Up-and-down Veal Learning Patience

KODAK, Tenn. – Donald Veal recently plopped down in a chair, sighed, and listed a litany of things that he needs to get better at this season. That's actually a good thing. The fireball-throwing left-hander hasn't been known for his patience, but he's finally coming to terms with the process of what it takes to become a big league pitcher.

At the time, Veal had been watching a Chicago Cubs game in the clubhouse of their Double-A affiliate, the Tennessee Smokies.

The Cubs had teed off on Houston Astros star pitcher Roy Oswalt, which included a shot by Alfonso Soriano that cleared the left-center field crowd and landed outside Wrigley Field.

The fact that a pitcher, even one as talented as Oswalt, can get rocked can be instructive for a youngster in the minor leagues like Veal, who has seen only sporadic success this season.

"Yes, this is a very humbling game," Veal said with a wry smile. "The baseball gods, they'll get you if you screw off in another area around the baseball field. It's part of the game. If you keep playing, you'll have good days and you'll have bad days. You've just got to try to keep it as consistent as possible."

With consistency as his theme, Veal outlined what he needed to do over the last six weeks of the season in Double-A.

"Just use all my pitches more. I've done a lot more of that, and I still need to get better at it," Veal said. "(And) more consistency with my off-speed and consistency with my mechanics, just repeating it every time no matter what the pitch is; poise on the mound; not losing my cool after a bad inning or anything like that."

Veal's last three starts, two against the red hot Huntsville Stars and one against the Mobile BayBears, pretty much encapsulate his season to date: some success, some failure, but also some signs of progress.

On July 7 against the Stars, Veal pitched three innings and gave up five runs, four of them earned. The Stars, who won the first half of the Southern League's Northern Division and are in first place again, jumped on Veal early.

Pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn said that despite the outcome, the outing was a learning experience for the 22-year-old Veal.

"Early in the year when Donnie struggled, he just simply couldn't throw strikes," Lewallyn said. "But in his start against Huntsville, he actually was throwing strikes but wasn't making quality pitches and they made him pay. It's probably a good thing that it happened like that because in the past, his stuff was good enough that if he threw it over the plate, he had some success. It's the first time where when he threw it over the plate, he didn't have success.

"He knows that he's got to take his game to another level. So that part is going to be part of the learning curve for him. He just got hit around like anybody else when they don't locate their pitches. He was throwing strikes. He wasn't wild as far as walks, but he wasn't locating and he got hit."

In Veal's next start on July 13 against Mobile, he got into trouble in the first inning with a wild throw to third on a stolen base attempt (Veal actually would have had the runner picked off) that resulted in an unearned run.

"Earlier in the season, something like that would lead to a three- or four-run inning," Veal said. "I try to minimize it and let it go. There's nothing you can do about it. Take the next pitch and get better."

Veal settled down and went five innings, notching four strikeouts and allowing two walks while giving up only one earned run. But he got little run support and his team lost, 4-1.

He also had a mental error by not covering first base in that game. The runner did not score, but the outing was a frustrating one for Veal. His two walks came after getting ahead 0-2 in the count.

"That's kind of what I've been going through this year," Veal said. "It was good on one hand. It wasn't exactly that bad, but if you saw the game and saw the pitches, you could see that it could have been a lot better. A throwing error, a mental error, getting 0-2 counts and ending up walking them, stuff like that just can't happen."

Veal's next start was again against the Stars on July 19 in Huntsville. He lasted one inning, walking two and giving up two runs and three hits. (In Veal's defense, nobody on the Smokies' staff had success in Huntsville. Tennessee went into the series one game out of first place and proceeded to lose five straight to the Stars, who have now won 12 consecutive games.)

After a day off Sunday, the Smokies resume play Monday at home against the Carolina Mudcats and are now 13-17, six games out of first place.

Veal, now 5-8 with a 5.50 ERA overall this season, said the time between starts for a pitcher has to be spent looking at how to get better. It's not so much about the numbers in the minor leagues (though Veal now leads the Smokies with 88 strikeouts), it's about game-by-game improvements.

"You analyze it, try to fix anything that's broken and just keep working on your craft," Veal said. "That's about all you can do ... work on what I'm trying to work on today and then tomorrow work on whatever I'm trying to work on tomorrow and get up to game day, don't think about anything and just throw the ball."

It takes that kind of temperament to survive the grind of the minor leagues, and Lewallyn believes Veal has what it takes to recover from bad outings and get better.

"I definitely think he does," Lewallyn said. "Does he want to be in the big leagues tomorrow? No, he wanted to be there yesterday. And if these kids didn't want that then they wouldn't be worth their weight to us anyway."

Patience is a virtue that Veal knows he has to acquire, and over the last month he has already made strides in the psychological department, which can be as important to a pitcher as his repertoire on the mound.

