Atkins Hoping for Double-A Challenge

Right-hander Mitch Atkins has flashed signs of dominance at the Class High A and Low A levels the past two seasons, racking up 22 victories along the way. He now feels ready to take his game to the Double-A level, where a solid performance could put him within earshot of the major leagues.

What do pitchers Sean Gallagher, Billy Petrick and Carlos Marmol have in common? The answer: they have recently all gone from pitching on a Double-A mound one day to pitching on a big league mound the next.

It's true that Marmol is the only one from the group that has to date had an extended stay with the Chicago club, but Atkins, 22, views those call-ups as motivation and wouldn't mind being the next pitching prospect to earn such a promotion.

"If I pitch well and do everything right, I'll have a chance to be one of those guys," Atkins said from Cubs Minor League Spring Training in Mesa, Ariz., this week.

He might have a head start, too.

Spending most of his summer last year with Class High A Daytona, Atkins posted eight wins and a 3.13 ERA in 20 uninterrupted starts.

He then earned a promotion to Double-A Tennessee with a month left in the season and used that time to get his feet wet at the level he's most likely to begin 2008.

"It was the first time I ever got called up during the season," Atkins said. "It was nice to get that chance and (to) give me a little exposure to Double-A."

Except that it was a rocky bit of exposure.

Atkins made four starts and allowed 12 earned runs in 20 innings for a 5.40 ERA. His curveball got away from him in a couple of starts, and Smokies pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn said that Atkins was overthrowing his pitches at times.

"He's just trying to do too much right now," Lewallyn had said. "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 says he sees progress in his performance since then.

"From last year to spring training now, everything feels a little better and I can tell a little difference in command and the overall feel for (my) pitches," he said.

Atkins prides himself on being a groundball pitcher. He often favors his two-seam pitch and doesn't mind being known as a sinkerball pitcher.

But he also spent a good portion of his time in Double-A last year working on the development of a cut fastball to complement his two-seamer and to serve as a pitch that moves in on the hands of left-handed hitters.

The work continues to persist because the cutter was slow to come around at first and because Atkins is still trying to get a feel for the pitch this spring.

"I haven't thrown it as much as my other pitches, but I think it will work out pretty good," Atkins said. "I think it's a little easier for me to throw a cutter than a two-seamer. It feels a little better. With the cutter, it's (about) staying on top of the ball because I don't want it to break a lot. I want it to stay hard and just move a little bit."

The transition from A ball to Double-A is one that most coaches agree is the most difficult for any pitcher to make.

While beginning the year in Double-A may seem like a logical conclusion, nothing is guaranteed and Atkins isn't getting too carried away with the idea that he could be the next pitching prospect to go from Double-A to Chicago. He understands the importance of "one step at a time," and that all begins with a good spring.

"One of my goals is to start out at Tennessee," he said, "but the main thing is just staying consistent, staying healthy and finishing the year strong.

"Then, we'll see what happens."

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