Atkins Meets One Goal, Sets Another

KODAK, Tenn. – Mitch Atkins' goal was to get to Tennessee before the end of the summer. Mission accomplished. The next step for the right-hander is to stick with what worked in Single-A ball to get Double-A batters out.

"It's not so much that they think they have to set it on fire," explains Dennis Lewallyn, the Tennessee Smokies' pitching coach. "They think they have to do more here than they were doing in A ball. You don't. You still have to pitch down in the strike zone and you have to pitch ahead in the count."

Atkins, 21, was drafted by the Cubs out of high school in McLeansville, N.C., in the seventh round in 2004. He started the 2007 season in Daytona after going 13-4 with a 2.41 ERA in 2006 for Class-A Peoria.

He was 8-7 for Daytona this summer over 20 starts with one complete game and an ERA of 3.13. He also had 88 strikeouts to 31 walks.

"I was in rookie ball, then short season, then Low A, then High A and then called up (to Tennessee)," Atkins said of his steady progression since being drafted. "It's been my goal all year to get to Double-A. I've just got to try to settle down a little bit and start pitching like I know I can."

Atkins arrived in Tennessee on Aug. 2. His first appearance for the Smokies was on Aug. 5 in a single inning out of the bullpen. That also was the first time that Atkins had entered a game in relief since his debut season in the Arizona Rookie League back in 2004.

He struck out two but also walked two and surrendered three runs. Three runs in one inning of work caused his ERA to start over at 27.00.

"I've never relieved during the real season, just in Spring Training," Atkins said. "That's pretty much the only time I came in out of the bullpen. It's a little different. I felt loose, but it's hard to say whether I was or not because of the adrenaline. It was different coming in later in the ballgame. It's a little more tense sometimes."

The Smokies had rallied to tie a game against Montgomery when Atkins entered in the seventh inning and was tagged with the runs, and ultimately the loss. Atkins kept his poise on the mound but was visibly angry as he left the mound after the third out.

"It's been an ongoing process," Atkins said of maintaining his poise. "I've been working on that since I went in pro ball. Keeping your composure out there is probably one of the biggest things, especially being a young guy coming up, because bad things happen.

"You have to let it go. It's kind of hard to do sometimes. You do the best you can. When you're not doing good, it gets pretty isolated out there."

Lewallyn applauded that show of emotion and met Atkins as he entered the dugout.

"I just told him, ‘around the runs you gave up, when you made good pitches you got people out,' " Lewallyn said. " ‘You just have to stay within yourself and quit trying to do too much.'

"And he did that the next time out for two innings and then the third inning he went out there and got out of kilter, and he paid for it."

Atkins' first start for the Smokies was Aug. 8 against long-time Cubs Double-A affiliate West Tennessee. He nailed down two good innings but then gave up four runs in the third inning and was lifted for a reliever.

"He started overthrowing and then got out of whack and then he started elevating the ball," Lewallyn said. "The difference is they will make you pay quicker at this level."

Atkins noticed that about Double-A hitters pretty quickly.

"You can't make as many mistakes because they seem to hit it more," Atkins said. "On lower levels, if you make a mistake, they usually foul it back. At this level they get base hits. One of the big things is you can't fall behind the hitters."

Atkins actually managed to stay ahead of most of the batters he faced.

He also featured a nice mix of fastballs in the low 90s and off-speed pitches, but the breaking ball abandoned him.

"I was ahead of a couple of hitters and didn't make the out pitches," Atkins said. "I left the curveball up. That was probably the biggest thing the whole game. My curveball was not very good, and I was leaving it up, and they were getting base hits. I only threw one changeup and I got an out with that. I think if my curveball would have been on, it would have been a different story out there, but it's something I can work on.

"In the game, sometimes you try to overthrow it and when you do that, you tend to fly open a little bit and it leaves the breaking ball close up there instead of having a nice downward action," Atkins added. "That's what happened. I tried to overthrow a little bit. Usually my curveball is better than that. It's kind of good in a way because it's something that I can control and work on and be better by the next time I'm out."

