Patient Veal Getting Back on Track

Top Cubs pitching prospect Donnie Veal started his first season in Double A by putting pressure on himself to be in Chicago by season's end. The results were, predictably, not what anyone expected. His pitching coach preached a message of patience and Veal is, predictably, back on course.

"I think his biggest problem early in the year is that he wanted it so bad, it was getting in his way," said Dennis Lewallyn, pitching coach for the Tennessee Smokies, the Cubs Double A affiliate in the Southern League.

"When things didn't go the way he wanted them to, he would get so frustrated. He really wants to pitch in the big leagues, and he will pitch in the big leagues. But he wants it to happen yesterday, and so his impatience was getting in his way a little bit.

"That's one thing we talked about: ‘Hey, your work ethic is off the board, but you've got to learn to control your emotions so they don't get in your way.' I said adrenaline is a wonderful thing if it's controlled, but when you get so hyped up that you can't control what you're doing out there, then it gets in the way. So he's been so much better at that, that things are starting to fall into place for him."

Veal, a 6'4 left-hander with "plus stuff" according to Lewallyn, smiles in agreement with that assessment. The reigning Minor League Player of the Year in the Cubs' organization, an honor he shared in 2006 with left-handed pitcher Rich Hill, felt the need to prove himself at the next level.

The 2005 second-round draft pick has zipped through the farm system with stops in Mesa, Boise, Peoria, Daytona and now Tennessee. He had his sights on Wrigley Field by summer's end.

"I think I put a little pressure on myself earlier this year (by) trying to get there at the end of this year, and that kind of started the snowball downward," Veal said. "I just told myself when I'm ready, I'll be there. I don't really know when it's going to be, but it's coming along and when I can get ready and stay consistent, I'll be there."

Veal opened the season in April by getting behind in counts and walking too many batters. He started the season 0-4, but his last start of April showed he was ready to right the ship. Veal didn't get a decision in that April 29 game against the Carolina Mudcats, the farmhands for the Florida Marlins, but he struck out nine batters and walked only two in six innings.

The 22-year-old got his first win May 5 against the Birmingham Barons in a stellar performance in which Veal walked one batter, struck out three, and allowed just three hits over seven innings. He left a May 10th game against the Montgomery Biscuits with the lead after striking out six in six innings, but a ninth-inning error by the Smokies cost Veal the win.

His second win of the season came this past Tuesday in relief against the Chattanooga Lookouts. Veal was scheduled to start the afternoon game, but Cubs pitcher Wade Miller was slated for a rehab start.

Veal came in from the bullpen.

"It's the first time since probably high school," Veal said of his stint in the bullpen. "It's completely different because as a starter, you've got your set time period – go out 30 minutes before, stretch, throw, run, stretch your arm out. Out of the 'pen, it's like (they) need you now, slow it down, speed it up. It's totally different, and I have utmost respect for the guys that do it because I don't think I can do it. It's definitely different, and it takes getting used to I'm sure."

Miller, who is coming back from shoulder surgery, rejoined the parent club after his short stint for the Smokies. Veal had been told to be ready in case Miller didn't go seven innings, and the right-hander left the game after 5 2/3 innings.

Lewallyn knew an entry into the game from the bullpen would be a challenge for Veal, who had started throughout college and his pro career.

"It really is a challenge when you haven't done it, plus you're doing it on a professional level," Lewallyn said. "It's a little different in high school, and he's coming in behind a big leaguer and there's a pretty big crowd. It's just the uncertainty of, ‘I haven't done this in awhile. How do I warm up?' There are so many things you're just not used to as a starter.

"So I told him with all the variables you had to deal with today – he wasn't sure when he was going to pitch in the game, even if he was going to pitch if Wade Miller happened to go seven innings, we were going to back him up, so there were a lot of variables that we couldn't plug into the equation – and so all things being equal, I thought he did a heck of a job and I was very, very happy for him."

The Smokies rallied for five runs in the eighth inning to get a 6-4 victory in front of a crowd of 4,109 boosted by area schoolchildren on a field trip to the ballpark. The rally also secured Veal's second win of the season.

Veal struggled a bit by falling behind batters, so he went to his fastball early and often in the 64-pitch appearance over 2 2/3 innings. He regularly hit 88 and 89 mph on the radar gun.

