff from the reading is all about the mental aspect," Straily said.

"How to get over things, how to react to things, and how to deal with things. It really is the biggest part of the game. And what [Escalante] brings in here for us is really good information so far, that's really helped us out."

Another section of the book talks about minimizing mistakes. In essence, not sweating the small stuff. Escalante, like all pitching coaches, works with his pitchers on forgetting mistakes during the game and focuses closely on preparing his pitchers to face adversity. Through these reading sessions, Escalante helps his pitchers mentally prepare for problems during the game.

"It's definitely just helped me stay focused heading into a game," Cougars pitcher Robert Gilliam said.

"I feel like the book just talks about if you make a mistake, just get over it and get past it. You're going to make tons of mistakes in your career, so just move on."

The 22-year old former standout from UNC-Greensboro has taken that advice to heart. Gilliam is 3-3 with a 3.34 ERA on the season. In his last outing against Wisconsin, Gilliam surrendered three early runs, including a home run, but he settled in and pitched well the rest of the game.

Gilliam has avoided potential catastrophes by following the advice of his pitching coach. The right-hander has been able to block out bad thoughts of a potential blow-up inning, and that has led to great success during the early part of the season.

"For me, it's just pitch-by-pitch," Gilliam said.

"The only way to avoid the big inning for me is you can't let guys on-base, you have to hit to get on. You have to make your pitch, and whatever happens happens, but the important part is staying in there with your pitch."

At the end of the day, when the Cougars young arms take the mound, like all of the pitchers they face in the Midwest League, they will have reviewed scouting reports, stretched and warmed up. However, when adversity strikes, these pitchers will have an extra weapon thanks to the work they have put in with Jimmy Escalante during story time.

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