Veal Showing Maturity

KODAK, Tenn. – Last season Donnie Veal couldn't take his mind off reaching Chicago. That approach messed up not just his mindset but his pitching performance, too. This summer Veal is pondering one pitch at a time and that approach has his pitching coach confident that the big left-hander will eventually be in the big leagues.

"I learned that last year," Veal said. "I was trying to pitch my way into the big leagues in the first month of the season, and it just blew up and kind of went in the opposite direction. This year I'm not going to worry about it. I'm just going to work on improving my stuff. When I'm ready, I'll get a chance."

Veal finished 2007 with an 8-10 record and a 4.97 ERA in 130 innings for Class AA Tennessee. He went to the Cubs' Instructional League in the fall and used the time to fine-tune his pitches and mechanics before taking some much-needed time off to rest.

"I threw a lot of innings last year," Veal said. "I got to rest my body and my arm, and that was good."

Veal has started 2008 with a 2-4 record and a 2.97 ERA through 57.2 innings. If ever there was a case of a record not reflecting performance it is Veal's, and Monday night's game on Memorial Day was a perfect example.

Veal left after seven innings with a 4-2 lead over the Carolina Mudcats, the Double-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins. He had surrendered one earned run and struck out five batters, but the bullpen lost the lead. The Smokies came back in the 10th inning to get the win for reliever Dumas Garcia, who gave up a home run in the top of the 10th but benefited from clutch hitting by Nate Spears and Matt Camp in the bottom of the inning.

In Veal's previous start on May 21, he took a 2-1 loss to the Mississippi Braves after pitching seven innings, including five scoreless.

Veal's goal this season is to rely on his pitching repertoire and walk fewer batters.

"Get more consistency out of the secondary pitches and just continue to cut down on the walks," Veal said of his assessment of his season to date. "It's still up too much, too many walks for me."

Veal has 44 strikeouts and 29 walks on the season so far.

"He's throwing more strikes, he's learning to control his emotions better and then it carries over into being able to throw more pitches over the plate and being ahead in the count, not walking as many people and then the strikeouts come," Smokies pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn said.

That sounds like a simple formula, but baseball is a humbling game, especially for a young 23-year-old pitcher who was named the Cubs' Co-Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2006 and was taken in the second round of the draft in 2005. After a summer of struggle in 2007, the simple approach has worked for Veal so far.

"Cut down on the walks and start getting ahead of guys more," Veal said. "That really hurt me last year getting behind the count, walking guys and then the walks scored. That's the main thing and then everything else will come around. Stop trying to be so fine early in the counts and throw pitches that will put guys away instead of trying to strike everybody out all the time.

"Just get strike one, strike two and then expand a little bit, but don't start throwing a bunch of waste pitches. Throw pitches that are hittable pitches for outs, not for strikeouts."

Veal also is keeping the ball in the park. He has given up six homers, and two of those were against the Huntsville Stars (who lead the Southern League in home runs with 56) on a night in mid-May that the wind was blowing out.

"The two he gave up against Huntsville were wind-aided home runs," Lewallyn said. "They would have been long fly balls on a normal night."

The Stars' hitters have rocked Southern League pitching to start the season – and feasted on the starters and bullpen in the recent series with Tennessee – but Veal offered no excuses and said the Smokies pitchers need to do a better job.

"We've got to make pitches," Veal said.

Lewallyn sees a more mature pitcher on the mound for the Smokies this season.

"From this time last year to this year, Donnie has matured a lot," Lewallyn said. "This time last year if he would struggle with his control early in the ballgame, he couldn't get out of it. He was pretty much done. He's got a high-anxiety level – that's a desire to pitch in the big leagues – but he's learned to control it better. It's getting better all the time.

"When things start going south on him he has a chance to regroup, stay in the ballgame, get us outs and pitch through it basically. He's maturing as an individual and a pitcher."

That was evident Monday when Veal gave up a leadoff walk to Carolina's John Raynor, who leads the Southern League in stolen bases with 18. Veal's pickoff move left Raynor stranded between first and second, and Veal was the one to apply the tag in the rundown.

The Cubs organization emphasizes holding runners on base and being quick to the plate.

"With all of our pitchers, I make it an issue with them because I know it's an issue with Lou Piniella, and ultimately that's where they want to pitch," Lewallyn said. "Donnie has come up with a much better move to first base, and he is quicker to the plate."

The left-hander has a good view of the runner because Veal is facing him, but that works in reverse, too, Lewallyn said, because the runner gets a good look at the pitcher.

Lewallyn, who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers, said Maury Wills would conduct base-running clinics for the team, and he preferred lefties on the mound. (Mills had 104 stolen bases in one season in 1962, which was then a major league record.)

"Maury Wills used to say that the easiest guys for him to steal bases off of were left-handers because he was looking right at them," Lewallyn said. "He said all he had to do was find one little flaw in their delivery that tipped it and he could steal second off of them easier than he could righties.