"It's going better," Veal said. "I realize there's stuff I need to work on, so I need to just work on it. It's going to take time to get better. It's not going to happen overnight. However long it takes is however long it's going to take."

Veal has a lot of support in the clubhouse. Teammates are pulling for him.

"I would be willing to wager that if you took a poll out there on one of the three favorite guys of teammates, he would be one of those three," Lewallyn said. "He's just one of those guys everybody likes. That's something that is good to say about a kid. That way when he does struggle, he's got plenty of people to talk to, and he's got everybody pulling for him. I know (Joe) Simokaitis is like that. Everybody likes Joe. Sam Fuld (too). Those type guys, everybody pulls for them, and it helps them along the way."

Veal, who was selected in the second round of the 2005 draft, can be seen smiling in the dugout between starts and talking to his teammates. He often hangs over the dugout rail when he's not charting pitches and cheers on his team. He clearly is a player who enjoys the game of baseball.

"Absolutely," Veal said. "If you don't enjoy it, I don't see how you can play 140 games a year throughout the summer. You have to have fun out there. Everybody gets along. You wake up (and) you don't know what day it is, but it's a lot of fun."

Veal doesn't outwardly show any signs of the quirkiness that lefties are known for, but his pitching coach said it's in there somewhere, and it's not a baseball myth that left-handers are two or three degrees off plumb.

"It's true, they are in a different world," Lewallyn said. "My wife is a lefty so I can speak from experience there. They think from a different world than everybody else. He's probably got some of it. He just hides it pretty well."

Whatever it is, Veal acknowledges that he keeps it under wraps as much as possible.

"I'm pretty goofy, but I don't really do too much around the clubhouse," he said. "As far as the left-handed quirkiness, I try to be as mellow as possible because we already have the label. But at times it comes out."

One good sign for Veal this summer is that his velocity hasn't dropped off. In fact, he's hitting the upper 90s on the radar gun now more than he was earlier in the season. A left-hander with that kind of power will be given ample time to develop and get to the majors.

"I think my legs have gotten a little stronger, just working out and staying on top of it, and staying on top of the running," Veal said. "We stay on top of our shoulder exercises and back exercises. I usually get stronger during the year so I feel great. My arm feels great."

When the season began, Veal wanted to be in Chicago before it ended.

Now, he realizes that he could very well be back in Tennessee in 2008 as he continues to learn how to command his pitches.

"I understand. I have no problem with it," Veal said. "If they send me back here, I'll know why. It's not going to be a shock or anything, and I'm not going to be upset with the organization. I have some things to work on still and still need to get them ironed out and whenever I do, I'll move on."

That's a sign of Veal's maturity over the course of this season. Projecting when Veal could reach Chicago is difficult because there are many variables such as injuries, trades and what a ball club needs at any given time.

"It's almost impossible to tell," Lewallyn agreed. "From a selfish standpoint, I would say maybe '09, maybe even 2010 ... You don't want to rush a young guy if you don't have to, because the more experience they can get, when they get there they have a better chance of staying there.

"Maybe a September call-up in '09," Lewallyn added. "I honestly don't know, but you don't want to rush a kid like him."

Lewallyn is spending his first season with Veal, and the two have developed a good rapport.

"This is his first year with us, and he's pretty much learned the whole staff, what makes us tick and what's too far," Veal said. "He's done a great job with it. He's found ways to get guys moved on, and he's helping guys who need work."

Two of the pitchers that have moved on are Sean Gallagher and Billy Petrick. Veal said moves like that are inspiring for the other players.

"Gallagher and Petrick, we worked out all year and got along real well," he said. "If I'm going good, if I can get it consistent, any one of us can go up there. Like Pat (Listach) told us, they want the best guy available and if the best guy available happens to be in Double-A, they'll go up."

Veal likely has several more starts left for Tennessee this season, especially if the Smokies can somehow make the playoffs.

His buzzword? Once again: consistency.

"By the end of the year, I want to be able to consistently throw my curveball for strikes early in the count, not just as a strikeout pitch; get ahead of hitters and shorten my innings. My innings have been too long. I'm going too short in games, not going longer than five innings a game. I could easily be going seven. So my goal at the end of the season is to be at that point."

Lewallyn wants to see Veal continue to control his emotions on the mound.

"I've always said Donnie's biggest problem was himself," Lewallyn said. "He got in his own way because he wanted success so badly that he tried too hard. Now he's starting to control his emotions a little bit. It used to be if things started going south on him, the wheels came completely off and he was done.

"Now, because he's able to control his emotions and take the game one pitch at a time, he's pitched through some situations that early in the year he couldn't do. That's been a big plus," Lewallyn added. "He still has to learn to command the ball consistently, but he's getting there as well.

"Nobody works harder than Donnie. There's nobody that you pull harder for than Donnie. He's got a heart of gold," Lewallyn said.

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