Veal recorded four walks, three strikeouts and one earned run. His ERA has fallen from 12.27 to start the season to 5.84.

"I was getting behind so we started throwing fastballs to try to get even in the count and then work it in. When I got ahead of guys, we were able to throw more breaking stuff and off-speed," Veal said. "I've just got to get ahead. That's the biggest key."

Lewallyn, who pitched professionally for 11 years, used Veal's performance as a teaching tool about the vagaries of baseball and how things can break a pitcher's way if he just keeps plugging along.

"I told him as well as you've pitched in the last three or four outings, you don't have a whole lot to show for it," Lewallyn said. "I said (Tuesday) you weren't as sharp as you had been, and you got a win out of it. I said the fortunes are starting to turn for you; the fruits of your labor are starting to show. It does give you a boost when you say, ‘I wasn't as good as I could have been, but I competed, I battled, and I got a ‘W' out of it."

Veal recognizes what caused his early season struggles and has been encouraged by his pitching results of late.

"My body feels good. It's felt good all year," Veal said. "The biggest difference is getting ahead of guys. I've been getting better every outing. The off-speed stuff is starting to come around. I'm able to throw it in hitter's counts, able to throw it for strikes, and I don't have to rely on my fastball all the time. And just getting ahead of batters and not pitching from behind kind of like I was (Tuesday). That's the biggest difference and the reason it's starting to turn around for me."

The Smokies have no intention of using Veal out of the bullpen because with his mix of fastballs and off-speed pitches, it's not a matter of if Veal makes it to the big leagues but when.

"He got off to a little bit of a shaky start and he had terrible luck," Lewallyn said of Veal's debut in Double A. "An umpire might miss a pitch that was close or we might not quite get to a ball we should or a broken-bat base hit. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. All of a sudden he started clicking. He started really making good pitches, had some really good outings and still couldn't get a win out of it. He got no decision, but he was pitching well.

"We've talked a lot: ‘Hey, keep your chin up. Your luck will start to change.' I told him the perfect example is (Tuesday's) outing, because you didn't pitch as well as you had your last couple of outings, but you got the win out of it. You showed me some tenacity and some fortitude because things weren't going well, but you kept going out there and you battled through it, and you got the win out of it. I think his fortune is starting to change. He's such a hard worker that you know it's going to happen. It's just now starting to happen for him."

Veal took advantage of Miller's stint in the Smokies clubhouse and appearance on the mound to watch how a big leaguer gets ready for a game.

"You watch them," Veal said. "It's kind of hard to pick their brains. Usually they come in the day of (the game), and they're gone before the game is over. You try to watch them and see what they do and how they go about their business. I got to see (Mark) Prior pitch last year. Same deal. You don't get to talk to them much, but you get to watch them and see how they worked out in pre-game and all that stuff."

Veal also has developed a routine for starts and the time in between.

"We come in before every game and we work on whatever we need to work on throwing-wise, pitching, either mechanically or certain pitches," Veal said. "We work on that before every game even if you're not starting. Before the game we're playing cards, hanging out, relaxing, watching the Cubs on TV. We're always watching baseball. Keeping charts. Try to work out, play a little PS2 and stuff like that to relax."

Smokies Manager Pat Listach keeps a loose clubhouse atmosphere as long as the players are executing on the field. Lewallyn and Barbaro Garbey, the hitting coach, have the same mindset.

Listach spent six seasons in the major leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros. Garbey, the first Cuban-born player to defect to the United States, played in the bigs for three years with the Detroit Tigers and the Texas Rangers. Lewallyn spent eight years in the majors with the L.A. Dodgers, Rangers and Cleveland Indians.

"They sometimes forget that we played the game," Lewallyn said. "Pat played it. I was a pitcher. Barbaro played it. I try to remind myself, ‘What was it like when I was at this level?' I try to put myself in their place. A lot of times I'll say something in the dugout like, ‘I can't believe you hung that 0-2 curveball. I played 11 years, and I never hung an 0-2 curveball in my life.' And they look at me and now that they know me, they're starting to understand I made that mistake.

"I tell them I lost almost a hundred games as a minor league pitcher, so I've been there. (His minor league record was 111-85.) I've been in every situation you can be in so I'm going to help you get through that situation. I'm going to talk you through it. I think they understand that I know (they're) not going to be perfect every time (they) go out there. So I want them to know that I made my share of mistakes. I walked a guy with the bases loaded, I gave up an 0-2 home run before, things like that. It's just the fewer times you can do those things, the quicker you will progress to the big leagues. That's what I try to let them know: we were human, we made our mistakes, we're trying to help you eliminate some of your mistakes."

