Atkins Takes Next Step

The Tennessee Smokies pitching coach said earlier this month that Mitch Atkins was ready now to pitch in Triple-A. The words proved to be prophetic as the right-hander was recently promoted to Iowa and has already picked up his first win.

"I think he can pitch in Triple-A right now," Dennis Lewallyn said a few days before the Cubs organization opted to find out just how Atkins would do at the next level. "He's been our most consistent starter all year. He's averaging over six innings an outing as a starter, which is outstanding in the minor leagues."

Just days before Atkins got word of the move from Double-A, he talked about pitch development and what he learned from a month-long stint in Tennessee last summer that led to his success this season.

"The biggest thing was trying not to change too much," Atkins said. "When I first got called up, I was trying to overanalyze things or throw too hard or try to hit the corner every time. That is not how you get hitters out. What I was doing in Daytona was getting hitters out, and you can get hitters out the same way here."

"Mitch has really matured a lot as a person and that's carried over," Lewallyn said. "One of Mitch's problems last year -- which is true with most young pitchers -- when things start going bad, they start trying to throw harder and harder instead of just pitching their way out of trouble. That's part of the evolution that Mitch has had this year is controlling his delivery when he gets into a little bit of trouble and pitching himself out of trouble instead of throwing and hoping."

The 22-year-old Atkins led the Southern League with nine wins in 2008 and was looking for No. 10 on July 11 in Kodak, Tenn., when word came late July 10 that he was headed to the Pacific Coast League. So instead of taking the mound for the Smokies, Atkins pitched July 11 at Albuquerque for the Iowa Cubs and got the win with six innings of work in which he gave up two earned runs and struck out four batters.

Atkins developed into the ace of the staff for the Smokies this season. He was 9-6 in 18 starts with a 3.76 ERA and led the team with 110 innings pitched. The numbers that likely got him noticed by the organization were 88 strikeouts to just 27 walks.

"It definitely does," Lewallyn said.

In his last start at home for Tennessee on July 1 against the Huntsville Stars, the best-hitting team in the Southern League, Atkins pitched seven innings with eight strikeouts and no walks.

"He went seven innings against the best-hitting team in Double-A without question, and he didn't walk anybody," Lewallyn said. "When you throw a lot of strikes and don't walk people, you give your team a chance to win."

Lewallyn remembered two pitches in particular in which Atkins got a 2-2 count on Mat Gamel, who leads the Southern League with a .375 batting average and has 15 homers and 81 RBIs at the All-Star break for Huntsville.

Atkins delivered what he, catcher Mark Reed, Lewallyn, the dugout and some 2,900 fans in attendance thought was a strike, but the umpire called the pitch a ball to run the count full.

"Last year, Mitch might have kind of lost it there, but he came back and threw probably the best curveball that he threw all night to Gamel and struck him out with it," Lewallyn said.

The next day, Atkins remembered a pitch in that same outing that resulted in a home run, but he conceded that the rest of his performance was noteworthy.

"It was a bad pitch," Atkins said of the solo shot. "The execution of the pitch wasn't very good. I can say that was the thing that I did bad."

In what turned out to be his last start for the Smokies on July 6 against the Carolina Mudcats, Atkins pitched 7.1 innings with three strikeouts, one walk and no runs allowed.

The soft-spoken Atkins may be rather understated in his remarks to reporters, but at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, he has a presence on the mound. He also wielded a bat for the Smokies this season, as was evident by his .292 batting average that included a double.

When Atkins arrived in Double-A last summer, he had not been in a batting cage since 2004 and said he needed to get in some cuts.

"I was always a good hitter growing up," said Atkins, who was drafted by the Cubs in the seventh round in 2004 out of Northeast Guilford High School in McLeansville, N.C. "I used to like hitting and playing the field better than I did pitching, but I got drafted as a pitcher so I had to quit. The first month or so, it took me awhile to get back in the swing. Once I started seeing some live pitching, it came back a little bit."

Atkins had two hits in his July 6 start against Carolina and scored a run. In his July 1 game at home, Atkins also spent considerable time on the base paths that evening after reaching safely on a fielder's choice and a bunt. It was a cool night in the mountains of eastern Tennessee.

"In Mississippi, I was on the bases a couple of times and it was 90 (degrees) and a day game," Atkins said. "I could feel that drain on me."

Atkins was also active in the field that July 1 night. He took a line drive off the side of his right heel but managed to retrieve the ball and throw out the runner.

