Atkins Continues Down Winning Path

With 18 victories this season, including 12 in a row at one point, Mitch Atkins has been one of the hottest pitchers in the minor leagues.

Now in his fifth year in the Cubs' minor league system, Mitch Atkins has won a lot of games as a pitcher. In the past three seasons, he has amassed 40 victories.

Two years ago at Class-A Peoria, the right-hander led the Cubs' system with 13 wins, only to eclipse that mark with a career-high 18 victories in 2008.

So what's been the right formula this year?

"I've been throwing the ball pretty well," says Atkins. "Both of the teams I've played for have been playing pretty well and that always helps.

"(If) you come out of the game with a one-run lead and the bullpen saves you a win, or (if) you get eight runs to work with … " he says before breaking thought.

A seventh-round Cubs draft pick from Northeast Guilford High School in North Carolina over four years ago, Atkins began this season at Class AA Tennessee, the same level where he left off last year following a successful transition from Low-A ball into the Advanced-A competition of the Florida State League.

Though he had mixed results early on at Double-A, Atkins began dealing this summer around mid-June. He lowered his ERA almost a full point and won his last five starts at Tennessee to earn a promotion to Class AAA Iowa in early July.

Atkins kept the momentum going there, winning his first seven Iowa starts while keeping his ERA a respectable – if not impressive, by Triple-A standards – 3.61.

In his most recent outing, Atkins gave his team seven scoreless innings against Oklahoma in the Iowa Cubs' best-of-five playoff series. He scattered four hits, struck out seven and walked one – a memorable finish to his season, at least for now.

Atkins finished 9-1 with a 3.98 ERA at Iowa, and the team's pitching coach, Mike Mason, says that Atkins has been learning how to pitch in the big leagues at Triple-A.

"He's always going to throw his pitch, even if he walks the guy," said Mason. "He's learning how to pitch in the big leagues at Triple-A, and Double-A doesn't teach you that. He's done very well."

But both Mason and Atkins concede that there's room for improvement. Mason said that Atkins was making "Double-A mistakes at Triple-A." He has left the ball up in the zone, resulting in 11 home runs allowed through 54 1/3 innings at Iowa.

Atkins also has struggled with bouts of wildness, and he has been tinkering with mechanics also. He said that all of his pitches (fastball, curveball, and changeup) have otherwise been working effectively for him.

"It's not about pitches," says Atkins. "It's about my mechanics and keeping them the same. If my mechanics are OK, then my pitches will come."

Specifically, Atkins has struggled to maintain the same arm-slot.

"He has a tendency, when he tries to do too much, his arm slot lowers and his ball kind of runs flat," Mason described. "That might be conducive to the home runs."

On the plus side, Mason said, Atkins has shown the ability to make quick adjustments in games to avoid many big innings and prolonged ruts.

"When he (maintains) his angle, he's got a pretty good fastball," said Mason. "When he loses it, it gets up in the little flat zone, and then he's got to throw more curveballs or cutters or changeups. But … rather than just getting stuck in a rut, he's actually made pitch-selection changes that have allowed him to go deeper into the game."

Mason describes Atkins as being able to sneak up on hitters. He throws his fastball consistently in the upper 80s, yet has the ability to "blow it by a guy," Mason said.

"He's got what I guess you'd call a slinging arm motion that's kind of long, and all of a sudden the ball gets on you kind of quick," Mason said.

The Iowa Cubs' season ended on Sunday when the team was eliminated by Oklahoma in the Pacific Coast League playoffs, but Atkins was already looking at the big picture (Chicago), and pitching in the big leagues is his ultimate goal.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to get called up, but you can't really worry about it too much. You just have to keep pitching good," said Atkins.

The Cubs announced last week the addition of seven players (all from Iowa) to their expanded 40-man September roster. Atkins wasn't one of them, and Mason was on the fence when asked if he felt Atkins deserved a call-up this year.

"It's really not my decision, but he's had such a good year," Mason said.

It seems that for now at least, Atkins will have to wait his turn. Because of the success Atkins has had this season and in years past, his failures have been few and far between. Mason said that Atkins would have to fail before the Cubs know what kind of pitcher they are going to have one day in Atkins.

"You don't hope it on anybody, but you really learn about the true personality of a guy when he's not doing good," Mason said. "When you're on a roll like he's been, it's hard to judge."

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