Veal called his pitching coach "a great guy," whose demeanor and coaching style have been helpful already this season.

"He's always messing with me, messing with everybody," Veal said. "He's helping me with not to beat up on myself so much, working with my off-speed stuff, just trying to get it consistent and throw everything the same – fastball, changeup, curve, same arm spot and just stay back a little bit more. Sometimes I get in a rush to the plate and start going too fast. It's little things, and it's starting to come around. He's having to say less and less, which is good. I'm glad he's here."

Veal also is glad that East Tennessee's cold April weather (the mercury typically dips into the 30s and 40s at night) has yielded to May's warmer temperatures. It was 89 degrees when Veal took the mound in Tuesday's game.

"I'm from Arizona. I don't like cold weather," Veal said. "I don't really like April just because it's freezing around here. It feels better. You're looser. I'm happy right now."

Veal, a Mississippi native, will get his next start on the road this weekend as the Smokies (20-19) take on the Atlanta Braves farm club in Pearl, Mississippi. By taking three of five from the Lookouts, the Smokies won their first home series of the season. But they have played well on the road and are currently in first place in the North Division of the Southern League.

Tuesday's win stopped a two-game losing streak and the eighth inning hits – four singles followed by a double to the wall by shortstop Carlos Rojas, who recently came down from Iowa – led to the win.

The Smokies, who lead the Southern League in hitting at .273, have had trouble getting runners in scoring position across the plate at home.

"It is a relief," Veal said. "The biggest thing (Tuesday) was timely hitting. We'll out-hit every team, and we'll still lose. But it was timely hitting with guys on base and driving runs in. If we can do that every game, who knows how far we can go."

One of Veal's goals is to bring a baseball title to Kodak. The Smokies last won the SL title in 2004 when they were the farmhands of the St. Louis Cardinals. That was the first championship for the Smokies since 1978.

For the past two years, the Smokies were part of the Arizona Diamondbacks' system. The affiliation with the Cubs began after last season, and the Smokies just set a franchise record of 22,250 fans for a five-game series with the last home stand.

Veal wants to give the fans even more to cheer about.

"Number one, I'd like to win a championship down here because we've got a really good team," Veal said. "We've got a lot of good hitters and we've got the pitching. We've just got to put it together as starters. The relievers are doing a great job. Another goal of mine is to just keep my year ender, too. It's a reach right now, but it's possible. It can be done; I did it last year."

That "year ender" was being named the Cubs' Minor League Player of the Year after his standout performances in A ball.

"For those two things to happen, I've got to be able to throw my off-speed consistently, which is a goal of mine, and I have to be getting ahead of guys," Veal said. "We're learning how to pitch and that's why we're here."

On the off chance that Veal's pitching career doesn't go as planned, he does have a fallback plan. Veal was an outstanding student in high school and college (Arizona and Pima Community College, where he transferred to get playing time).

He thought about going to medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon.

"That's still a goal of mine just depending on what happens in baseball," Veal said. "If it turns into a good career, I might be the old guy in college. If it doesn't work out I've got options. That's the plan right now."

And a good plan it is. Veal's ticket to the parent club should be punched and it could happen this summer as he had originally hoped, so Lewallyn's job is to help get him ready. The keys are maturation and racking up innings.

"Maturing as a pitcher – he's very mature as an individual but that doesn't always translate to between the lines – and innings," Lewallyn said. "Because innings will take care of a lot of things – just the experience of going out there over and over and over again. We're starting to see that now. Things didn't go that well (Tuesday), but he battled through it, whereas a month ago the wheels might have come off for him. The innings, the maturing as a pitcher and just the continued progression as he's on right now."

A smile spreads about Veal's face when he is asked if he is happy with his progression thus far through the minor leagues.

"Absolutely," Veal said. "I think part of that is the reason I put a little too much pressure on myself just because I was moving pretty fast. I just put it in my mind that, ‘Oh, I can be there (in Chicago),' and just stopped pitching. It's been going kind of fast, and I have to take a step back and realize that it's my second full year and I'm in Double A. So, take my time and learn how to pitch."


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