"It got more shoe than it did foot, but he got a pretty good bruise," Lewallyn said. "That's an occupational hazard. I think everybody on the pitching staff has been hit once this year. You don't think about it because if you did, you probably wouldn't go out there."

Also in the July 6 start, Atkins picked off two different Carolina runners at first base.

Lewallyn sees a prospect with the entire package in Atkins – one that can pitch, field his position, run the bases, swing the bat and put down a bunt.

"We make out reports on every one of our pitchers and one of the things that we talk about is their athleticism," Lewallyn said. "Can they swing the bat? Do they field their position? Can they hold base runners well? Are they decent base runners?

"All this stuff goes into a computer and all the front office people see it. Lou Piniella sees it. If a guy can handle the bat, he's probably a pretty good athlete, and everybody is looking for athletes."

Atkins' performance at the plate this season has shown his overall athleticism. He has a solid build and is built for the long haul when it comes to pitching. His preparation between starts includes upper and lower body weight workouts and running.

"It's a big part of my confidence," Atkins said. "Mentally and physically, it makes me feel better. When I'm out on the mound, I know that I'm prepared."

When the season started in April, Atkins was leaving the ball up in the strike zone, which led to hitters leaving the park. Atkins allowed 14 home runs this season for the Smokies, including an April 17 outing in which he gave up four in one game.

"A lot of those home runs were earlier in the year when I was struggling a little bit," Atkins said. "I was leaving everything up. I made an adjustment, and it has cut down on my home runs. I'm not really worried about it. I don't have a lot of walks. I'd rather them hit that (solo) home run than have a six or eight-pitch walk. You want to make them hit the ball. That's what you're trying to do."

Lewallyn wasn't worried about the home runs at all.

"It was more early in the year," Lewallyn said. "He's learned to be a little more selective in his pitches and his command has gotten better. Also, sometimes being a guy that gives up home runs is not necessarily a bad thing, especially (solo) home runs. You're aggressive, you attack the strike zone, you're going to give up some home runs.

"I look back on the Catfish Hunter's, the Robin Roberts', the Don Sutton's, the Bert Blyleven's, guys like that all gave up a lot of home runs. But among those guys, they won some Cy Young's, some 20-game winners and some Hall of Famers. As long as they're solo home runs and you're aggressive and attacking the strike zone, there's nothing wrong with that."

Atkins got control of the strike zone and went 6-1 over his last eight starts for the Smokies.

"I've always been able to throw strikes, and recently I've been able to throw all my pitches for strikes pretty much and being able to mix up pitches and keep hitters off balance," Atkins said. "Having a good strikeout pitch is probably the biggest thing, which usually is my curveball."

Atkins developed a fourth pitch this summer and that two-seam fastball is what got his ticket punched to Iowa.

"I've been working on a cutter," Atkins said. "I started throwing it last year when I got up here. I didn't have a good feel for it last year. This year it came around, and I can throw it pretty much anytime I want to.

"My curveball is usually 75 (mph), my cutter is 82, my fastball is 90 and my changeup is probably around 78."

Lewallyn said the key for Atkins is he can now throw all four pitches for strikes, and the cutter is the one that could put him in a Chicago Cubs uniform.

"He's got an average major league fastball, and he's got a two-seam fastball as well, which he uses when he needs a ground ball," Lewallyn said. "He's got much better command of it this year than when he came up last year. He throws it to both sides of the plate fairly consistently.

"The cutter has been the pitch that has probably gotten him over the hump as far as probably going to pitch in the big leagues. He throws it in just about any count. He gets a lot of outs off of it. He's always had a good curveball. I think in the past he overexposed his curveball. Now he uses it in the right situations, and it's a real quality pitch for him." With the move to Iowa, Atkins' parents won't be able to make a drive across the state border from North Carolina to see him play. But they have another son, Taylor Atkins, who is a prep pitcher and third baseman and is playing in a competitive summer league. Atkins' mother, father, aunt and brothers made a trip to Smokies Park in June.

"It's always nice to see your family," Atkins said.

Perhaps the family could be making a trip to Chicago in the not-too-distant future. Atkins first has to duplicate his Double-A success in Iowa, but Lewallyn said the right-hander has the assortment of pitches he needs to get to ‘The Show.'

"He has major league stuff," Lewallyn said. "He doesn't have overpowering stuff, but he has four good-enough pitches that he can throw in any counts so the hitters can't just sit on one pitch."

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