Atkins' next outing was on the road against Chattanooga this past Tuesday. He went five innings and struck out three, but also surrendered two home runs. He was lifted in the sixth inning for a pinch hitter (Alberto Garcia), who hit an RBI-triple as the Smokies rallied to tie the game.

But the bullpen gave up five runs and Chattanooga won, 9-5. The outing did lower Atkins' ERA to 11 points over nine innings of work, and he has six strikeouts to five walks.

It also gave him more innings to build on before his next start comes on the road against Mobile, and that is what a young pitcher needs.

"The first outing, he gave up three runs and then four (in his second start), but the upside to that is when he did it right, he got people out," Lewallyn said. "When he gets in trouble, he starts trying to overthrow his curveball. He knows it. We did a lot of work on it in the bullpen. Hopefully we can fix that."

"He's just trying to do too much right now," Lewallyn added. "He thinks he has to do more than he does to pitch in Double-A. We did some mechanical things, tried to straighten out his delivery so he doesn't overthrow and hopefully it will carry over."

Atkins did do well in the batting lineup in his start against Chattanooga, a farm club of Cincinnati. Prior to that, Atkins had not hit in a professional baseball game. (In the Southern League, the designated hitter is only used when one of the teams is affiliated with an American League club.)

He managed to reach base on two walks and scored a run on a wild pitch.

"I hadn't got to hit yet in pro ball (prior to Tuesday)," said Atkins, who last swung a bat in 2004. "I've got to get in the cage. Nothing will help me out until I get some real at bats. I'm kind of waiting to see what happens.

"I think I'll be all right if I get a couple of reps in there and see some live pitching. It's been awhile," he added.

Atkins arrived in Tennessee with pitching prospect Jeff Samardzija, who also started the season in Daytona. The Tennessee clubhouse is now full of players who were in Daytona earlier this season so the transition has been smooth.

"It's nice," Atkins said. "We both came in together and are always talking about stuff."

Samardzija also will be making his debut at-bat when his next start comes against Chattanooga later in the series.

"We're going to get him in the cage," Lewallyn said of Samardzija. "My first three years, there was no DH in the minor leagues. I was getting my regular at-bats. I was adequate and I could bunt. I got a few hits along the way. But it's different when you have not done it. When I came along, it was expected you could do something. They both will have some catching up to do."

The Smokies are still in the hunt for first place in the second half (they trail first-half winner Huntsville by four games) but the season is winding down with only four series left.

The five starters are down to their last few games in the rotation.

"I would just like to get a good couple of starts under my belt in Double-A and try to carry that on to next year," Atkins said. "That is probably the biggest thing."

When asked, Atkins offered his own scouting report.

"I'd say aggressive with the fastball. Curveball is the out pitch. Good changeup when it's on. It's kind of inconsistent sometimes," he detailed.

Atkins has only been with Tennessee for two weeks, but he is developing a rapport with Lewallyn that will come in handy in the final three weeks of the season, especially if both are back together in Tennessee in 2008.

"‘Lew' is a good guy," Atkins said. "I was with him in Spring Training a little bit. He knows what's going on and knows a lot about the game."

Lewallyn said two of Atkins' best qualities are that he's willing to learn and wants to compete.

"He's quiet, but he's intense and he listens well," Lewallyn said. "A little anxious but that's to be expected. I went through that with (Rocky) Roquet and (Matt) Avery and (Grant) Johnson and all the guys that have come up. But he's a good athlete and he shows me the ability to do what we need to do in the bullpen (sessions between starts). He's just got to consistently do it in the game."

Lewallyn added: "Good competitor with good stuff and just needs to settle in in Double-A and not try to do too much," adding that Atkins would benefit from a full season in Double-A.

"He needs to come here and get comfortable at this level," he said.

For now, Atkins, who first played baseball when he was 5 years old and dropped soccer and basketball by the age of 15 to focus on baseball because he "didn't want to get hurt playing another sport," is trying to do just that.

"I would like to go later in the ballgame," Atkins said. "I want to put up zeroes on the board. I don't like giving up runs. It always gets to me a little bit. I want to go out there and give us a chance to win the game."

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