"Lefties either have a very good move or they have a terrible move. The key for me is if you don't have a quick move you can still be quick to the plate, and you can still stop the runner because you're looking right at him. Donnie has been able to do all three. He's come up with a good move, he's able to stop the runner when he's not going to first, and he's quick … when he's going to the plate."

The pitches to the plate also have improved for Veal. He is confident in his fastball and changeup and is getting comfortable with his curveball.

"This year I'm better at throwing in the strike zone more consistently with all my pitches as opposed to just the fastball," Veal said. "For the most part I have been able to throw everything for a strike. That's been the biggest difference from last year to this year."

Veal is regularly hitting the high 80s and low 90s with his fastball, but he has learned to be patient in that regard, too.

"Early in the season my velocity was down a little bit," Veal said. "It's something that comes. You're not going to be at your maximum velocity the whole season. I'll keep pitching the way I've been pitching. The changeup has been working for me real well this year, and the curveball has been coming around a lot better. It's coming around a lot faster than I thought it would."

Veal had one injury scare this season on April 26 when a line drive up the middle struck the pitcher in the fingertips of his left hand. He still managed to pick up the ball and throw out the runner. After getting checked by a trainer, Veal stayed in the game and pitched 5.2 scoreless innings.

"He threw in the bullpen" the next day, Lewallyn said. "He felt great. The day before we have these rubber baseballs that we bring in, and we hit them at them hard to get them to react. I said, ‘It's ironic the next day you get a bullet hit at you.'"

Veal remains a popular player in the Smokies' clubhouse, and recently drew a crowd for an interview session. Some of his fellow pitchers pulled up chairs and encircled Veal to playfully listen in, nod at his answers and offer some side commentary.

"They're hilarious, good guys," said Veal, who tried to ignore his teammates but started smiling. "They sit in on your interviews and watch you. They eat while you're trying to do interviews."

The clubhouse and ballpark provide some respite for Veal from a brutal off-season in which he lost his father, Donald Veal Sr., in a scuba diving accident.

The senior Veal, 48, was snorkeling in Mexico on Nov. 10, 2007, when he died. In November 2004, Veal lost his mother, Tanya, to stomach cancer. His younger brother, Devin, is a wide receiver at the University of Arizona – the same school where Veal pitched before he was drafted in 2005 – and a trust fund was started to help the brothers, whose family did not have life insurance.

Contributions have come from all throughout the Cubs organization with donations and items offered for auction.

"It was nice to see all the people, the fans, the coaches and players on the big league squad that gave to it," Veal said. "Anything is a help, and it's greatly appreciated."

Veal thinks of his parents before every start. After that, he focuses on the game.

"Right before I get on the mound, I say a quick prayer and go pitch," Veal said. "That's all I can do. I don't think about it when I'm pitching, just right before warmups. You come to the park every day and you don't worry because of all the things you have to take care of."

He also makes regular phone calls to his brother, who was consumed by college football in the immediate months after the death of his father.

"They keep you busy from sunup to sundown," Veal said. "He doesn't really have time to think about anything, which is good."

Veal's maturity on the mound is evolving, but his demeanor out of uniform has always been top-notch, according to Lewallyn.

"I've always thought Donnie was mature off the field," Lewallyn said. "He's had some tough cards to play here in the last couple of years with his mom and dad. He's handled it well. It has to be tough on him, and it has to make it tough for him to pitch. I get the sense that he feels like he needs to be strong for his little brother, too."

Veal uses what little down time a minor leaguer has to rest and check in with family, friends and his girlfriend, Stephanie.

"I pretty much sleep," Veal said. "I like to sleep a lot. If I'm not sleeping I'm catching up with family or close friends of the family. They're always checking in on me to see how I'm doing, and they're checking on my brother. I talk to my aunt on my dad's side periodically, and I talk to Stephanie every night, my brother two to five times a week. I just check in with him to see how he's doing. Everyone has been helpful. A lot of close friends of the family call a lot."

Veal has learned to live one day at a time and not look ahead when it comes to his pitching career.

"I stopped worrying about that last year," Veal said. "I was looking ahead too much. Whenever it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't. I'm just going to keep working hard. That's all I can do."

Lewallyn can already see the benefits of that approach.

"He's definitely better than he was this time last year," Lewallyn said. "Coming out of the winter organizational meetings, I told them there, ‘I think Donnie Veal is going to pitch in the big leagues, but I think he needs to go back to Double A.' Does that mean he needs to stay there all year? I don't know. But he's much better now at this stage of the season than he was this time last year."

Lewallyn also has no doubt where Veal will end up.

"I definitely think Donnie Veal is going to pitch in the big leagues," he said.

Those who would like to help the Veal's can send checks payable to the Donnie and Devin Veal Trust Fund, Smith Barney/Citigroup, 701 Market Street, Suite 1500, St. Louis, MO 63101, Attn: Brad Rippelmeyer.

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